Editorial: Stop & Shop strike shows union’s might, but is it a win?

  • FILE - In this Thursday, April 18, 2019, file photo, a striking worker walks outside a Stop & Shop supermarket in Revere, Mass. Stop & Shop supermarket workers and company officials said Sunday, April 21 they've reached a tentative contract agreement. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File) Michael Dwyer

Published: 4/22/2019 11:24:03 PM

After 11 days as ghost towns, Hampshire County’s three Stop & Shop stores in Northampton, Hadley and Belchertown were humming once again Monday morning — workers sliced meat, frosted cupcakes and stocked milk, while cash registers beeped a familiar tune.

Just hours earlier, on Sunday night, New England’s largest supermarket chain and the five United Food and Commercial Workers union that represent its 31,000 rank-and-file employees had reached a tentative agreement that ended a devastating — and effective, from a union standpoint — strike that one industry analyst said could cost Stop & Shop close to $80 million.

The three-year agreement, which still must be ratified by five unions, clearly looks like a win for labor organizers. Workers at one of the last remaining unionized grocery chains in the industry will see an increase in pay, continued health care coverage and retirement benefits, and time-and-a-half pay on Sundays will remain for current union members.

Strikes are never as cut and dry as winners and losers, however.

For the workers, three-fourths of whom work part time for $12.75 an hour, 11 days without pay must have placed a huge financial burden on them that could take weeks to bounce back from — and longer than that for the pending future raises to make up the loss.

For the company, the strike meant the loss of money — lots of it.

Yes, Stop & Shop is owned by Dutch corporation Ahold Delhaize, the fourth-largest supermarket owner in the United States. But it still has a bottom line to meet. Going 11 days with limited or no sales, as some of its 400-plus stores in the Northeast were closed, hurts.

In the first few days of the strike, visits to the grocery store chain by regular customers dropped by 75 percent from the previous weekend, according to Skyhook, a location technology and intelligence company in Boston. Burt Flickinger, managing editor of New York City-based Strategic Resource Group, estimates that up to 90 percent of customers stopped shopping at the supermarket during the strike and expects 95 percent will return.

Of course, one didn’t need a Boston firm’s survey to see that a vast majority of customers were following the directions from striking workers — shop at one our competitor’s stores while we’re on strike. The Stop & Shop’s parking lots were virtually empty. But it’s a risky game to play to encourage customers to go elsewhere.

For customers, the strike meant inconvenience, or a chance to see what other stores have to offer. The loyal shoppers who support union workers will return, but some customers will be turned off by the aggressiveness some striking workers displayed since the April 11 strike began. One employee at the Northampton store told the Gazette last week that union members harassed him — and customers who entered the store — calling him names such as “lowlife,” “scumbag” and “scab.” In Greenfield, workers blocked the path of a delivery truck last week.

Work stoppages are an increasingly successful tactic for unions. Strikes in 2018 reached a high not seen since 2007. Fueled by teacher strikes, Department of Labor statistics show that a total of 485,000 workers — the most since 1986 — participated in 20 major work stoppages last year.

Now we can add Stop & Shop to the list for 2019. The spring work stoppage shows the important work unions still provide. The ability of workers to negotiate better health care and pension plans, higher pay and other important quality of life issues are arguably the top responsibility for a union.

In this case, the unions for Stop & Shop did their job. Now it’s time for customers to help them and, yes, the company, by returning to the once-again bustling supermarkets.


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