Christopher Peak / New Haven Independent
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal outside the Hamden Stop & Shop with a striking worker. Sam Gurwitt / New Haven Independent

Top elected officials headed to Stop & Shop Friday — not to buy groceries, but to support workers who succeeded in closing supermarket business in the second day of a strike.

Across the region, nearly 31,000 employees walked off on Thursday afternoon. The workers’ union had been in negotiations with the supermarket chain since Jan. 14, but talks have stalled primarily over proposed cuts to medical and pension plans and different work rules for new hires.

On Friday afternoon, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp swung by the Whalley Avenue grocery store in New Haven to show her “solidarity” with Stop & Shop employees, her “friends and neighbors” who’d gone on strike.

Just a few miles away up Dixwell Avenue, Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal joined striking Stop & Shop employees on their own picket line in Hamden.

All three politicians pledged their support for the striking workers, and called on the grocery store corporation to return to the negotiating table and cut its workers a fairer deal.

In New Haven, the picketers from United Food and Commercial Workers Locals 371 and 919 had been holding the line near the store’s parking lot for a full 24 hours, with two guys who work the night shift even keeping watch until morning.

Although the extent of store operations throughout the region varied from store to store, the New Haven walk-out had shut the supermarket down. A manager and a security guard stood at the front of the store, keeping customers away from the empty shelves and registers. A handful of people still walked in for the People’s United Bank, which remains open.

Outside, the workers held up signs, beat a drum and chanted, “We want a contract!” Drivers heading down Whalley Avenue honked in support.

The picketers had even convinced two delivery trucks to turn around. Teamsters from Frito-Lays and Guida’s Dairy made calls, snapped pictures and then turned their trucks around. Only one truck driver, from C&S Wholesale Grocers, crossed the picket line.

Around 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Harp arrived. She chatted with the shop stewards, then she walked down the picket line, shaking hands with the strikers.

“We’re trying to get some healthcare and wages. The store can’t run without us,” said Helen Powell, a retired assistant city registrar of voters who has worked at Shop & Stop for eight years. “We need the community to come and support us.”

“I’m here to help,” Harp told her. “The neighborhood is invested in this place, and they deserve to be treated fairly. I’m asking them to go back to the table.”

Mayor Harp to striker Helen Powell: “I’m here to help.” Christopher Peak / New Haven Independent

Harp said she will be writing a letter to Shop & Stop in support of the strikers. She said she’d also ask city employees and department heads not to use Shop & Shop until a contract is signed, suggesting that they can go to Elm City Market or Edge of the Woods Market instead.

By the end of her visit, one worker keeping the beat by rapping on a bucket started chanting, “The mayor is coming out to support us!”

In a statement, Stop & Shop said it had proposed a “good and reasonable offer” to union locals it called “among the best UCFW retail contracts in the country.”

It said the deal would include pay raises for all workers , would increase the company’s pension fund contribution and would not change Sunday time-and-a-half premiums for full-time workers nor change the healthcare plan’s deductibles.

“Stop & Shop remains ready and available to meet with the union locals at any time,” said Jennifer Brogan, the company’s director of external communications and community relations. “We are committed to good faith bargaining and hope to reach new contracts as quickly as possible that both recognize and reward the great work of our associates and enable Stop & Shop to compete effectively in the rapidly changing New England grocery market.”

Meanwhile, up in Hamden, Bysiewicz and Blumenthal paid their own visit to the Dixwell Avenue Stop & Shop to voice their support for the workers and call for continued negotiations.

Bysiewicz told the crowd that she and Gov. Ned Lamont had already written a letter to the leadership of Stop & Shop that morning, urging the company to come back to the negotiating table.

She said that just before arriving at the strike in Hamden, she had spoken with Stop & Shop President Mark McGowan, who told her that in his 28 years with the company, there had never been a strike. “I asked him if he would step up and personally go to the negotiating table,” she told the crowd.

“The UFCW supported both Lamont and I when we were running and now it’s our turn to support them,” Bysiewicz told the Independent.

Next, Blumenthal stepped forward to speak. “You heard that number. $2 billion? Not going into your pocket,” Blumenthal told the striking workers. It was a reference to a union assertion that Stop & Shop parent company  Ahold Delhaize had more than $2 billion in profits last year.

“That’s right,” shouted back someone in the crowd.

The Whalley Avenue Stop & Shop in New Haven. Christopher Peak / New Haven Independent

“The least they can do is treat you fairly,” said Blumenthal, his arm around a worker named Richie who he had called up to stand with him as he spoke. “You’re the folks who deal with who?” he asked. The crowd shouted back: “Customers!” Blumenthal continued: “If they know what’s good for them, they’ll do right by you.”

“It’s bigger than you,” the senator continued. “You are on the line for average hardworking Americans. You are here for working families who want simple fairness so they can live on what they make — so their children can do better — so they can have adequate healthcare and retirement. You’re here to say to corporate America: Treat us fairly.”

Connecticut’s whole federal delegation, he said, stands with the workers.

“And I can pledge to you, I am not going to cross any picket lines,” he said.

Lisa Tarbelle, a 23-year Stop & Shop employee who works in the store’s deli, held a sign listing the workers’ demands. She said it’s a high-pressure job, and that the store has been short-staffed recently, putting greater strain on the employees already there.

“When I first started, it was a family company,” she said, “and now it’s all greed.”

She said she was happy to hear what Bysiewicz and Blumenthal had said. “That’s awesome because we need all the support we can get.”

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14 Comments

  1. Unfortunately, technologies and competitors such as Amazon/Whole Foods, and advanced robotics will evenually eliminate need for low cost unskilled labor. These politicians need to get off their podium and help these individuals understand this impending threat to their futures. Please remember, workers making typewriters, analog phones and cheap cameras thought they had a job for a lifetime. Technology changes everything!

    1. 100% agree. However those politicians fully understand the bigger picture, they only show their support for votes at election time and they love a good crisis. Nothing they say or do will change the future even if they think they can regulate a path forward. All regulation does in the end is make us less competitive (and I am not talking about safety issues).

      Similar arguments are being made about “a living wage” (paying people not to work) and the minimum wage (an entry level wage) None of it really matters because technology plows forward. The focus needs to be100% on education of unskilled general labor. Labor needs to be motivated to do that and union leadership needs to be honest with the rank and file about this. The best way to protect the “rank and file” is to make sure they are educated for the future and leave the status quo behind. All non-skilled jobs will be replaced eventually so we (as caring responsible human beings) better start thinking about solutions.

      P.S. I don’t think Stop and Shop ever really provided great value anyway so I stopped shopping there years ago. There are a lot more competitive grocery store (ShopRite, Aldi, Big Y, Walmart, Target, Amazon etc etc) which is very good for consumers especially as costs tends to go up over time which is another reason we need solutions for unskilled workers.

    2. Whole foods starts everyone out at a minimum of $15 an hour. Stop and shop starts people out at minimum wage.

      Besides, most jobs, skilled or otherwise are at risk of automation. Most people pretending that they aren’t at risk for automation haven’t been paying attention.

  2. This article would have been informative if it went beyonf politicians sound bites about purported greedy corporations and exploited workers. Specifics over what was negotiated by both parties would be informative and helpful. That’s not part of the agenda for Democrat politicians or CtMirror.

  3. I crossed the picket line at our local S&S . I considered not doing that but, being a very regular customer, most of the strikers I saw on the lines I routinely see doing very little while on the clock. Several were chain-smoking; neither a cheap nor healthy vice. I worked at union shops (open and closed shops) for a few decades, including serving on a contract negotiation team. I also worked in management at one of them, Those experiences turned me completely against unions–especially union bosses and stewards.

    Seeing photos of various Local, State and National politicians schmoozing and posing with the strikers disgusts me. It’s pure pandering, not to mention ignoring the needs of those who, for whatever reason, have few–if any–other choices or simply prefer shopping at a S&S. I guess standing up for them isn’t glamorous enough for the elected camera hogs.

    When businesses determine that their labor and other operating costs, also being driven up by legislators through wage and benefit requirements, are no longer worth it, jobs get cut, hours shortened, benefits done away with, automation brought in and sometimes the business or location closes.. Supermarkets operate on VERY small margins so those effects are never far away. Plus, times change.

    Beginning in HS (at 1.65/hr), working two P-T jobs to pay for college, if I found a job was no longer meeting my needs, I pushed myself to move up or move on. When times were tougher, I’d take whatever I could to augment my income. I didn’t whine and I refused to strike. One rarely recovers what they lose while striking Nobody is guaranteed a job for life, or a ‘living wage,’ nor should they be.

  4. As a shopper looking at this I’m all for workers being paid and treated fairly, with that being said why won’t they release some details they keep saying cut in benefits and pay but how? Let’s see what you have now and what’s being offered before we stand behind one group or another.
    History has shown unions ask for way more then is sometimes feasible and when they don’t get what they want they say it’s a cut!!!

  5. There has been increasing automation in all aspects of the food industry for a long time… There are just some aspects of some businesses that don’t lend themselves well to automation — even where it “gets the job done.” For instance; in grocery stores, with automated checkout, there are always pricing, scanning, and conveyor issues that require human intervention. I don’t imagine that this will be obviated on all relevant levels in the near future… And all aspects of food processing in grocery stores won’t be completely automated anytime soon… And then there is the aesthetic appeal of the “human” touch that presents as a “necessity” on a social (“human”) level, in regard to food procurement… (And to digress just a little: Try to imagine robot “waiters” when dining-out for socialization/relaxation… You’ll always need humans here, too…)

  6. It seems hypocritical for Senator Blumenthal to make the corporation the villain. He supports government controlled health insurance, government regulation of business practices, excessive corporate income taxes, excessive government wages and pensions further driving up business costs. What has the senator done in his life to create jobs like Stop and Shop? There is nothing wrong with the private negotiations between the private union and the corporation. What is wrong is the senator’s insatiable desire for publicity with zero responsibility.

  7. It is really sad that people who would like to buy groceries are being scared away from stores by loud & obnoxious employees that are on strike. They are embarrassing themselves with such behavior.

    And more to the point of their strike, they are fortunate to have their current earnings and employment, they should be grateful for what they have. Do they realize at the Main Ave. location, that they on average earn more per hour than their neighbors at Bob`s Sports and Total Wine ? I do not see employees from those 2 businesses outside their stores accosting potential customers & screaming about their demands.

    This strike only makes me not want to give business to Stop N` Shop because of those on strike, not because of the management. If the employees are given an increase in pay, I will cease to give the company business. If they simply maintain current benefits that are already in place, then I will continue to patronize the store. Regardless of the outcome, it is shameful that they berate folks who need to pick up some basic groceries for their household, both coming into the store & leaving the store. Obviously such behavior in a non-union environment, would result in immediate termination of employment.

    1. Agreed. It is one thing to give notice of the stuggle with a peaceful picket, its another to yell and berate customers. The customers are not taking a position by buying their essentials.

  8. I wonder what will happen when all of Lamont’s increases and tolls effect the bottom line at these groceries stores? I think all of us remember stores that went out of business, due to union pressure. How many AMES stores do you see? With Wal-Mart, BJs and Amazon having a great buying capacity, stores like Stop and Shop will lose customers, due to higher cost. Like it or not, how many customers are going to willing to pay higher groceries cost to pay higher wages than what was offered?

  9. S&S has already priced themselves out of my business,and I was loyal many years. When regular customers are forced to go somewhere else,they’ll never return.

  10. Many jobs will be lost as well as customers finding places they like better. Maybe even a few store closures and less hours. Unions just don’t take these things into consideration.

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