George Binette

US: New England Supermarket Workers Battle Race to Bargain Basement

George Binette
US: New England Supermarket Workers Battle Race to Bargain Basement

MORE THAN 30,000 UNION members at the giant supermarket chain, Stop & Shop, have returned to work after a 10-day strike that started on 11th April after months of fruitless talks between representatives of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and company management. Members of five UFCW locals across some 250 stores and three New England states – Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island – were due to meet this week (commencing 22nd April) to vote on a tentative deal announced late on Easter Sunday. The work stoppage was the largest private sector strike since spring 2016 and one of the three biggest in the US since the nationwide Teamsters’ dispute in 1997.

Stop & Shop has long been a household name in much of New England, even namechecked in Jonathan Richman’s proto-punk classic, Roadrunner. Though modest when compared to the likes of Walmart and Kroger, Stop & Shop is the biggest link in the fourth largest supermarket chain in the United States, which is now part of the Dutch-based Ahold Delhaize empire. In the previous financial year the company chalked up roughly $2bn in profits on sales revenue exceeding $60bn, while substantially increasing total shareholder dividends by 11% to some $880 million across 2017-18.

Despite maintaining a leading market share, estimated at 21% across New England, corporate management had insisted that Stop & Shop operates in a ruthlessly competitive retail market and so had no choice but to cut labour costs against a background of ever more online shopping and the rise of virulently anti-union retailers such as Aldi and Costco, not to mention Walmart, driving down pay and conditions.

For the UFCW as a whole, as well as its members directly involved, this battle had assumed crucial importance. Stop & Shop is now one of the very few remaining bastions of union organisation in the northeast region’s supermarket sector after the demise of such former titans as A&P and Grand Union stores. Meanwhile, the striking workers had faced the threat of big increases in health insurance costs – potentially rising to $2,000 a year for individual employees and $5,000 for families - and in many cases the exclusion from coverage of spouses. There was also the prospect of a much worse occupational pension scheme, while part-time staff – the majority of the workforce, often on hourly rates below $13 - would have lost enhanced rates for Sunday working. The provisional deal reportedly retains the enhanced rates, though at the time of writing many details of the proposed settlement were not publicly available.

The strike’s first week had undoubtedly hit sales dramatically, though managers and a relatively small number of agency-recruited strikebreakers had kept most stores at least nominally open. In many instances, however, shelves were bare while bakery, deli and seafood counters were closed. According to a credible estimate by a retail industry consultant, the company was losing roughly $2 million a day in sales, partly due to consumer refusing to cross picket lines, with the effect magnified over the Passover and Easter period, which accounts for a disproportionate part of annual turnover.

A number of rabbis had actually advised that food purchased from Stop & Shop during the strike would not be kosher with Barbara Penzer, a rabbi at Boston’s Hillel B’nai Torah synagogue telling The Boston Globe, ‘‘… buying the product of oppressed labour is not kosher. Especially during Passover, when we’re celebrating freedom from slavery, that’s particularly egregious.’’

However welcome a consumer boycott, what may well have proved decisive in determining the outcome was a clear call from the local Teamsters union to honour UFCW picket lines. Unionised drivers make the bulk of store deliveries and the evidence suggests that the Teamsters’ directive proved effective.

Workers from several other unions including Unite Here, the United Steelworkers, teachers and nurses joined picket lines and rallies outside Stop & Shop locations. In addition, Democratic presidential candidates seemed especially keen to identify with the strike. Predictably, there was a message of support at the start from Bernie Sanders, while Senator Elizabeth Warren joined a picket line on the strike’s second day. Former vice-president and still undeclared presidential contender, Joe Biden, addressed a strike rally seeking to reassert his blue- collar credentials, while the new darling of much liberal media, South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg also visited a picket as did New York Senator Amy Klobuchar.

From a British perspective, the Stop & Shop dispute actually serves to highlight quite how draconian Britain’s anti-union laws have become. UFCW members authorised their officials to call a strike at mass meetings with no need for a postal ballot of individuals at their home addresses. After regular updates during weeks of negotiations, officials called members out with less than half an hour’s notice by text message with no requirement to give Stop & Shop management detailed notification at least two weeks in advance. If any union in Britain had issued an explicit directive to honour picket lines, similar to the Teamsters’ local, it would almost certainly have faced court action for inciting unlawful secondary action. Pickets have frequently included scores of workers outside supermarkets, though there are signs that the National Labour Relations Board, now dominated by Trump appointees, may move to clamp down on picketing rights.

The outcome of the fight at Stop & Shop is likely to have significant implications for trade unionism not only in retail but across the private sector generally. After decades of barely interrupted defeat and retreat in the form of concession bargaining, 2018 saw a notable revival of combativeness. With the notable exceptions of Unite Here strikes at Marriott hotels and a six-month lockout of Boston area gas maintenance workers, this resurgence was largely confined to the public sector, specifically education, in the wake of the unofficial action by teachers and school support workers across West Virginia in February-March 2018.

Assessing the outcome of the Stop & Shop dispute and its relative success should be a priority for union activists and socialists across the north-eastern United States and beyond. The apparent victory could become a tremendous boost to union organising and recruitment drives across both retail and the private sector as a whole, signifying that organised workers really are starting to turn the tide against a decades-long employer offensive.

Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP