T. R. Whitworth
The face of the striking worker is no longer an old-timey coal miner or burly auto worker. Over the past couple of years, the faces of striking workers have been our woefully under-paid public school teachers as part of the Red for Ed movement. Recently, service sector workers have also been rising up and demanding better pay and working conditions, from McDonald’s workers striking against sexual harassment, to Marriott hotel workers striking against low wages, overwork, and unsafe working conditions. In our own backyard, 31,000 New England grocery workers went on strike for 11 days in April against Stop & Shop and its massively-wealthy multinational parent company, Ahold Delhaize.
The Stop & Shop strike was the largest labor action Massachusetts has seen in years, and another sign that the sleeping giant of the US labor movement is waking up after enduring decades of assaults and cutbacks from corporations and their paid-off politicians. The attacks that prompted Stop & Shop workers to strike were particularly severe. Months of contract negotiations had stalled with Ahold Delhaize demanding workers accept a rotten deal that included increased health insurance costs, cuts to pensions, elimination of Sunday time-and-a-half pay, a cap on wages, and the introduction of a two-tiered system where newly-hired workers would receive lower pay and fewer benefits. This was in the wake of Stop & Shop investing millions of dollars in self-checkout and other automated technologies, increasing the profits of the company without any accompanying benefits to the workers (instead, Ahold Delhaize shareholders gave themselves an 11 percent raise!). Unable to overcome the stalemate through bargaining, the union that represents Stop & Shop workers, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), called a strike on April 11 and workers at all New England stores walked out.
Although most workers expected a short strike lasting from a few hours to a few days, it took 11 hard-fought days to force Ahold Delhaize to concede to (most of) the workers’ demands. In the agreement reached by the bargaining team and subsequently approved by the workers, Ahold Delhaize withdrew their attacks on health insurance costs, pensions, and wages; however, in return, the union agreed to the implementation of a two-tier system of wages and pensions between part-time and full-time employees, new hires and current employees. This two-tier system will foster division between Stop & Shop workers and may weaken the union’s position during the next bargaining cycle in three years (this is what Ahold Delhaize wants, of course). Stop & Shop workers should begin preparing now for an even tougher battle in three years by getting involved in the union, setting up active shop councils in each store, and spreading information to all Stop & Shop employees about the benefits of union membership. They should also make elimination of the two-tier system a central demand in the next contract negotiations.
There are many lessons to be taken from the Stop & Shop strike. The first, most important lesson is that workers have immense power, and it comes from their ability to shut down business as usual and deny the super-rich their profits. The Stop & Shop strike showed that Ahold Delhaize may own the buildings, equipment, and items for sale, but workers make the business run! Although a skeleton crew of managers and scabs were able to keep some of the stores open during the strike, food rotted on the shelves, meat and bakery counters were closed, and a large proportion of deliveries stopped because unionized truck drivers refused to cross the picket lines. All told, Ahold Delhaize lost $100 million during the strike.
Another lesson is that a successful strike requires advance planning and consistent leadership. The UFCW union leadership, having put all their efforts into avoiding a strike, did not sufficiently plan and prepare the workers for the strike that became necessary. There was widespread confusion among the workers about whether they would receive compensation for lost wages from a strike fund, how long the strike could last, and what types of tactics were allowed on the picket lines. Fundamentally, the point of a strike is to harm the company’s pocketbook until they agree to workers’ demands. The most effective tactics to keep customers from shopping at Stop & Shop included walking picket lines that blocked store entrances and patient conversations with customers about why they should shop somewhere else during the strike (due to the low level of union activity in the past few decades, many customers truly did not understand the meaning of the strike). Unfortunately, the UFCW union leadership did not consistently promote these (confrontational but completely legal) tactics and sometimes actively discouraged them. Towards the end of the strike, in an effort to appease Ahold Delhaize and the police, union leaders even kicked strike supporters off of the picket lines for using these tactics.
Finally, the strike showed that the community can be rallied to support striking workers. Most regular customers did not cross the picket lines, and many even dropped off pizza, donuts, coffee, and water for the workers. Other unions, notably the Teamsters (representing delivery truck drivers) and the firefighters’ union, pledged not to provide services to Stop & Shop during the strike. Individual members from the Teamsters, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Massachusetts Nurses Association, and many other unions showed up to stand in solidarity with Stop & Shop workers. Socialist Alternative members in Worcester, Boston, and Providence were a consistent daily presence on the picket lines at several Stop & Shop locations. The commitment and strength that the workers and the community showed were impressive! All workers (and bosses!) should take note of the power workers have to shut down business as usual!
Facebook post from a Stop & Shop worker after the strike.