Local Stop & Shop workers strike, student activists join pickets

Activists march in a loop outside of the McGrath Highway Stop & Shop during a UFCW Local 1445/Massachusetts Jobs for Justice rally in support of Stop and Shop workers on March 23. (Courtesy Ray Bernoff LA '18)

Workers at hundreds of Stop & Shop supermarkets across the Northeast went on strike Thursday. They were joined on picket lines over the weekend by student activists and Tufts Dining workers energized by the recent dining contract campaign.

Cathy Curtin, a front-end manager at the Alewife Brook location of Stop & Shop and a strike captain, explained that the workers — all of whom are members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1445 — walked off the job shortly after 1 p.m. last Thursday because of disagreements in contract renegotiation talks over wages, pensions and healthcare. The store currently remains open and is being staffed by management.

Curtin called on Tufts students, who often visit the Alewife Brook location, to avoid Stop & Shop and to do their shopping elsewhere, saying a key part of Local 1445’s strategy is to hurt the company financially.

“[Shopping at Stop & Shop] is like an insult to us also because we’re struggling, we’re working families. These are single moms, single dads. My husband’s sick; he’s got lung disease and I can’t use the health insurance, and for [those] people to come in here and flip us the bird like we’re being selfish … they don’t understand what this company is doing to us,” Curtin said.

The employees at the Alewife Brook store are among 31,000 across New England who are on strike, according to a press release from the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

Curtin explained that Local 1445 has been in negotiations with Stop & Shop since January, but the company wants to deduct a rise in the Massachusetts state minimum wage from raises and change the structure of pension and health plans, both of which are unacceptable for the union.

The BFresh in Davis Square is also owned by the Ahold Delhaize, the Dutch parent company of Stop & Shop, but is operated under a different contract so its workers are not on strike, according to Curtin. Nevertheless, she urged students not to shop at the Davis Square BFresh either.

In a statement posted on their website on Thursday, Stop & Shop said it was “disappointed” that the workers had decided to strike. The company defended their proposed contract and claimed that they had tried to continue the negotiating with the UFCW.

“In contrast to the company’s proposal which is better than most recent UFCW contract settlements and responsive to heavy non-union competition, the unions proposed a contract that would increase the company’s costs,” the statement reads. “This would make our company less competitive in the mostly non-union New England food retail marketplace.”

Tufts students and Tufts Dining workers picketed alongside employees of the Alewife Brook location several times during the weekend, carrying signs that read “Please don’t cross the picket line” and chanting slogans reminiscent of the recent labor disputes on campus, such as “What do we want? Fair contract! When do we want it? Now!”

One of the students who turned out to demonstrate on Saturday afternoon, first-year Micah Kraus, a member of Tufts Dining Action Coalition (TDAC), also drew parallels between the Stop & Shop strike and the Tufts Dining workers’ campaign.

“I think this situation is very similar to the dining workers’ negotiations at Tufts because we know the company has enough money to give the workers what they deserve, but because they are greedy they want to take away pensions and benefits,” Kraus said.

He said that the TDAC members who picketed were applying what they learned during the Tufts Dining workers’ campaign to the Stop & Shop strike.

Grazia DiFabio, a lead customer service assistant at the Dewick-MacPhie Dining Center, had come to the join the strikers still wearing her blue Tufts Dining uniform after getting off work on Saturday afternoon. She stayed for several hours.

DiFabio explained that she was there was because of her own experience during the Dining workers’ campaign.

“We know what we went through. We are so happy [Tufts] agreed so we didn’t have to go through [with a strike],” she said.

Stop & Shop employees on the picket line were pleased to have the students and workers from Tufts. Matt Katz, a seafood specialist at the Alewife Brook location, called the support “awesome.”

“The more people we can get out here, the better,” he said.

Despite the big crowd and sunshine Saturday afternoon, Katz said he was nervous. Both he and his wife, who is expecting a baby in May, work for Stop & Shop, and do not know when they will see their next paycheck.

If the strike persists, Katz says he will begin looking for a temporary job he could do to support his family when he is not on the picket line.

Katz’s hopes for a short strike are riding on customers, including Tufts students, going elsewhere to make the company feel the financial pressure.

Two Tufts students, first-years Vaughan Siker and Sascha Denby, bought snacks at the Alewife location on Friday afternoon before heading back to campus for an event for prospective students; they said they had not been aware of the strike when they arrived at the store.

Upon learning about the workers’ dispute with the company, however, the two were divided on what they thought. Siker said he might continue to come back because Stop & Shop is inexpensive, convenient and has products he cannot get elsewhere, while Denby said he was more likely to stay away.

“If they aren’t being paid properly, I don’t want to give Stop & Shop my business until they remedy that,” Denby said. “I’ll stop coming here until I find out it’s sorted.”

Oliver Marsden, a junior who lives on Chetwynd Road — a brief walk from Stop & Shop — usually does his grocery shopping at the Alewife Brook location because of the convenience and the low prices, but says he will be shopping at Trader Joe’s during the strike.

Marsden also mentioned the Tufts Dining workers’ campaign, saying it had increased his awareness of the labor movement and conditions for low-income workers.

“It was the first time I’d ever personally encountered people who were not being treated fairly and spoke up to do something about it, so it showed that we can actually make an impact here,” he said.