Was Stop & Shop strike a turning point?

THE STOP & SHOP STRIKE earlier this year cost the company about $100 million and resulted in a contract the workers could agree to, but whether the power on display at Bay State grocery stores was an aberration or a sign of resurgent force in private sector labor is an open question.

For decades, private sector labor has been on a decline around the United States, but the Stop & Shop strike gained big buy-in from the public and politicians. Jeff Bollen, who is president of the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1445, noticed a connection between his union reaching an agreement with Stop & Shop and then later gaining some concessions from Macy’s.

“We believe when the strike ended, and we won that strike, that Macy’s came right back to the table and settled – the best contract we’ve ever gotten from them,” Bollen said.

Bollen and Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman both sat down for an interview on the most recent episode of the Codcast to provide organized labor’s viewpoint on that strike and where the labor movement stands today.

Telling workers to refuse to work is a “last option,” but it was a necessary move in negotiations with the grocery chain, said Tolman.

“The last thing you want to do is have them risk everything, but they were forced out,” Tolman said.

Bollen claimed Stop & Shop had wanted to “decimate the entire contract” before the strike.

A couple reasons why the strike was successful for the union were that customers by and large didn’t cross the picket line, and other labor unions – especially the Teamsters who deliver products to the stores – stood alongside the striking workers, according to Bollen and Tolman.

The UFCW is also an active union when it comes to internal organizing, and it trained its workers – who were novices when it comes to striking – before the walkout on April 11.

“We told the workers in advance when we were training them, ‘Don’t worry about how much food gets into the store; don’t worry about how many scabs they bring in from the outside. All you have to do is win over that customer that you wait on every week, and you will win.’ And that’s exactly what happened,” Bollen said.

Neighbors brought food and coffee to the striking workers, some restaurants let them eat for free, and some of the nation’s most prominent Democratic presidential candidates – Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg – joined the protest outside the stores.

In Massachusetts, there has been broad, bipartisan support for legislation to allow public sector unions to charge non-members reasonable fees for services representing them in arbitration cases or other matters. The legislation, which the Senate plans to take up on Thursday, was drafted in response to the so-called Janus US Supreme Court decision, which barred public sector unions from collecting regular fees from non-members.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

That “totally political” court decision is just one of the ways that the legal structure in the US has made it more difficult for organized labor in recent decades, according to Tolman.

Neither Tolman nor Bollen could say with any certainty whether the Stop & Shop strike will be a course-altering event that returns potency to the private sector labor movement or whether the bigger trend of diminishing labor power will continue.

Tolman said cooperation and solidarity between workers from all different professions is a key to victory. “We have to have each other’s back and when we do that, we are successful,” Tolman said.