The Stop & Shop on Newport Avenue in Quincy was eerily quiet Tuesday morning, the hum of refrigeration and chattering of product ads over the intercom among the only signs of life in the largely empty store. The deli and meat departments were dark, their counters mostly bare, and the produce display for bananas was barren.
At the Roslindale store, bakery cases and the hot food bar were empty, kale and mustard greens were nowhere to be found, and the only open lanes were the self-checkout ones. The Hyde Park store was locked, as it has been since the strike began Thursday, according to picketing workers, while one of two Stop & Shops on Nantucket is also closed.
The nearly week-old strike by 31,000 unionized Stop & Shop workers is clearly having an impact, with the union contending that at least several dozen of 240 stores in three states are closed, and many shoppers are staying away from those that are still open.
“In nearly 30 years, we haven’t seen a strike as effective and devastating as this one,” said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm that has evaluated grocery store strikes for three decades.
That assessment includes the six-week boycott of Market Basket stores in 2014 prompted by employees walking off the job to protest the firing of the company president during a family dispute over control of the chain. The Stop & Shop strike is even keeping shoppers away in wealthy communities, Flickinger said, which isn’t always the case.
Stop & Shop would not provide specifics on closures and supplies, noting only that “the majority of stores are open” and that “there have been some delays” on deliveries. On Monday, Stop & Shop sent a letter to customers from president Mark McGowan noting that the deli, seafood, bakery, and customer service counters are not operational, meat selection is limited, and gas stations are closed. Hours are also now limited to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“We are grateful for your understanding and are working around the clock to get back to business as usual,” McGowan said in the letter.
Inside stores, shortages are evident. Meat and produce are rapidly disappearing from shelves, and aren’t being replaced because truck drivers in the Teamsters union are refusing to cross the picket line. Workers are blocking other trucks from making deliveries.
The workers at Stop & Shops in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut represented by the United Food & Commercial Workers walked out after contract talks deadlocked. The standoff, as in most modern-day labor disputes, is largely over rising health care costs. The company has proposed workers pay more toward their insurance, noting that Stop & Shop would still cover 92 percent of premiums for family coverage, a much larger portion than other large retailers pay.
The $2 to $4 annual increase in weekly health care costs for employees would still keep workers’ costs below the national average, the company said. Stop & Shop has also proposed limiting coverage for spouses who can get health insurance from their own employer.
Stop & Shop said it is also offering wage increases and increased pension contributions for current workers. Average hourly pay is $21.30, according to Stop & Shop, with front-end clerks averaging $15.90, while other line workers make in the $18-$20 range.
But the union has called the store’s proposals “smoke and mirrors” that would hurt both current employees and new hires. The company’s proposal would cost a full-time employee an additional $893 in weekly health care premiums over three years, the union said, reduce pension benefits for many part-timers and new hires, remove 1,000 employees’ spouses off health insurance, and eliminate time-and-a-half pay on Sundays and holidays for new part-timers.
Negotiations between the union and the company are ongoing.
The strike is drawing attention from politicians and the public. Former vice president Joe Biden will speak Thursday at a rally in Dorchester supporting the striking workers, the union announced.
Social media has helped the union spread the message, with shoppers posting pictures of receipts from other grocery stores and detailing the money they spent at Walmart, Wegmans, and elsewhere. The 10 most popular hashtags about Stop & Shop — including #UnionStrong (10.2 million impressions, or views), #StopDontShop (3.5 million), and #BoycottStopAndShop (1.2 million) — suggest widespread support for workers, according to an analysis by Brandwatch, a British social media monitoring company.
At the Roslindale Stop & Shop, picketing workers said they had blocked multiple trucks from making deliveries.
“We’re telling [customers] there’s nothing fresh in there since Wednesday,” said meat manager Larry Farnsworth, a 20-year Stop & Shop employee.
Shoppers form new habits quickly, Flickinger noted, and grocery stores operate on narrow margins. If even 5 percent of Stop & Shop customers don’t come back following the strike, it could have major financial implications for the company, he said. And if the strike lasts through this weekend, with customers shopping for the Easter or Passover holidays, Stop & Shop could lose far more.
There were few cars outside the Newport Avenue store Tuesday morning, and three striking women were urging those who did drive in to not cross the picket line. Some shoppers were parking in what the workers have dubbed the “shame corner,” where they think they won’t be seen.
It’s not a lot to ask customers to shop elsewhere during the strike, considering how much the workers sacrifice, the striking workers said.
“We’re here during snowstorms, weekends,” said Leanne Noonan, a 35-year Stop & Shop veteran who oversees the registers. “We gave up holidays with our family.”
Denise Bausemer, also a 35-year veteran, who handles the store’s cash, said the Quincy store, normally open 24 hours a day, does between $1.3 million and $1.5 million in sales a week, and during Easter week, it’s usually around $1.7 million.
Despite their pleas, one customer headed in to pick up some fruit. “I feel awful doing this,” said the woman, who would only give her first name, Barbara, saying she was stopping there because she didn’t want to be late for work.
A few minutes later, she was back outside, empty-handed.
“I just felt like a jerk,” she said. Plus: “All the shelves were empty.”