As with other recent labor disputes, health care and retirement costs dominated the Stop & Shop fracas.
But there was a twist that made this 11-day strike unusual: The United Food & Commercial Workers also battled with grocery conglomerate Ahold Delhaize over whether employees should continue to get paid extra for working on Sundays.
A year ago, that wouldn’t have even been an issue, at least not in Massachusetts. Time-and-a-half pay was guaranteed by state law.
But remember the “Grand Bargain”? Everything changed in those negotiations that culminated in a package of new labor laws last year. The state’s minimum wage will gradually go up, over five years, to $15 an hour, as a result. Meanwhile, the time-and-a-half pay requirement for retail work on Sundays and several holidays is being phased down to straight time by 2023.
Now, we are seeing some of the real-life consequences. The UFCW will likely have to fight for this right each time a new contract comes up for renewal.
Union leaders were smart to worry that the loss of the pay requirement could lessen their clout at the bargaining table. The tentative three-year agreement with Stop & Shop, which now needs to be approved by the union membership, protects existing employees’ premium pay. But new part-time employees apparently will need to work at the company for three years before they qualify for the time-and-a-half pay.
The Grand Bargain was supposed to end a fight that seemed to resurface on Beacon Hill year after year. The Retailers Association of Massachusetts would plead with lawmakers to erase the premium pay requirement, saying mom-and-pops were struggling enough amid the advent of online shopping. It made no sense, the retailers group says, to single out one industry with this vestige of the state’s old blue laws. Union leaders would strike back by making a quality-of-life argument for keeping the rules in place.
How long has this fight been going on? Consider that stores in Massachusetts were first allowed to open on Sunday afternoons, year-round, in the early 1980s. The Legislature granted various exemptions over time, until voters narrowly passed a ballot question in 1994 that expanded morning openings to all retailers. At the time, the premium pay requirement was supposed to remain in place.
But Jon Hurst, the retail trade group’s president, says the times have changed. Sure, online shopping is taking its toll like never before. Another big factor, though, is the state’s minimum wage. He says the near-doubling of the minimum, from $8 an hour to $15 an hour, over a decade’s time, was never envisioned back in the 1990s. Plus, he notes that Rhode Island is the only other state that required time-and-a-half pay on Sundays. State lawmakers never seemed eager to end it. They dropped that reluctance once the retailers wielded a powerful weapon: the promise of a ballot question to reduce the state’s sales tax to 5 percent. Facing a potential loss of $1 billion-plus in annual tax revenue, legislative leaders acquiesced.
Peter Derouen, political director at the UFCW Local 791, says he knows it’s highly likely his union will have to deal with the issue when its contracts with Shaw’s expire in 2022. (Local 791 doesn’t represent Stop & Shop.) Derouen says his concern goes beyond union membership: Retail workers deserve extra pay when they come in on a Sunday and take valuable time away from their families on what he says should be a day of rest. (State law still requires Sunday work to be voluntary.)
Derouen and his team haven’t given up. They support new legislation that would reinstate the time-and-a-half pay requirement; Senator Paul Feeney and Representative Antonio Cabral filed bills this year to do so, on the union’s behalf. This could be a tough sell to leadership, though.
But the bills do accomplish one thing, at least. They mean the decadeslong battle over premium pay on Sundays isn’t over yet, after all.