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Stop & Shop agreement seen as a win for workers

The South Bay Stop & Shop store in Dorchester on Sunday.
The South Bay Stop & Shop store in Dorchester on Sunday. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

Now that Stop & Shop workers are back on the job, cleaning floors and stocking shelves as they wait for deliveries to arrive, the big questions are: Was the strike worth it, and which side came out on top?

As in other recent labor disputes, the proposed contract would reduce benefits for future hires — part-time workers in this case — according to the United Food & Commercial Workers, the union that represents the 31,000 workers who were out on strike for 11 days.

If members of the five union locals approve — voting starts later this week — new part-time workers would get lower pension contributions and would not be guaranteed time-and-a-half pay on Sundays and holidays during their first three years, as other workers are, according to the union. In a workforce largely made up of part-timers, this is not an insignificant change.

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But the union succeeded in beating back a raft of other proposals. And if the contract is approved, current workers would get raises and the company would boost pension contributions for full-timers and maintain its current contributions for part-timers. That prompted the president of one of the five union locals to declare a “major victory.”

Only about 15 percent of US private-sector workers have defined-benefit pensions, according to the Pension Rights Center, down from 35 percent in the 1990s.

Full details of the proposal have not been released, however, and it was unclear Monday if or by how much health care premiums would increase.

“This is a watershed moment,” said Tom Juravich, a labor studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, noting the economic impact the strike had on Stop & Shop, with 75 percent of loyal shoppers staying away, according to an analysis of mobile device location data, and the company losing an estimated $2 million a day. “That kind of leverage is unprecedented since the golden years of auto and steel.”

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“Stop & Shop, at the end of the day, miscalculated,” he added, noting the strike’s relatively quick resolution could embolden other workers — and make companies think twice before they engage in a labor dispute.

Building on largely successful work stoppages by teachers and hotel workers across the country and gas workers in Massachusetts, unions are gaining steam — albeit in the midst of a long, steady decline in membership — as public awareness of income inequality is growing and the face of the labor movement is changing.

Union members are no longer “a white guy in a blue shirt” making decent middle-class wages, said Juravich. Especially in lower-paid service sectors that have become increasingly diverse, workers are banding together in an attempt to improve, or at least maintain, current working conditions, with a youthful energy that echoes the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements.

Stop & Shop undoubtedly has a lot of ground to make up after losing an estimated $25 million to $30 million in revenue and inventory during the strike, said Burt Flickinger, a grocery industry analyst with New York-based Strategic Resource Group. To win back shoppers, the company will have to invest aggressively in advertising for months to come, which could cost an additional $25 million to $30 million, he said.

Still, Flickinger called the work stoppage a “pyrrhic victory” for both sides, because both made concessions.

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Meanwhile, nonunion competitors gained customers who either didn’t want to cross picket lines or were worried their local Stop & Shop wouldn’t have what they needed — and some of those customers may never return. Nonetheless, Flickinger estimates Stop & Shop could have 95 percent of them back by Memorial Day.

Several dozen of the 240 stores affected by the strike in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut were closed during the work stoppage. One of them, in Hyde Park, was slowly coming back to life on Monday morning as workers swept the sidewalks, sorted through potatoes that had sprouted inside plastic bags, and tossed expired chocolate milk, cottage cheese, and sour cream into grocery carts. Produce bins and bakery cases were barren, and meat coolers were largely empty, save for hams and hot dogs and other processed meats.

Deliveries to stores have resumed, but the company said it would take a few days until everything is fully up and running. Several stores will remain closed for a few days, the company said, and Peapod home deliveries will start back up by the end of the week.

One longtime employee, a meat cutter making $30 an hour, said he understands the company is under pressure to keep costs down as its nonunion competition grows. He’s hoping for a buyout offer, especially with the company phasing out higher-paid in-store meat cutters, he said.

“I’ve got nothing bad to say about Stop & Shop. I’ve had a great career here,” said the worker, who asked not to be identified. “We know the state of the business.

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“We’ve been here for a long time,” he continued. “We just want to be taken care of.”

Public support for unions is at a 15-year high, according to a Gallup survey, and even though many workers don’t have pensions and pay more for health care, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want union members to have good benefits, labor experts said.

“The low bar that has been set by employers elsewhere isn’t a compelling argument for these particular workers to give back wages and benefits,” said Steve Striffler, head of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “No one likes to take pay cuts and reduce benefits and see your pension taken away.”

Stop & Shop is one of the last unionized grocery chains, striving to compete against a growing landscape of nonunion food retailers with lower operating and labor costs.

Like many other workers, Stop & Shop employees are getting by, but are not necessarily thriving, seeing their wages climb slowly while their living expenses climb ever higher. The average hourly pay for full-timers is $21.30 an hour, the company says; for the three-quarters of employees who work part time, the average wage is $12.75 an hour, the union said.

Edy Rees of Roslindale, a retired social worker, went to Roche Bros. during the strike — where she bought juice for workers on the picket line — but plans to go back to Stop & Shop and resume using its Peapod delivery service. Still, Rees wishes the contract were better.

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“I’m disappointed that the new hires are not getting a thing: the old divide and conquer mentality,” she said, referring to the fact that unions have less power and less incentive to take on the company if workers don’t all get the same benefits. “We here in the 99 percent have got to stick together.”


Material from wire services was used in this report. Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com.