Stop & Shop employees vote to authorize strike

Mark A. Espinosa, president of UFCW Local 919, speaks with union members Sunday after a strike authorization vote. The roughly 600 Stop & Shop workers in attendance voted unanimously to authorize a strike. -HARRISON CONNERY/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

HARTFORD — Six hundred Stop & Shop employees represented by United Food & Commercial Workers Local 919 voted unanimously Sunday to authorize a strike.

The vote allows union leaders to call a strike at a moment’s notice if contract negotiations with Stop & Shop’s Dutch parent company Ahold Delhaize continue to stall. No strike had been called as of Sunday.

“This company can more than afford to reward its workers with fair wages,” Local 919 President Mark A. Espinosa said. “The wages are garbage.”

Five UFCW Locals that represent 30,000 Stop & Shop workers across Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut have now authorized strikes in the midst of contract negotiation breakdowns. At issue are the wages proposed by Ahold, as well as benefits and pension plans that would reduce coverage and employer contributions while raising costs for workers, according to Espinosa.

Local 919 represents 7,000 front-end Stop & Shop workers in Connecticut, including in stores in Waterbury, Naugatuck, Watertown, Cheshire, Torrington, Litchfield, North Canaan, Southbury and Winsted.

Local 371, which represents back-end employees in many of the same stores, authorized a strike on Wednesday. Espinosa said a strike would likely mean store closures.

UFCW’s labor contract with Stop & Shop expired Feb. 23 at midnight.

If a strike does occur, it will join a growing national trend. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more workers went on strike last year than in any year since 1986. In 2018, 20 major strikes took place involving 485,000 workers.

Heidi Shierholz, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and chief economist at the Department of Labor under President Barack Obama, said the strikes are a result of growing income inequality.

“Workers are just so fed up that it’s gotten to a breaking point,” she said, adding the strong labor market and the success of recent teacher’s strikes across the country will encourage more workers to strike in the near future.

“The recovery will continue to strengthen and that more and more makes workers look around and say we should be sharing more in this recovery than we are,” she said. “The courage to take action is in some ways contagious and I think that has built on itself somewhat.”

Espinosa on Sunday delivered a fiery speech to the crowd gathered in a ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in Hartford, repeatedly mocking the Ahold executives across the negotiating table and the proposals the company had made.

“It’s not just about you, it is about the future, it is about people who are just now starting for your company and the Draconian kind of proposals that they’re asking you to accept,” he said.

Espinosa said Stop & Shop wants to raise insurance premiums for full-time associates’ family plans from $26 per week to $53 per week. Premiums for full-time single payers would rise from $15 per week to $36 per week.

Single-person insurance deductibles would rise from $300 to $1,500 under Stop & Shop’s proposal and family deductibles would rise from $600 to $3,000. Annual out of pocket maximums would rise from $2,500 to $9,000. Co-pays would rise from 20 percent of medical costs to 30 percent.

Vacation time for new hires would be capped at three weeks for full-time associates and two weeks for part-time associates.

Proposed wage increases would be wiped out by the increase in health care and pension costs.

Ahold Delhaize’s 2018 earnings report, published Feb. 27, pushed the two parties further apart when it revealed $1.8 billion in net profits.

In a statement on its website, Stop & Shop says its associates are better compensated than workers at other chains. It reports paying $7,352 per employee in average insurance premium contributions for single person plans. Associates pay in $653 on average. Stop & Shop claims workers at other large firms pay $1,053 and receive only $5,982 in employer contributions. For family plans, Stop & Shop says it contributes over $18,000 per year while employees contribute $1,300. In comparison, it says other firms contribute $14,000 per year while workers pay over $5,600.

Stop & Shop also says it pays $12 million per year in pension payments for part-time associates. Furthermore, the grocery retailer says it’s the last fully unionized company of its kind, which “has a major impact on the company’s ability to compete in a fundamentally-changing market.”

The company says it is losing market share to convenience stores and restaurants and more shoppers are shopping for groceries online.

Attendees on Sunday filled the seats and stood along the back wall, frequently applauding their union, jeering Ahold and gasped in exasperation at the terms of Stop & Shop’s offers.

“To provide us with the contract they think we deserve now is a slap in the face,” said Dottie Zarella, a clerk at the South Windsor Stop & Shop who has been with the company for 35 years.

Carol Carmichael, a Stop & Shop employee of 37 years and florist manager in a Middletown store, said most employees work six days a week.

“I gave my whole life to them, worked hard my entire life, I expected that,” she said. “They need to take care of us like we take care of them.”

Donna Ingraham, an employee of 31 years and presently a florist manager in Windsor, said, “We actually earn their money for them by servicing their customers.”