Stop & Shop strike looms as unions reject proposed contract


Photo courtesy Anthony92931, Creative Commons.

A Stop & Shop in Saugus, Massachusetts. Unionized workers are currently negotiating their contracts in Massachusetts.

Kenneal Patterson, news correspondent

Thousands of Stop & Shop employees may go on strike as tensions continue to build between workers and the company. Employee contracts expired at the end of February and contract negotiations are ongoing. Many employees currently oppose the original proposed agreement, citing unsatisfactory wages and does not ensure desired health care benefits.

As of now, various unions who represent 31,000 Stop & Shop employees throughout New England, primarily United Food and Commercial Workers, or UFCW, Local 328, Local 919, Local 371, Local 1445 and Local 1459, have authorized labor leaders to call for a strike. One union representative said a strike could come “before Easter.”

Stop & Shop’s negotiations with the UFCW are at a stalemate, and a strike may be imminent. However, a spokesperson for the grocery chain said it is still committed to reaching a peaceful agreement.

Stefanie Shuman — Stop & Shop’s manager for external communications and community relations — shared the company’s statement, which emphasized efforts to avoid drastic measures.

“Stop & Shop remains ready and available to meet with the union locals at any time,” the statement said. “We will continue good faith bargaining and hope to reach fair new contracts as quickly as possible that both recognize and reward the great work of our associates and enable Stop & Shop to compete effectively in the rapidly changing, mostly non-union New England grocery market.”

However, union leaders like Dedham’s UFCW Local 1445 President Jeff Bollen said the proposed contracts do not fulfill the employees’ needs.

“Employees are supposed to be appreciated and valued,” Bollen said.

Bollen was adamant about giving a voice to workers that need protection. He said he believed the company had become a “corporate greedy international conglomerate.”

“We’re not even asking for an increase in the pension, we’re asking just to keep it at the level rate that it’s at now, which they have to fund it, they have to pay a little bit more to keep it level-funded,” Bollen said. “And also to continue with the health insurance benefits with the same companies that people have been paying for the last three years.”

Bollen also said he intends to deal with issues involving wage compression. Currently, Massachusetts’ minimum wage is $12 per hour. However, the state intends to raise the minimum wage to $15 within the next few years. Bollen said the union plans to prioritize workers that have worked for the company the longest.

“We need them to deal with the minimum wages and deal with the compression issues, so people that have been working there for 13 years aren’t making the same as people working there for one or two years, based on the increases of the minimum wage,” Bollen said. “Because that’s upsetting for someone that’s spent many years working in a facility to have someone walking off the street making the same.”

Many students and Boston residents worry about the future of the company as the potential strike looms. For Northeastern student Heather Macewen, a third-year health science major, a strike would disrupt her typical grocery shopping routine.

“This is my main reliance in a grocery store,” Macewen said. “So, it would be a lot more travel for me, and if there was less employees to work here, it would take a lot longer for me to get my groceries every week.”

Despite visiting the store weekly or biweekly, Macewen said she was unaware of the disputes currently brewing. In fact, most grocery shoppers appeared to have no idea that a strike was even a possibility.

After learning about the conflict between Stop & Shop and its unionized workers, Mission Hill resident Julia Moyko expressed concern. Moyko said she would have to find another supermarket in the event of a strike.

Some residents are completely dependent on the store, relying on the market as their primary source of groceries. Northeastern second-year student Lucas Denzin, a mechanical engineering major, visits the store four times a week.

“I like it. They have everything I need, it’s a big store. I don’t think, if it went out of business, it would be devastating to my life, but it definitely would be an inconvenience,” Denzin said.

A main point in the negotiations is UFCW’s insistence on “fair” wages. Due to intense disagreements on salary, health care and pensions, all five labor unions have voted to approve the strike. If the company cannot settle the disputes, strikes are likely to follow. Nevertheless, Stop & Shop’s statement expressed a commitment to updating workers’ contracts.

“This week Stop & Shop put new, substantially enhanced comprehensive offers on the table. Our latest offer includes: Across-the-board pay increases; Excellent, affordable health care benefits for eligible associates … and increased company contributions to the UFCW’s national defined benefit pension fund for full- and part-time associates,” the statement said.

Many residents empathized with Stop & Shop employees. While Stop & Shop’s website highlights a higher average wage for their clerks, residents like Mariah Soulignavong spoke to the importance of respecting workers. For Soulignavong, fair wages are essential.

“I think that a lot of times we forget about the people that rely on these types of jobs to make it through, and we take it for granted,” Soulignavong said. “I’ve worked in the back offices for some of these types of places, and you don’t know the downstream impacts [of the salaries], especially if people don’t work, they don’t have enough money, they go to other places, so I just think it just brings up the poverty line when you raise the minimum wage.”

Bollen said he is committed to fulfilling these goals and improving the wages of the workers.

“We’re not greedy,” Bollen said. “We’re not asking for tremendously high wage increases. We’re asking for reasonable wage increases, and so far they have not put that on the table.”

Joe Monteiro, a third-year year civil engineering major at Northeastern, worked for Stop & Shop in high school. His experience was partly positive, but often the store was crowded and hectic. On Sunday afternoons, the store transformed into a frenzy of frantic customers.

“A lot of times it was understaffed, because the managers were always trying to save money, so they would hire less workers than they would need,” Monteiro said, “But then they’d get rushes, so then they wouldn’t have enough people at the front end to ring people out. It used to be a zoo on busy times.”

Monteiro said the job was fairly straightforward despite these concerns.

“The wages were fine for what I did,” Monteiro said. “I did not have to do that much hard work.”

As of now, no agreement has been reached. In some stores, protests have already taken place. If the strike occurs, picket lines may surround the stores, forcing customers to cut through the picketers for their gallon of milk and morning cereal.

Talks are scheduled to resume Wednesday, and may continue through Thursday and Friday, Bollen said.

“If the company’s making moves, more moves in the right direction to benefit the employees and improve their standard of living, we’ll continue to talk until we finish,” Bollen said. “If they continue to play games … we’ll be striking them before Easter.”