It’s been a week since 31,000 Stop & Shop employees went on strike in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Most of the store’s regular customers are buying their food elsewhere — either to support the strikers, or to avoid the awkwardness of crossing a picket line.
At C-Town Supermarket in Holyoke, Massachusetts, it was a tight squeeze in the cashier lines.
“We’re noticing new people that never been here before,” said store manager Tony Diaz.
Diaz said it’s a little bit busier since workers at Stop & Shop went on strike, by about 10 or 15 percent. He said potential customers are calling with questions.
“‘Do you sell, like, gluten free items?’ and things like that,” Diaz said. “So I try to help them as much as I can.”
Diaz said his store isn’t unionized, but he still feels for the Stop & Shop employees.
"I understand that they’re fighting for their rights," he said.
Aneudi Castrodad was picking out a mango at C-Town. He said he usually buys some stuff here.Castrodad said he gets his deli and bakery products at Stop & Shop, but not while the strike is going on. He went over to the store, but recognized some of the people who usually wait on him picketing out front.
“I was going to go in, but then I saw a familiar face, and I felt like I wasn’t supporting them if I stepped inside of the store. So I decided not to,” he said.
Castrodad said Stop & Shop workers need the same things he and other workers do.
"We’re not all CEOs. We're regular day-to-day, you know, regular humans, that live from paycheck to paycheck, and we depend on all our benefits. That’s what we work for," he said.
Emily Guzman was buying root vegetables at C-Town with her 6-year-old son.
“They’re batatas. I know you boil them, you cook them — not for too long. They’re roots," Guzman said.
Guzman was going to go to Stop & Shop in Chicopee, but turned away when she saw the picket line.
“I don’t know what I’m going to get myself into,” she said.
Guzman said she wasn’t sure if one of the picketers would start asking her questions.
"A little uncomfortable," she said. "I don’t know if there’s going to be enough workers. I don’t know. I have never seen anything like that."
Outside a Stop & Shop in Holyoke, things were calm as picketers chatted. At nearly 5:00 in the afternoon, the parking lot on Lincoln Street was almost empty.
Katie Neumann, a dairy manager at the Westfield Stop & Shop, wore a sign that read UFCW — United Food and Commercial Workers. She said people were crossing the picket line in spurts.
"People are just coming and grabbing a few things," she said. "We’re trying to suggest to them that they go shop somewhere else while we’re on strike, and support us, but they’re still crossing the picket line."Neumann acknowledged it’s hard on shoppers who don’t have cars.
"It’s tough with people that are walking," she said. "We have to understand that they really can’t get somewhere else. We’ve been trying to offer people rides."
One worker on strike was teaching another how to ask shoppers not to shop here — in Spanish. I asked if I could get in on the lesson.
"Por favor, no compres aquí," translated an employee named Emily, who didn't want to give her last name.
Her co-worker — named Emily Benoit, who was also on strike — gave the Spanish a whirl.
"No compres aquí. Aha!" Benoit laughed. Whether it was Spanish or English, the message was getting across.
Darla Gormley, behind the Big Y customer service desk in Northampton, said it's been busy.
"It’s been really crazy here," Gormley said. "But we have gotten a lot of extra staff on, so we've been covering pretty well, and we do the best that we can."
Outside the Big Y, Carol Pitzer pushed a cart of groceries. She said she won't go to Stop & Shop until the strike is over. But she has mixed feelings, especially when it comes to how much strikers want to pay for health benefits.
"They shouldn’t have their benefits cut either, but they shouldn’t be asking for the moon for health insurance," she said. "Everybody has to pay for it nowadays."
Health insurance premiums have emerged as a major sticking point in the Stop & Shop contract talks.
The company said it’s continuing to negotiate with the union. In the meantime, it’s donating more food than it usually does to food banks.
Tyrone Housey, president of UFCW Local 1459, said in an online video message to strikers that Stop & Shop is losing millions of dollars a day that could have been put into a union contract.
"You got frozen foods going bad, dairy products going bad, meat products going bad," he said in the video. "All the perishable products are going bad, and yet they continue to give us a hard time at the table."
Ironically, Housey said business at non-union grocery stores like Big Y is booming. And he said when the union finally has a contract, members need to do their best to bring customers back to Stop & Shop.
This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: eight public media companies, including The Public's Radio, coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.