By SHERIDAN ROY
Approximately 500 employees from the Southington and Bristol Stop & Shop grocery stores went on strike Thursday, April 11 at 1 p.m., joining around 31,000 employees at 249 stores across Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. These strikes in neighboring towns could affect local shoppers and stores.
Contract negotiations with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union had been going on for weeks. Every three years, the contract is renewed, and the most recent contract was set to expire at midnight on Feb. 23.
Negotiations were at a standstill, as UFCW reported in a press release in March that Ahold Delhaize, Stop & Shop’s parent company, was proposing “tens of millions of dollars in cuts to [employees’] take home pay and benefits,” stated the release. “And because of this, minimal progress has been made.”
But on April 11, an announcement came over the intercom in the Southington Stop & Shop.
“It was announced that all union employees get outside,” said 27-year employee of the Southington store, Karen Pistilli. “A customer asked what that meant, and I said, ‘We’re going on strike.’”
Pistilli said she was in a state of shock when she heard the announcement, and still was, on Friday morning.
“I had to apologize to customers standing in front of me and say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t wait on you anymore,’” said Pistilli.
“Hardworking Stop & Shop workers have helped make their company the #1 operating grocer in New England, where customers like you shop every day,” said UFCW in a Tweet. “Now, the company wants to cut take home pay and benefits for them.”
Workers from five United Food & Commercial Workers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have been in negotiations with Stop & Shop’s Dutch parent company Ahold Delhaize since Jan. 14. The parties have been at odds over proposed reduced wages on some holidays and Sundays, stripped-down benefits packages and pension plans that would reduce employer contributions and raise costs for workers. Also at issue is Stop & Shop’s intention to eliminate more cashiers in favor of checkout machines.
“I love working here. Many employees have been there over 30 years, but they are planning to slash benefits, pensions will be frozen, they’re not going to match our 401Ks…,” said Pistilli. “I have a pension and a 401K here so I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Pistilli said the timing with Easter right around the corner puts more pressure on the strike.
“Easter is a big deal for grocery stores, especially in Southington where there’s a strong religious presence,” she said, but that’s also true for Plainville.
Ahold Delhaize’s 2018 earnings report, published Feb. 27, pushed the two negotiating parties further apart when it revealed $1.8 billion in net profits.
In a statement on its website, Stop & Shop said it is “disappointed that the UFCW chose to order a work stoppage in an attempt to disrupt services at our stores,” and reported Stop & Shop has contingency plans in place to minimize disruption.
The retailer said it has “proposed a good and reasonable offer to our local unions” that includes across the board pay increases for all associates, continued health care benefits at a fraction of what employees at other retail companies pay, and increased pension payments to full and part time UFCW workers.
Stop & Shop reported “Negotiation Key Facts,” updated April 3, on their website, and stated full time associates average an hourly wage rate of $21.30. The chain also stated it provides comprehensive health care benefits to all eligible employees, and said “this remains a central component of the company’s present contract offers.”
“As costs of health care nationally and for Stop & Shop plans have increased astronomically, our associates’ share of the costs has changed minimally, and our health benefits design has not kept pace with the changing health care market,” stated Stop & Shop.
The chain also stated it provides most of its associates with a defined benefit pension funded completely by the company.
“Stop & Shop spends between $1,926 and $2,644 per associate, per year on pension benefits for full time associates,” stated the chain. “Our industry competitors generally offer a 401(k) program without a guaranteed payout, if they provide any retirement benefits at all.”
With no end to the strike in sight, Pistilli said she hopes residents will find somewhere else to shop.
“Show support for our local Stop & Shop and its employees,” said Pistilli.
On April 12, president of Stop & Shop Mark McGowan posted a statement on the grocery store’s website stating negotiations will continue.
“I and the entire Stop & Shop team remain firmly committed to getting a fair new contract in place for all of our associates in New England,” said McGowan. “I stand behind the comprehensive offer we have placed on the table. 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.”
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Sheridan Roy, email her at SRoy@SouthingtonObserver.com. Harrison Connery contributed to this article.