Few shoppers cross Stop & Shop picket lines as strike continues

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The air was stale. Produce bins were less than full, and the fruit looked tired. There were no green bananas.

The robot was parked in its station, its two pairs of green lights glowing. Checkout lanes were empty, but the lights were on at the Meadowbrook Stop & Stop location in Warwick on Monday morning and the manager was there to help if needed. The in-store Citizens Bank branch and the store pharmacy were also staffed and operating.

Outside, store employees with strike signs hanging from their necks gathered in groups to chat, sip coffee and wave enthusiastically when motorists on Warwick Avenue honked their horns.

This was the scene on the fifth day of the International United Food and Commercial Workers strike that has impacted more than 240 stores in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Overall, an estimated 31,000 full- and part-time employees are on strike.

There were no answers to be found on the picket line or from store management as to the status of talks or when the strike might come to a halt. Those questions were referred to corporate and union headquarters. Both sides reported negotiations were ongoing as of press time Tuesday, the strike’s sixth day.

Nonetheless, there was surprise that the strike has lasted this long and lots of speculation over the company’s intentions. There was also consensus that the strike hasn’t been good for anyone. Some of those picketing talked of lost wages and what the strike might mean to Stop & Shop on the eve of the traditionally heavy pre-Easter shopping period.

Union representatives listed wages, pensions and benefits as sticking points to a contract.

“We just want to keep what we have,” said one picketer outside the Meadowbrook store on Monday.

At the Stop & Shop on Atwood Avenue in Cranston, roughly two-dozen workers picketed outside the store on Monday afternoon.

“We’re holding strong,” said Amuel Abaga, assistant grocery manager and union steward. “We understand that Stop & Shop and our union are back at the table. We’re still out here trying to fight for our jobs, and we’ll be out here as long as it takes until we get a fair contract.”

Abaga said negotiations in the weeks leading up to the strike were “very difficult.” He described “the outreach, the support [and] the compassion” workers have received from members of the community as “overwhelming.”

“We were negotiating in good faith for about eight weeks, and Stop & Shop would not budge. They wouldn't bargain in good faith,” he said. “They were just downright insulting, what they offered their employees that worked so hard to build the conglomerate that Stop & Shop is now. They profited over $2 billion last year. They spent $5 million incorporating the Marty robots, and that’s all off the sweat of us, making sure we provide our customers with the best service available. And it’s customers and the community that’s going to help us get this done so we can go back to work. All of us want to go back to work.”

Gesturing to striking workers, he added, “You see all those people up there? All those young people, did you know they’re part-time? Do you know that? This contract isn’t just important to the full-time employees or the employees that have been here for over 25 years like I have … We all have pride in what we do. We all have pride in our jobs. We all love our customers. [Stop & Shop’s corporate leadership has] to invest in us, as we invest in them. And for them to be the leader of the market, they need to understand this.”

On Friday at the Greenwich Avenue store, union representative Rick Cappalli listed a number of issues, including corporate efforts to cut pensions for new employees and implement a maximum pay of $18 an hour regardless of tenure.

A spokeswoman for the International UFCW said the issues at hand are healthcare, retirement benefits and take-home pay. She said that proposed changes to healthcare and retirement benefits are making any marginal wage increases moot.

In an online message posted April 12 to associates, Stop & Shop president Mark McGowan said he and corporate leadership are committed to “getting a fair new contract in place for all our associates in New England.” He goes on to say, “Our offer provides pay increases for all associates, excellent health coverage with deductibles that would not change, increased contributions to the employee pension plans and no changes in paid time off or holidays for current associates.” Summary fact sheets are posted on the site.

“Importantly, the offer also maintains a responsible balance in rewarding our associates, protecting jobs and serving our customers in a dramatically changing, mostly non-union environment. Stop & Shop has been an industry and community leader for more than 100 years, and we have every intention of remaining so for many years to come,” McGowan writes.

(Ethan Hartley and Jacob Marrocco contributed to this report.)

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