By JOSEPH FITZGERALD
BELLINGHAM — Roland Lambert has worked for Stop & Shop for nearly 50 years. He’s four months away from retirement and never thought he’d be standing on a picket line.
Lambert, 68, who’s worked at the Bellingham Stop & Shop on Pulaski Boulevard for the past 12 years, says he’s on strike because his pension is at stake.
“They want to take away our pension plan and go to a 401k, which is going to be managed by some company in the Netherlands,” he says. “A lot of us are vested and don’t want that. We’re afraid of losing our money, especially if the stock market takes a turn for the worse.”
Lambert and the nearly 150 employees at the Bellingham store were among thousands of unionized Stop & Shop workers across the region who walked off the job just after 1:30 p.m. Thursday after their union and the company failed to reach a contract agreement.
The strike includes workers at Stop & Shop’s 134 stores in Massachusetts, including Bellingham; 92 locations in Connecticut; and 27 Rhode Island stores, including Pawtucket and North Smithfield.
Union members of Local 328 were on picket lines at the North Smithfield Stop & Shop at Park Square on Thursday. The store was open but not being visited by many customers, one of the striking employees there reported.
Stop & Shop stores with banking facilities were said to be allowing banking customers in, and the R.I. Department of Health reported on Thursday that Stop & Shop pharmacies were still giving customers their prescriptions with the help of store management personnel.
Five locals of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union representing 31,000 Stop & Shop workers in New England have been negotiating a new contract with Stop & Shop representatives since Feb. 14, the UFCW said.
The workers’ last contract with the company expired on Feb. 23.
The two sides have been far apart on wages and benefits for a new contract to replace one that expired in February. The union claims the company’s offer is unacceptable, because it asks employees to increase their contributions to healthcare benefits, reduces pension benefits for new hires, and limits wage increases for part time workers to less than two percent.
The UFCW has called Stop & Shop’s latest offer an insult and completely unacceptable. Stop & Shop meanwhile says its employees are some of the highest paid food retailers in the region and the changes are needed to compete with other supermarkets that are mostly nonunion.
“They want to take away our vacation time, reduce our sick days and take away paid holidays for new hires,” said Lambert, a night crew chief at the Bellingham store. “It’s just not right. We’ll be out here until they make it right whether it takes days or weeks.”
Paul Hill, a deli manager and member of the union, said the impasse between the union and Stop & Shop’s owner is the result of the company’s interest in reducing employee benefits.
“A company making as much money as they do is looking to take away health benefits and sick time from us,” Hill said.
A Stop & Shop employee for the past 33 years, Hill said the company’s proposed reductions in benefits would hurt its workers. “You really can’t even raise a family with what they want to give us,” he said.
Another Bellingham Stop & Shop employee, Colleen, who declined to give her last name, says she’s scared. The 12-year store cashier and single mom says the thought of being on strike and not having enough money to pay the bills and buy groceries is daunting.
“A lot of us are not going to get paid the longer this goes on so I’m hoping we can reach an agreement sooner rather than later,” she said.
In a statement on Thursday, the union said, “Our 31,000 members who work at Stop & Shop work incredibly hard to provide the great customer service that has made the company billions of dollars in profit and the top grocery store in New England. Instead of a contract that recognizes the value and hard work that our members provide every day, Stop & Shop has only proposed drastic and unreasonable cuts to health care benefits and take home pay, while replacing real customer service with more serve-yourself checkout machines.”
In its own statement, Stop & Shop said, “Given that negotiations with assistance of the federal mediators are continuing, we are disappointed that the UFCW chose to order a work stoppage in an attempt to disrupt service at our stores.”
“Additionally, this morning the company made several suggestions to the federal mediators to encourage further bargaining. The mediators gave those proposals to the Locals late in the morning. The Locals provided no counter proposals to the mediators and simply stated they were proceeding with their plans. 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. This would make our company less competitive in the mostly non-union New England food retail marketplace.”
Most of the stores that temporarily closed during the early hours of the strike were re-opened later in the day, staffed by management employees, while members of Local 1445 of the United Food Commercial Workers (UFCW) were still out picketing in front of the Bellingham store entrances and at the egresses to the largely empty parking lot.
One union member, carrying boxes of pizza to his co-workers as the picketing continued through late afternoon, said he couldn’t comment on the labor demonstration beyond saying “we’re on strike.”
Customers arriving to the stores reacted with surprise when they found the doors closed.
Lolita Adams of Woonsocket attempted to visit the Bellingham store to get some food for her pets.
“I’m shocked and surprised by what is happening,” she said. “I thought most strikes don’t shut down buildings,” she added. “I’m originally from Massachusetts and whenever there would be a strike, the people would be outside with signs but the building would still be open,” Adams explained.
On Thursday, Adams had driven to Bellingham to pick up some oatmeal she needed to feed seven young pit bull puppies she was in the process of weaning from their mother. As a result, she said she would have to go to another store to find what she needed.
“This store is shut down so I am going to somewhere to find my babies’ oatmeal, this is the first time this has ever happened to me,” she said.