Thousands of working-class New Englanders brought a big corporation to its knees, boldly taking the recent strike wave into the private sector.
Late last week, 31,000 Stop & Shop workers from over 240 stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island walked off the job after months of fruitless negotiations between the company and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).
In large part, the recent wave of strikes and strike threats — many of them in sectors with heavily female workforces, including massive teachers’ strikes from West Virginia to Arizona and the threat from flight attendants’ union leader Sara Nelson to shut down the airlines if Trump didn’t reopen the government — has focused on challenging austerity in the public sector. Along with last year’s eight-city Marriott hotel workers’ strike and some recent actions by nurses, the Stop & Shop action puts workers in more direct confrontation with private capital.
Part of the dispute concerns the company’s move to eliminate Sunday and holiday pay for part-time workers, which, for many, is crucial to making ends meet. But like a lot of labor fights these days, this strike is mostly about health care: the company wants to impose a big increase in employees’ share of premium costs over the next three years and double the out-of-pocket limits (to $2,000 for an individual and $5,000 for a family).
Grocery chains are far more unionized than other retailers, and it’s common for unionized grocers to whine about competition with non-union stores. But UFCW points out that Stop & Shop is the number one supermarket chain in New England, and that its Dutch parent company, Alhold-Delhaize, reported $2 billion in profits last year and paid $880 million in dividends to shareholders over the last two years.
The strike is an opportunity to show that the extractive ravages of finance capital — and labor’s role in that devastation — can be reversed. While Stop & Shop is no longer owned by a private equity firm — it was sold to its present owners in 1996 by the New York firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts — the industry has acquired many other supermarkets, with devastating consequences for workers. Everyone in the industry feels the pressure. According to a report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, since 2015 private equity has bankrupted seven major grocery chains, stripping their assets, burying them in debt, and throwing 125,000 employees out of work. Public pension funds play a huge role in fueling the private equity machine — a kind of assisted suicide on labor’s part.
The role of union pension funds in fueling the anti-worker menace of private equity is especially shortsighted given that the grocery industry itself constitutes an excellent advertisement for the labor movement. Unions make a huge difference in the quality of supermarket jobs. Unionized grocery workers have often made a comfortable living and enjoyed decent benefits, while non-union retail workers suffer low wages, far more sex and race discrimination, and are often lucky to get Medicaid. (Many Stop & Shop workers make more than $20 an hour, while most non-union retail workers are still, famously, fighting for $15.) The success, at times, of union organizing in the supermarket sector gives the lie to the idea that retail jobs are poorly paid because they’re “low-skilled.” Indeed, a study of the unionized grocery industry in New Jersey found that it played a similar role to that of the manufacturing industry in earlier decades. In any industry — including manufacturing — when jobs are “good,” that’s at least partly because workers organized to make them good. Although manufacturing is especially productive, as Lou Uchitelle has noted, “low wage” is not a quality inherent to a job; it means, whatever the skill involved, that workers have not yet successfully organized for their share of the proceeds.
The Stop & Shop workers’ communities have been supportive. Non-employees have been joining the picket lines, bringing water and food. In much of New England, Stop & Shop is a part of daily life, but the region also has union-friendly blue-collar culture. Customers are refusing to cross picket lines and many stores have temporarily closed for at least part of the day, though others are using scab labor. One retail consultant estimated Stop & Shop was losing about $2 million a week and that the strike could lead to a loss of up to 4 percent of its annual profit, especially since it’s happening during Easter and Passover, traditionally some of the busiest food shopping weeks of the year.
Just as the teachers’ strikes did, this strike is tying workers, their unions and their struggles with capital firmly to the political sphere. While the teachers’ strikes injected K-12 education and teacher pay into the political conversation — even propelling teacher activists into elected office in some red states — the Stop & Shop strike may be shaping the Democratic presidential primary. Elizabeth Warren and even Joe Biden have been on the picket lines, with Biden seeking to incorporate his presence there into a pro-union campaign message — which, though in line with his Regular Joe image, is at odds with his record as a champion of the credit card industry and Clintonian pro-business politics. (Bernie Sanders has, of course, tweeted his support; let’s hope he gets onto the picket line soon. We all know what side he’s on, but he shouldn’t let Joe Biden, of all people, outdo him on this spring’s most important labor fight.)
It’s scary for workers with so little savings to go out on strike. The union has a strike fund, but it can’t match their usual wages. They should be able to stay out as long as it takes to win; the union is accepting contributions here.
The stakes of the Stop & Shop strike are high. A victory will show that it’s not just “highly skilled,” educated workers like teachers and nurses that can win through large-scale strikes — and not just in the public sector. It will also help to discipline and intimidate other employers: one newspaper found competing New England grocery chains unwilling to comment on how the strike had improved their business (presumably out of management-class solidarity), though the unusually crowded aisles and parking lots told that story plainly.
Most of all, a successful strike will show other retail workers that even in the private sector, even in an area ravaged by finance adventurism, a good union and a workforce ready to fight can make their jobs better. It’s not as if deli counter work, any more than teaching, can be shipped overseas.