As workers around the country fight to stay safe amidst COVID-19, Nick Wurst of ISG spoke with Rich Libby, shop steward at Stop and Shop for UFCW Local 1445. Stop and Shop workers around New England are fighting for safer working conditions and increased hazard pay. Rich was active as one of the leading strikers on the picket lines in Worcester, MA during the 2019 contract strike. Many socialists who would go on to form ISG were active on the picket lines as well, demonstrating solidarity with the grocery store workers.
Rich, what was the background of the 2019 strike? What were the main issues that the union was fighting for?
Rich: The main issues of the 2019 strike were health care costs. The company had asked for increases in this 3-year contract not only co-pays but weekly deductions for health care which would make it completely unaffordable, up to the point where a new full-time worker would have a take-home pay of less than what they would be paying for benefits. Also, the company attempted cuts to holidays, sick time, and overtime.
For most Stop and Shop workers, this was the first strike they had been involved with, and for many members of the public this was the first strike that they had encountered in their daily lives. What was it like on the picket line? How was the support from the broader public?
Rich: I can honestly say I am still shocked at how well the members reacted to the strike. I think they realized we had to walk out or we would be left with nothing worth fighting for. The picket lines were held strong not only by our own members but by the help of a lot of other local unions and everyday people who would just stop by and tell the members, “Don’t back down, fight this corporate giant.” They gave hundreds of dollars worth of Dunkin Donuts coffee, pizza, donuts; people would even stop by with three-foot long grinders. The public has the biggest effect during the strike due to the fact that they respected our picket lines and most would not cross. It’s never easy walking out on a job to strike, and never knowing what the future really is. But when you work with the public it gets to the point where the customers are no longer a company’s, but they belong to the workers and union members who service them every day. You see people daily, weekly, and get to know them personally; know what their needs are. A simple “hello how are you today?” goes a long way
When the strike was finally ended, Stop and Shop had lost millions of dollars. What was in the agreement that ended the strike? Did the union win everything it fought for?
Rich: The agreement pretty much put us right where we were as long time members. The new hires lost more than anyone, but they make up for it through raises faster than others. Not that they will make more than others, but the pay scale they have is quicker. I’ve seen some really bad contracts from this company considering I’m almost 40 years into it. But I started working when it was a family owned business which it no longer is. It was a long 11 days to worry about every member’s family and how the reaction was in their own home. But I think we did a good job of keeping faith in people, and the company learned that when they force people to walk out, it hurts the company more than the workers.
As the coronavirus threatened to spread to the U.S., did the company take any precautions in order to protect its membership? Did the union organize workers to put pressure on the company to stock up on PPE or make other preparations?
Rich: Covid 19 is a non-forgiving virus just like every virus: it’s only job is to strengthen itself. The union locals have always been looking for more and more ways to force the company to protect its workforce. They have supplied us with masks, face shields, plexiglass in front of not only the cashiers but deli, seafood etc. and arrows on the floor marking aisles one way. Does it work? NO! No one actually follows the directions. My biggest issue has always been that we are not allowed to tell a customer they can’t come into the store without a mask. That tells me they [the company] truly are not concerned about my safety or my family’s safety.
What has been the experience of Stop and Shop workers during the pandemic? What sort of dangers and risks have workers been exposed to? What steps has the union taken to keep the company accountable?
Rich: People are at risk everyday just walking in the building. There are stores that have had over 20 cases of COVID-19 in employees alone. They don’t tell anyone about it, the solution is to have human resources come in, look at security tapes, and decide who may have come in contact with such a person and send them to be tested. The union has gone after the company since the beginning; there are members that have not worked since the virus started because they are either high risk or scared to work. Are they being paid? No, but they cannot be terminated either. If you test positive you are able to take an extra 2 weeks off which the company is willing to pay you for.
Towards the start of the pandemic, Stop and Shop agreed to give an additional 10% hazard pay to all workers. Recently, with the push to reopen the economy, Stop and Shop has ended that pay, despite the continued rise in infections. How is the union fighting to defend hazard pay? What steps can the public take to support UFCW workers? What is the mood of the workers, do they want to fight?
Rich: Stop and Shop has now started calling hazard pay “Associate appreciation pay.” Ask anyone if they truly feel appreciated. The union is not only passing out flyers to the customers asking them to go online and sign the petition to reinstate the extra 10% but they have politicians going into stores asking store managers to take written statements from them signed by others to reinstate it. A lot of the workers are disappointed and feel disrespected because it was taken away, and some are willing to help organize. Some stores do real well, some stores struggle getting members to do it.
For more than a month now, sustained protests in multiple cities have demanded serious reform to policing in the U.S. Organized labor has a long history of fighting racism, including being involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Many unions have made statements in support of the protests, and some like ATU, TWU, ILWU, CWA, and UAW have taken job action in support as well. SEIU, the second largest union in the U.S., called for a “Strike for Black Lives” on July 20th. What steps should UFCW, and U.S. labor in general, take to help fight racism and police brutality?
Rich: UFCW did not join the call for a strike on July 20th for Black Lives Matter. I do feel they should be making themselves more visible in the public eye and reacting to it. I think they should be reacting to what people truly want. We all just want respect… it’s that simple.