It was an unusually frigid day for spring, but dozens of workers from the Stop & Shop on Atwood Avenue in Johnston preferred the elements to the inside of their store on Friday morning.
Paul Scorpio and Maryann Teolis, stewards representing International United Food and Commercial Workers Local 328, were two of the employees braving the blustery conditions last week.
“Not everybody agrees with everything that you’re doing, but we have to stand up for what’s right, and what’s right is for us to make a decent wage and keep our benefits that we have at the same level,” Scorpio said while along Atwood Avenue, horns honking support in the background. “They’re making money, they’re not losing money.”
The Sun Rise spoke to the stewards on the second day of the UFCW strike that has lasted a week thus far. The strike 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.
Both sides reported negotiations were ongoing as of press time Wednesday.
Scorpio told the Sun Rise that employees turned off their registers and walked out at 1 p.m. Thursday. He and Teolis cited wages, pensions and cuts to benefits as the reason behind deciding to go on strike.
“They weren’t negotiating anymore. So they decided it was time to pull everybody out of the stores and get back to the table,” Scorpio said. “To that point, they’re trying to make cuts that are really unreasonable and cutting benefits and stuff.”
Teolis stood bundled up at one of the store’s two entrances with a handful of her co-workers. She said the union voted unanimously to strike.
“They weren’t being fair, so it really wasn’t a tough decision,” Teolis said. “It’s about benefits. It’s about pension. It’s about them taking things away from us. Sick time, vacations, personal time … If they get back to the bargaining table and we can work something out, I’m sure everybody would want to work something out.”
Teolis said there has mostly been support from customers, some of whom have offered food and coffee. Some have pulled up in their cars just to say they back the employees, too.
She said that she and her co-workers love their customers and want to be back as soon as possible.
However, the strike is as much about the future as it is the present. She said the union is looking to protect employees who aren’t even working for the company yet.
“We just want everyone to have a good future as well, because not everybody is going to be college-bound,” Teolis said. Not everybody can afford to go to college, so we need jobs for the middle-class people, the regular middle-class people.”
Mayor Joseph Polisena, the son of a Teamster, said Tuesday morning that the workers have a right to strike. He added that the strike has been orderly and the Johnston Police Department hasn’t reported any issues thus far.
“They’re concerned about their future benefits, I don’t know all the particulars, but everyone has a right to strike,” Polisena said “They haven’t been blocking traffic, they haven’t been threatening people. They’re out there with their message.”
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 Samuel 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. Silence broken
On Tuesday the union and company broke with their previous silence over particulars of negotiations, signaling to some that mediation wasn’t working. Strikers didn’t take it as a good sign.
In an email to the news media, Stop & Shop president Mark McGowan outlined the company proposal and issued a letter to customers.
“The wages, healthcare, and pension offer for all of our employees - full and part-time, across all stores - are among the best for New England retail and supermarket associates. This contract offer is no exception. That's why we are committed to continued discussions until a fair and reasonable result is achieved. We are committed to resolving our labor negotiations as quickly as possible so that our employees can return to their jobs and we can get back to better serving you and the community,” he writes.
The union countered, "Stop & Shop can buy as many ads as they want, but they can't change the facts. "Stop & Shop's latest proposal will drastically increase out-of-pocket health care costs, kick approximately 1,000 employees' spouses off of their health care plan, and make it more challenging for 31,000 people to provide for themselves and their families. If the company's most recent offer becomes a reality, every working family, neighborhood, consumer, and community will be hurt.”
The union listed the following objections to the Stop & Shop offer: Requiring the average full-time employee to pay an additional $893 in weekly health care premiums over three years and the average part-time employee with employee-only coverage to pay an additional $603 in weekly health care premiums over three years. Reducing the monthly pension benefit for many newly hired full-time employees by 32 percent and reducing the monthly pension benefit for many part-time employees by up to 72.2 percent. Kicking off approximately 1,000 employees' spouses from their family health care plan if the spouse is offered health care coverage by their employer, regardless of cost or quality of care. And phasing out time-and-a-half pay on Sundays and holidays for current part-time workers and eliminating it entirely for new, part-time (approximately 75 percent of Stop & Shop's workforce is part-time).
Ethan Hartley and John Howell contributed to this report.