striking for a fair contract

Last Thursday, at 1.00 p.m., Stop & Shop’s wage employees began a strike against the company, which is part of Ahold-Delhaize, a firm headquartered in the Netherlands. We support the workers. Read our argument for why we support them :

Ahold is looking to increase workers’ dollar contribution to its health care plan. This has become a standard negotiation position for many companies. It was the central feature of the National Grid dispute that arose last year and of the Verizon conflict the year before that. It’s true that health care costs generally are rising much faster than the economy is growing, much of it resulting from vastly increased drug prices. The proper response, I insist, is not to penalize workers but to negotiate better price deals with pharma companies. Massachusetts is doing this, why can’t Ahold ?

The company also offers its workers a two percent pay boost. That’s less than the COLA upon which Social Security payments were raised last year (and will be raised again this year) and much less than the raises being won by service workers in other industries. If the average Stop & Shop worker wage is $ 21.50 an hour — which seems high — a two percent boost moves it from $ 21.50 to $ 21.93. That’s $ 17.20 a week, $ 68.80 a month. Not exactly a boost to one’s family budget, many costs in which incur much more than two percent increases. For example, MBTA fares, which on July 1, 2019 will rise by 6.3 percent. The price of gasoline in our area has also risen, from about $ 2.29 a gallon to about $ 2.55. That’s a 13 percent increase. Ahold should commit to a boost of at least the 6.3 percent, and the 13 percent would not be unjustified either. A 13 percent increase would accord its workers $ 24.30 an hour, $ 97.20 a week, $ 388.80 a month. That’s a significant change, one that enables Stop and Shop workers to increase their spending into the general economy, even.

Ahold also proposes to pay its part time Sunday workers only a $ 2.00 an hour premium. Some have argued that the “time and a half” that workers once got for Sunday employment was bargained away in last year’s “Grand Bargain,” but that’s not appropriate here. Part time workers for Sunday only aren’t giving up one thing to get another, better thing. They work only on Sunday and so deserve to be bargained with strictly as such. A $ 2.00 premium would be OK if attached to the kind of regular hourly that I have suggested above. Otherwise, they ought to receive more.

Supermarket operations depend on labor intensity. You can add self check out, but cashiering is the least part of operating a supermarket. The bigger part is shelf stocking. Only humans can do shelf stocking — and price tagging. These jobs can’t be outsourced. It’s physical labor, all of it, a mind-numbing, detailed slog. You wouldn’t want to do it. There’s no skill acquisition in it that leads you to a more challenging position. You just do it, year after year. Exhausted physically and mentally scooped out.

Some S & S workers aren’t always smiling or gracious ? believe me, there’s a reason. I’ve seen Stop & Shop workers on the job because the job I have now involves interaction with them. It’s blue collar work requiring your full commitment, a job that isolates you from the social world and the political. You begin at 7.00 am and work through to quitting time; a second shift follows. The shelves must be stocked, old items removed, price tags updated, fast-moving items shelved favorably, other items shelved less so. Some of the items are fitted into sliding plastic slots which must be moved if the item being inserted has a different size. These shelves don’t always slide easily: the plastic becomes old and sticks on the sliders. Try doing this work for five hours and see how happy you feel about stuff…

Stocking items means constant movement of one item to another’s location, and that items to another spot, and so forth. Meanwhile other workers are off loading bulk deliveries from food service trucks, categorizing, moving them in quantity from off load rooms to the store floor. Other workers maintain the data bank upon which shelf plans are predicated and price tags — fully coded with store code and item code — updated and printed. Its both a body job and a mind job. Just you try doing it for a week and see how you feel at the end of the workday. The ,least Stop & Shop can do is reward its employees liberally enough that they feel valued and that the job is worth every minute of effort.

The company responds that it operates on a very thin profit margin — never more than 1.5 percent — and that it faces mostly non-union competition as well as the presence of specialty stores and online grocery applications. All true. It may be that the general supermarket business model no longer works, that people now prefer to buy specialty items, at higher prices, or to order stuff from online sources. This is how almost all retail is going, so it’s no surprise to see it dominating the current groceries situation. What’s the answer ? Clearly Ahold ought to think about restructuring Stop & Shop operations quite radically, to become both an online operation and a specialty store. In part, it’s already doing that : different stores offer different items, locally favored, on top of the general stuff. Until that decision is made — and I think it will have to be — Ahold has the market power to defend a profit margin one fifth of a percent less — 1.3 % — against all comers, a margin that it might have to accept in order to keep its workers fully engaged and economically viable. I don’t see how the current dispute can end any other way, which means that Ahold ought to reach such an outcome now, not two months from now when shoppers have found comfort buying from other food sources.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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