April 15, 2019

Stop & Shop workers bullish about reaching labor deal

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz joined striking Stop & Shop workers at several store locations throughout the weekend.
Photo | Contributed
Sen. Richard Blumenthal also joined Stop & Shop workers at several protests on Saturday and Sunday.

On their fifth day on strike, Stop & Shop workers in Cromwell were growing optimistic Monday morning that the Mass.-based grocer and its union leaders were making progress on a new multiyear labor agreement.

Labor negotiations had stalled Thursday when 31,000 workers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island walked off the job, in many cases, due to proposed healthcare and pension cuts for both current employees and future hires.

With stores mostly empty across New England, Stop & Shop leaders and union representatives from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) returned to the negotiating table Saturday with a federal mediator in an attempt to once again find common ground.

As of early Monday morning, the two sides had made progress in negotiating new labor terms, according to several Stop & Shop staffers in Cromwell at 195 West St. The two sides were scheduled to meet again early Monday morning.

"We were told that progress was made on Saturday and Sunday," said Ryan Lowe, a grocery store manager for 10 years at Stop & Shop in Cromwell. "We are hoping they are going to just iron everything out today, and be back to work tomorrow."

"We've heard a lot of positives, both sides want it to end as quickly as possible," he said. "With Easter coming, the sooner the better."

Lowe was one of dozens of workers picketing the Cromwell store on Monday despite heavy rains and scattered thunderstorms.

Ian Collins, the store's night crew chief for 12 years, said workers are fighting to preserve healthcare coverage and pension benefits awarded under their expired three-year labor agreement for both current staff and new hires.

While Stop & Shop is proposing a nearly 2 percent wage increase for part-time staff, union leaders said the company, owned by Netherlands-based Ahold Delhaize, is also seeking higher contributions for health care to offset rising costs.

Meantime, the union said Stop & Shop this weekend was also looking to halt pay increases for part-time workers on Sundays, its busiest day.

Workers were especially concerned Monday about the company's proposal to increase the use of automation, including self-checkout stations, which they said would impact jobs.

"At this point, we are not looking to gain anything, we are mostly looking to preserve what we have in terms of health care and benefits, specifically pension plans," Collins said. "This is not a win situation for anyone. The company is losing, the customers are losing, and the workers are losing. We want to go back to work for everyone, not just for us."

Mark McGowan, president of Stop & Shop's New England division, in a statement late Friday said he stood by the company's "comprehensive offer," which would provide pay increases for all associates, maintain current healthcare deductibles, and increase contributions to employee pension plans. The labor offer would not change paid time off or holidays for current associates.

The Cromwell store, which has roughly 300 workers, double the amount of other stores because of its PeaPod delivery facility on-site, has drawn few customers since workers walked off the job Thursday afternoon.

In shifts up to 12 hours, workers on strike have been canvassing the Cromwell store's front entrance, parking lot and sidewalks, urging customers to stay away, unless they are looking to use the location's pharmacy or bank.

Workers in Cromwell were unsure how many replacement staffers have been brought in to keep the store open, but several upper-level managers are still being staffed.

"There have been very few customers," Collins said. "Most are just using the bank and the pharmacy. The important thing is to not shop here until a deal is resolved."

Stop & Shop workers protesting at other locations across Connecticut were joined over the weekend by numerous state and local officials.

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and former Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, now state Democratic chairwoman, stood with picketers at Stop & Shop in Simsbury on Sunday, urging other state leaders to support the protest efforts and to stay away from stores.

The strike is the first against Stop & Shop since 1988.

Stop & Shop has 415 stores in the Northeast, but the strike is currently impacting 240 stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

UFCW has said Ahold Delhaize earned more than $2 billion in 2018.

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