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Grocery workers fight Stop & Shop for contract

Healthcare, pensions, wages at stake

Grocery workers at the Stop & Shop supermarket chain in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have voted unanimously to reject a contract proposal and to authorize a strike against the grocery chain.

The contracts for United Food and Commercial Workers Locals 328, 371, 919, 1445 and 1459 expired on Feb. 17, but

the union and the grocery chain agreed to several more days of negotiations. Together, the locals represent more than 43,000 workers.

The five locals are negotiating as a team. Leaders of other UFCW locals not currently involved in negotiations have sat in during the new round of talks to support and show solidarity with the negotiating locals.

The main issue in contract negotiations is healthcare coverage. Stop & Shop has been telling the media that it currently pays 100 percent of healthcare costs and is asking the workers to contribute a "fair share." This is a lie.

Workers already pay co-pays for office visits and medical procedures, as well as deductibles of $300 for healthcare costs and $2,500 for hospital costs. The grocery chain is trying to implement weekly contributions of between $9.50 and $25 on top of the co-pays. These fees would increase over the course of the three-year contract.

"We aren't just negotiating for ourselves," said John Bourke, a UFCW member of Local 328 and a Stop & Shop employee. "We're fighting for the future, to take a stand and make it better for our kids."

The chain is also trying to punish employees that select the Stop & Shop health plan over one offered by a spouse’s employer. The store is trying to charge an extra $50 per month if the employee selects the Stop & Shop plan over a spouse’s plan.

It also wants to extend the time that part-time workers must wait before receiving health coverage from one to two years. Eighty percent of Stop & Shop workers are part-timers.

Stop & Shop has been cutting employee hours by installing self-service checkout lanes in recent months. During contract negotiations, management has issued further threats to make the seafood and floral sections self-service.

Another major issue is wage increases. In the last round of negotiations, the chain offered wage increases of just $1.50 an hour for full-time workers and 50 cents an hour for part-time workers. These increases would amount to just 2.5 percent over three years, while inflation from 2003-06 averaged 3.09 percent. If inflation continues at similar rates, the workers’ actual earnings would decrease under Stop & Shop proposal.

The chain also wants to force the workers to switch from a defined benefit pension plan to an employee-funded 401(k) plan for new employees. It is trying to reduce sick days and decrease premium pay for holidays and Sundays. Since 401(k) plans rely on investments in stocks and mutual funds, they are far less financially secure than defined benefit plans.

Corporate offensive

In the event of a strike, Stop & Shop is already planning to hire scabs, putting advertisements in local newspapers offering part-time, temporary work for $11 an hour. It is also planning to set up 10 hiring centers. Unionized part-time workers currently earn only $7.75 an hour after three months on the job.  

According to UFCW Local 1459 President Scott L. Macey, "You're doing a great job of aggravating your own employees that have been working for you for years when you offer a scab $11 an hour and people with you for two or three years aren't even near $11."

Stop & Shop is owned Royal Ahold, NV, a Dutch company that controls 3,450 supermarkets and stores around the world. It is the world’s fourth-largest grocery retailer.

In the first nine months of 2006, Royal Ahold made $1.3 billion in profit and its Stop & Shop division made $677 million. Its chief executive and executive vice-president, Anders Moberg and Peter Wakkie, make $3.96 million and $1.51 million per year, respectively.

The union offices across the three states have been receiving many messages of support from community members. "They know it's not just about us," said Caitlin Lawson, a Stop & Shop employee and member of UFCW Local 328.  "We need affordable health care for our whole community."

UFCW members have been leafleting customers to inform them about the threats to their healthcare benefits and are also confronting possible applicants for scab jobs, explaining how replacement workers hurt all workers.

Union leaders are encouraging supporters to call Stop & Shop at 877-366-2668 to let them know that if the company continues to attack union healthcare benefits, you will boycott Stop & Shop.

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