FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) — Thousands of unionized Stop & Shop workers were back on the picket line Monday as company and union officials resumed marathon negotiating sessions at a downtown Providence hotel.
At a noontime rally at the Fall River store, workers were visited by U.S. Congressmen Joe Kennedy III and Bill Keating, both Democrats who are supporting the employees over the Quincy-based supermarket chain.
Kennedy lamented the difficult choices workers have to make in his speech to the cheering crowd.
“To choose to go to work for a very meager raise, that goes right out the door to health care costs, at a time when a parent company sits on $2 billion in profit,” Kennedy said. “To be stabbed in the back and they tell you, ‘good luck’ as you try to make your own economic ends meet.”
Kennedy and Keating signed a letter earlier this month from the Massachusetts congressional delegation addressed to Stop & Shop President Mark McGowan, urging him to compensate employees fairly and avoid cuts to take-home pay or health care benefits.
“They’re doing well, they’re making profits,” Keating told Eyewitness News. “Our message is, ‘Get to the table and negotiate.’ People that have worked so hard here for so many years deserve that.”
Stop & Shop has said they’re offering pay increases across the board along with increased pension contributions. But the union says increases to health insurance premiums mean take-home pay won’t actually go up.
The company says the premium increase is $2 per week for individuals and $4 per week for families.
“Shame on them,” bellowed Yvonne Bento into a megaphone at the rally in Fall River. “I am so disappointed.”
Bento said she works behind the deli counter at the Somerset location, where she makes $20.77 per hour after 20 years with the company. She said she’s been offered a 50 cent raise in the new contract.
“I give them 100% of my energy, my work, I treat this company like it was my own company,” Bento said. She had a direct message for McGowan: “How long did it take you to make the money that you make? Shame on you. But Happy Easter,” she added, eliciting laughs.
The looming Easter holiday is sure to be on the minds of executives, as much of their usual customer base has been shopping elsewhere during the strike, in part to support the workers but also because some stores are operating at shortened hours and without functioning deli counters, seafood or bakery sections. At the Fall River store, the produce section was lacking its usual luster on Monday.
Neither side has said much about what exactly is going on inside the Graduate Hotel, formerly known as the Biltmore, where the negotiating teams are meeting. The two sides were still meeting as of Monday evening, according to spokespeople for both sides.
“Not close to a deal yet,” said Domenic Pontarelli, the treasurer/secretary of UFCW Local 328. “There’s still a long ways to get a deal. The company has to come off their greedy proposals.”
Pontarelli said the rise of automation that replaces workers, such as self-checkout machines, are among the topics of dispute.
Asked about this on Sunday, Stop & Shop spokesperson Jennifer Brogan said the company has to keep up with industry technology trends being used by competitors. She said self-checkout aisles can free up employees to focus on customer-service activities.
Pontarelli said Sunday pay is also a concern, as Massachusetts moves to phase out its law requiring time-and-a-half pay on Sundays. Stefanie Shuman, another Stop & Shop spokesperson, said current and future full time employees would continue receiving time-and-a-half on Sundays, and current part-time employees would continue getting their same Sunday premium pay under the proposal.
But she said future part-time employees would receive a $1 an hour premium on Sundays or the minimum amount allowed by law, whichever is greater. After a year, part-time employees would receive $2 extra per hour on Sunday or the minimum allowed by law, whichever is greater. The phase-out of the time-and-a-half law in Mass. will finish in 2023.
“A lot of things they’re doing is taking from the part-timers, because it’s easier to take from them because they’re 85% of the company,” said John Auberdine, a full-time frozen foods employee in Fall River. “You still have to worry about the part-timers, because we need them to do our job.”
Stop & Shop President Mark McGowan said in a statement over the weekend that he cares about the associates, and stands by the company’s comprehensive offer.
A Stop & Shop spokesperson said no one from corporate was available for an on-camera or telephone interview on Monday.
The company said 240 stores in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut are affected by the strike. The banks and pharmacies inside the markets have remained open, but the grocery stores themselves are operating on 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. schedules. Some stores are closed altogether.