Roughly 31,000 employees of the grocery store chain Stop & Shop launched the largest private-sector strike in the U.S. in years, walking off the job at 240 stores across New England on Thursday.
Leaders at the United Food and Commercial Workers union declared the strike after months of negotiations with the company failed to produce a new contract. The union says that Stop & Shop, which is owned by the Belgium-based company Ahold Delhaize, has tried to increase employees’ health care costs and also cut pension benefits for new hires.
Union leaders called upon employees to empty Stop & Shop stores at 1 p.m. Thursday and form picket lines. Jeff Bollen, the president of UFCW Local 1445, said in a video posted on the union’s website that the two sides were “still miles apart” and union members were “done playing games.”
“This company has shown us they do not respect you. They do not respect the hard work you do every day. And we’re done talking,” Bollen said. “Start up the picket lines, stay strong, stay united, talk to the customers. We’re going to stay until we win.”
Stop & Shop said in a statement on its website that the company was “disappointed” workers were carrying out a work stoppage. It also called its proposal at the bargaining table a ”reasonable offer,” arguing that it needed to keep costs down to compete with nonunion grocery stores.
“The unions proposed a contract that would increase the company’s costs,” the statement reads. “This would make our company less competitive in the mostly non-union New England food retail marketplace.”
The strike affects Stop & Shop stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The company, which also owns the Giant and Food Lion brands in the U.S., said it had contingency plans in place to keep the stores open.
A strike of 31,000 workers is large by any measure, but it is particularly large in the U.S. private sector, where massive work stoppages have become increasingly rare. Excluding the wave of public-sector teacher strikes and a walkout at California public hospitals, the Stop & Shop strike appears to be the largest since 36,500 employees at Verizon (which owns HuffPost) formed picket lines in 2016, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Last year saw the largest number of U.S. strikers since the Great Recession began in 2007. Although the bulk were teachers, there were also large work stoppages by employees at Marriott and Frontier Communications. Private-sector workers have gained some leverage over employers thanks in part to low unemployment and a tight labor market.