Workers have been on strike for more than a week at Stop & Shop, New England’s largest grocery chain. The Public’s Radio political analyst Scott MacKay says the stakes are high for both sides in an era when retailing is undergoing big changes. (Advance copy of commentary scheduled to air Monday.)

 

Elena Tainsh stood in a picket line outside the Stop & Shop supermarket on Metacom Avenue in Bristol, R.I. on a sun-splashed afternoon last week, surrounded by a clutch of striking colleagues.

Looking over the near-empty parking lot, Tainsh, a prepared foods manager at the supermarket,  says she misses her customers. “We spend more time with them than we spend with our families.”

She would rather be cooking chickens  for the deli. Yet Tainsh, a 35-year veteran of Stop & Shop, says she is on strike “because I’d like to keep affordable health coverage. And I’d like to be able to retire someday and not live in poverty.”

A few miles away at a Stop & Shop over the Massachusetts border in Seekonk, 33-year store veteran Corrine Blair smiled as a UPS driver leaned on his horn to show support for the strikers. “The community support has been great,” she says.

Longtime shoppers and members of other unions bring sandwiches and coffee to strikers, who have been out of work for more than a week as negotiators for the company and union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, try to forge a settlement.

The winds riffling across the Stop & Shop parking lots as 31,000 workers in New England strike are bringing more than spent candy wrappers and empty soda cans. This work stoppage comes at a crucial time for both the industry and the union.  So far, the union has been successful in virtually shutting down Stop & Shop during Easter and Passover, the biggest sales and profit week of the first 140 days of the year, says retail consultant Burt Flickinger, who studies the New England grocery business for New York-based Strategic Resource Group.

The grocery business is also buffeted by the Internet and the global forces that have increased competition, brought consolidation and disrupted traditional business models. The union workers are threatened by automation and labor-saving innovations, such as robots stacking groceries and computerized self-checkout kiosks.

Stop & Shop is New England’s largest union grocery chain. Yet, this giant, foreign-owned grocery isn’t immune to retailing trends. Internet purchases and the fevered entrance into the grocery business of bulk-buying stores, such as BJ’s and Costo, are pressing legacy grocers. Then there is Whole Foods, the upscale grocer now owned by retailing behemoth Amazon, which has been cutting prices. And you can add the challenge from WalMart’s grocery stores.

Even drug store chains, such as CVS Health and Rite Aid, are challenging supermarkets by offering discounts on such items as coffee, cereal and canned foods.

As for workers, experts say there will still be jobs for skilled employees, such as meat cutters. “Shoppers are always going to want a crown roast or leg of lamb for Easter,” says Flickinger. The outlook for lower-skilled workers is more problematic.

AS is the case with most labor disputes nowadays, this joust is over health care and retirement benefits.

Neither workers nor union leaders sought this strike, says George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO.  But it comes in an era of wage deflation and as middle-class workers feel under siege. “Sometimes you just have to fight back to get your fair share,” says Nee.

Union chiefs have been impressed with public support and worker solidarity; few customers are crossing picket lines. The strike has cost Stop & Shop more than $20 million in sales, says Flickinger.

Nee says union leaders hope for a speedy settlement, so that shoppers don’t defect to other stores over the long-term. For now, Shaw’s and Whole Foods stores are benefitting; Shaw’s is a union shop, Whole Foods is not. As is the case with most labor disputes nowadays, this joust is over health care and retirement benefits.

New England is littered with grocers that couldn’t compete in this new era. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, we give travel directions by referencing where the Almac’s, Grand Union or A&P used to be. Hopefully for both sides, we won’t someday be saying turn left where the Stop & Shop used to be.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary at our web site, ThePublicsRadio.org