Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: Stop & Shop workers deserve to be heard

Last Thursday, 31,000 Stop & Shop workers from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island walked off the job. The strike comes after Stop & Shop proposed increasing health insurance premiums and reducing pension benefits for new employees, according to Vox.

In a statement published Thursday, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union said Stop & Shop’s proposal would dramatically raise the out-of-pocket cost of healthcare, take about 1,000 employees’ spouses off of their health insurance plans and, in general, “make it more challenging for 31,000 people to provide for themselves and their families.”

“If the company’s most recent offer becomes a reality, every working family, neighborhood, consumer and community will be hurt,” the UFCW statement said.

Former vice president Joe Biden will visit Stop & Shop workers in Boston Thursday. This high-profile visit will shine a necessary spotlight on not only the issue of workers’ rights, but that of workers’ dignities.

To not be supportive of these 31,000 employees and their families is to ignore the humanity behind labor. When we reduce people to numbers on a spreadsheet, we give license to ignore the fact that workers are human beings who have families that depend on them. Every corporation’s No. 1 priority should be to support its workforce, not to support its bottom line.

Stop & Shop is one of the last major unionized stores in the supermarket industry, according to The Boston Globe. It is also the largest grocery store chain in New England, but it faces growing competition from chains like Walmart and Target, as well as from bulk-buying stores such as Costco and BJ’s, according to the Globe.

Moreover, the rise of e-commerce has also proven to be a threat, according to the Globe. When Amazon acquired Whole Foods two years ago, it soon after started cutting prices. And customers are beginning to expect that their grocery store delivers from app to doorstep, a process built on the labor of an expanding gig economy in which many workers don’t receive any benefits at all.

The Stop & Shop strike is symbolic of the strength and dignity of the American worker. However, only 10.5 percent of U.S. workers were members of unions last year, according to data from the Department of Labor. In the 1980s, that rate was about 20 percent.

Much of the decline in union membership is due to a shift in the sectors where American workers are concentrated. Manufacturing, a traditionally unionized sector, has seen a loss in jobs while jobs have increased in the service sector.

Of course, this is not just an American phenomenon. As stated in a Quartz article from February, among the world’s wealthiest economies, almost every country’s share of the unionized workers has declined.

Still, 2018 saw the highest number of work stoppages in the United States since 2007 and the most total participants in work stoppages since 1986, according to Department of Labor statistics. A total of 485,000 workers participated in 20 major work stoppages last year.

Striking has negative impacts on everyone involved — workers don’t receive pay, companies lose income, and customers miss out on chances to obtain a desired service or product. When it comes to a food market like Stop & Shop, this can be dangerous.

Many New Englanders rely on Stop & Shop for their produce, meat and other grocery staples. According to a WBUR article, the consequences of this strike could hit especially hard for those who live in so-called “food desserts” — places with limited access to fresh provisions.

“Six of the 10 Massachusetts cities with the worst grocery access are cities where a Stop & Shop is one of few options,” the article notes, citing the Massachusetts Public Health Association.

Nevertheless, the importance of unions is still paramount. There is strength in numbers, after all, and for established industries like Stop & Shop’s, it is vital that workers are able to negotiate better health care and pension plans.

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