Thousands Of Stop And Shop Employees In New England Strike For New Contract
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There was a time when a teenager could take an after-school job bagging groceries, move up the career ladder and one day retire from the same company with a pension. That's rare these days, but strikers contend it should still be possible at the Massachusetts-based grocery chain Stop & Shop. From member station WBUR, Callum Borchers reports on workers' campaigns to keep benefits the company says are unsustainable.
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UNIDENTIFIED STRIKERS: (Chanting) If you don't get it, shut it down. If you don't get it, shut it down.
CALLUM BORCHERS, BYLINE: Some 31,000 New England grocery workers have been on strike for a week and a half. They want a new contract that preserves the wages, health care and retirement benefits that long-timers like Peter Amati have always enjoyed.
PETER AMATI: I started 11 days after I turned 16. So next week, I start my 59th year if Stop & Shop's still in business.
BORCHERS: The company wants to stop increasing pension contributions for the many workers who don't have Amati's seniority. They also want to stop paying new hires time and a half on Sundays. Stop & Shop is owned by the Dutch conglomerate Ahold Delhaize, which also owns other grocery chains like Giant, Food Lion and Hannaford. Many workers at those sister companies are unionized, and in recent years, they, too, have protested changes in working conditions. Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and potential candidate Joe Biden have embraced Stop & Shop workers, as David standing up to a corporate Goliath.
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UNIDENTIFIED STRIKERS: (Chanting) Hey, hey, ho, ho. Corporate greed has got to go. Hey, hey, ho, ho.
BORCHERS: Stop & Shop declined multiple interview requests. Trade groups of which it is a member also declined. But in written statements, the company has said it can't compete with other grocers if it continues to offer the compensation packages it has in the past. It's taken the unusual step of posting proposed contract terms on its website. The company is apparently trying to show customers that its offer is better than what many blue-collar workers get, says Nicholas Anastasopoulos. He's a labor attorney who represents businesses in collective bargaining and is not affiliated with Stop & Shop.
NICHOLAS ANASTASOPOULOS: When you put something like that out there, the average person that is sort of wandering, coming across that picket line is doing a comparison and taking inventory of what their last couple of years have looked like in terms of what they're getting from their employer or not getting from their employer.
BORCHERS: Stop & Shop is asking workers to pay more for health insurance, but says they'd still pay less than the national average. Figures from the Kaiser Family Foundation support the claim. The company also suggests it's generous to offer any pension at all, saying it is, quote, "virtually alone among New England supermarkets."
JIM CARVALHO: I think we'd push back very hard on that.
BORCHERS: Jim Carvalho is the political director of a local chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. He represents about a third of the striking Stop & Shop employees.
CARVALHO: Our members over the years have sacrificed in other areas to keep certain areas like health care pensions strong.
BORCHERS: And the rare quality of Stop & Shop's benefits is not a reason to cut them, says Judy Coughlin. It's all the more reason to save what workers have.
JUDY COUGHLIN: They're all of us, right? I mean, if they lose, we're all next. You're next. I'm next. The greed never stops. The people at the top never have enough.
BORCHERS: Coughlin doesn't even work at Stop & Shop. But like many members of other unions, she's joined the picket line to try to preserve the sort of working-class jobs that are fading. For NPR News, I'm Callum Borchers in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.