Crossing the line: Inside Stop & Shop with returning employee, shoppers  

  • Kathleen Mapel, an employee at Stop & Shop in Northampton, reminds a customer of the strike as he enters the store Tuesday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford stands with Lori McSheffrey, a union steward, at Stop & Shop while picketing Tuesday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford stands with Lori McSheffrey, a union steward, at Stop & Shop while picketing Tuesday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lori McSheffrey, a union steward, pickets at Stop & Shop in Northampton, Tuesday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kathleen Mapel, an employee at Stop & Shop, reminds a customer of the strike as he enters the Northampton store Tuesday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford stands with Lori McSheffrey, a union steward, at Stop & Shop while picketing Tuesday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lori McSheffrey, a union steward, at Stop & Shop while picketing Tuesday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Karen Denno brings her cart back after crossing the picket line to buy a couple of items she likes  from Stop & Shop Tuesday morning. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/16/2019 4:07:33 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Silent grocery store aisles in the middle of the day. Wilted produce and the too-sweet scent of overripe bananas. Glowing screens dotted across the building and an automaton docked in a corner, but not a person immediately in sight.

It may sound like a scene from the world, post-robot apocalypse. But on Tuesday, it was the inside of the Northampton Stop & Shop, where unionized employees — who make up the vast majority of the company’s workforce — have been on strike since Thursday, along with 31,000 other United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) employees across Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

But after about five minutes in the store, signs of life became more apparent. First, a lone employee with a trolley walked by. Rounding a corner were a few other workers moving boxes and stocking shelves.

Since returning to work on Sunday, Stop & Shop employee Matt Coffey, who was hired as a part-time employee in the bake shop about a year and a half ago, has been among the small group of employees maintaining the store during the strike.

Coffey, who resigned from UFCW in order to return to work, considers himself “definitely pro-union, but when it’s done right.”

“I just don’t feel like they’ve held up their end of the bargain,” he said of the local UFCW representatives, “and they’ve just been very shady with everything.”

Coffey said he feels that the UFCW has used intimidation and lacked transparency throughout the strike, leading to his decision to return to work. Upon further researching Stop & Shop’s proposed changes, he said they seemed reasonable.

“What Stop & Shop was proposing was fair, and they clearly outline it on the Stop & Shop website, whereas the union hasn’t told us anything,” he said, noting that different representatives have presented him with conflicting information.

A document posted on the Stop & Shop website says that the company has “proposed to maintain Sunday and holiday premium pay at time-and-a-half for full-time associates and at current dollar levels for current part-time associates.”

For employees made full-time before April 17, 2016, additional documents state that the company has proposed no changes to pensions, Sunday, holiday premium or paid time off. Employees in some local chapters will see health care increases and loss of retiree medical benefits, the documents say, while others will see no changes to deductibles and “minimal changes to prescription co-pays.”

“They don’t know what they’re fighting for, which is unfortunate,” Coffey added of the employees in the picket line.

Lori McSheffrey, a captain of the strike and UFCW steward, meanwhile said that those opposed to the strike “don’t really know what the deal is.”

Fighting for new hires and part-time workers is a major reason for the strike, she said.

According to a UFCW handout provided by McSheffrey, the union employees are striking because Stop & Shop wants to make changes such as reducing holiday pay and Sunday pay for part-time workers; reducing holidays and sick days for new employees; doubling out-of-pocket health care expenses for many employees; implementing a bonus instead of wage increases; and dramatically reducing pension benefits.

McSheffrey was accompanied by various other Stop & Shop employees in front of the store entrance, as well as state Sen. Jo Comerford, who stood alongside the picketing employees.

Rising tensions

Despite this picket line, Coffey estimated that about “three or four dozen” shoppers come through the store each day, and he anticipates that this number will grow as the strike continues.

Karen Denno, of Florence, was among those customers on Tuesday.

Why Stop & Shop? “They have the only sausage my husband likes,” Denno said.

While bringing groceries to her car, she added that she sympathizes with the employees on strike. “I didn’t feel good crossing the picket line,” she said.

Other customers in the store declined to speak with Gazette.

Coffey said that union members have harassed him — and customers who enter the store — calling him names such as “lowlife,” “scumbag” and “scab.”

“Hearing the employees harass the customers — these are people that are going to come back when you guys come back,” Coffey said, adding that he has felt supported by management. “You can’t be doing this to the customers because without them, you’re not going to have the store.”

Some customers who don’t drive or who have disabilities also have difficulty accessing competing grocery stores during the strike, he added.

When asked about tensions between striking workers and people crossing the picket line, McSheffrey said that “a couple of the younger kids got crazy” one night, and she had to calm them down, but that she generally hasn’t seen hostility.

The company has brought in two temporary workers, and management also has assisted in maintaining the store, Coffey said. The pharmacy and bank remain open, as do self-checkout stations.

McSheffrey said that she understands temporary workers need jobs, but she doesn’t agree with Stop & Shop employees who cross the line.

“If you don’t believe in unions, you shouldn’t work here,” she said.

So far, Coffey is the only union employee at the Northampton Stop & Shop who has chosen to return to work, but three others are in the process of coming back, he said.

At least for him, it’s not as simple as being pro- or anti-union, he added.

There are other ways to support unionized employees aside from picketing, Coffey said, “and being out there isn’t the way it’s going to be done.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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