As unions continue to strike at Stop & Shop grocery stores around the Northeast, workers and politicians in Berkshire County are weighing in.
Its midday at one of the busiest grocery stores in Pittsfield – but behind a line of sign-holding union members, the honks of support from passing cars echo out across an empty parking lot.
“The Merrill Road Stop & Shop is a ghost town right now. It has been a ghost town for the last six days. The only stragglers coming in at this point are here to pick up their prescriptions or to use the bank," said Melissa May. She's with the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1459, based in Springfield.
“Part of my job is so beautiful, is I get to see that every single parking lot on this side of Western Mass looks the same way,” she told WAMC.
Stop & Shop is the largest of the union’s 60 contracts, with members working at 17 stores throughout Western Massachusetts.
“So basically we asked all of our employees to walk off the job on Thursday the 11th at 1 p.m," said May. "By I would say 1:15 we had every one of our 1400 members on the street.”
May spoke to WAMC on the sixth day of the strike, which has seen 31,000 workers strike at over 250 stores across three states, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. While many of the stores remain open during the strike, most are operating with greatly reduced services.
“We’ve been negotiating with them on this contract since January," said May. "We’ve met with them about 40 times and what they want to propose to use and offer us is basically cuts in health care. They were trying to get rid of our pension, and we feel that the wage compression does not reflect the wage increase over the next four years.”
Stop & Shop was bought out by Dutch supermarket operator Ahold in 1995, which merged with Belgian grocery store conglomerate Delhaize in 2016 – becoming a new holding company called Ahold Delhaize. With dozens of holdings in almost a dozen countries, its annual revenue is estimated at over €60 billion a year.
“Stop & Shop is the last unionized store in the area, and all through these negotiations they have come out and said this is what we pay you guys, this is what other grocery stores pay for their labor, this is what they offer their employees – why are we offering this to you?" said May. "So instead of wanting to be a leader and an example about how you should treat your employees, they want to take it to the level of major corporations such as Walmart and not give anybody anything – keep them at a low wage with no benefits and part time work. That’s their goal.”
May said the support from customers has been unbelievable.
“They have supported us in many ways, first and foremost by not crossing our picket line, which we are asking everybody not to do," said the union rep. "But they have also continued every day to come out with coffee and donuts, with pizza, with personal donations, with gift cards to other stores, just with well wishes too – keeping our spirits up and making sure they won’t come back until we get a fair contract.”
“As you can see, somebody taped up a receipt on the door over there, a receipt from Big Y that is what they would have spent here if they shopped with us,” said Fabio D’Aniello.
D’Aniello, 47, lives in Pittsfield and has worked for Stop & Shop for 25 years. He’s been through eight or nine of the contract negotiations that the company conducts with the union every three years, but it’s the first time he and his fellow union members have taken to the picket line since he started working for the company.
“I think it’s brought all the workers closer together," he told WAMC. "We all feel the solidarity of what we’re going through.”
Local politicians have joined the picket line.
“This starts to capture everything that’s wrong with our economy right now," said Democratic State Senator Adam Hinds. “Here we have an international conglomerate, a corporation making multiple billions of dollars in one year, and then they turn around and ask local employees in our area to increase the amount that they would spent out of pocket on health care, and that’s just one example. It has a huge impact on workers in our community. It has an impact on our community as a whole, and it strikes me as a situation where the math doesn’t add up and we have to ask more of this company to stand up, and stand with our workers when they don’t.”
State Representative Paul Mark of the 2nd Berkshire district – also a Democrat – made an appearance at the strike over the weekend.
“When healthcare benefits or other benefits that employees locally receive are reduced, what that means is more money is going out of our community and the people who are spending money – our local residents, our friends and neighbors who are currently enjoying these benefits now – are forced to spend more money on things they didn’t need to before, which hurts our local economy," said Mark. "Because instead of them having more money to put back into shopping and hitting local events now they’re paying more for health insurance. And that’s a bad thing.”
Stop & Shop President Mark McGowan described the situation as “a challenging time,” and said he stands behind the company’s offer to the union.
He wrote in a statement that “our offer provides pay increases for all associates, excellent health coverage with deductibles that would not change, increased contributions to the employee pension plans and no changes in paid time off or holidays for current associates.”
Stop & Shop has created a webpage that posts daily updates on the negotiations.
May says the union is prepared to strike “as long as it takes."
"We are offering to take no concessions from Stop and Shop or Ahold Delhaize,” she said.