Both West Hartford Stop & Shop stores locations closed early Thursday afternoon as workers began a strike in response to the breakdown of labor negotiations.
By Ronni Newton
Employees at West Hartford’s two Stop & Shop stores were manning the picket line rather than the checkout line Thursday afternoon after walking off the job at 1 p.m. in response to a breakdown in labor negotiations that have been ongoing for months.
Standing with shop steward Scott Levine, Scott Barry, a union representative who works in the produce department at the 1235 Farmington Ave. location, said it was “a combination of circumstances all together that got it to this point.”
He cited the company’s dramatic plans to increase insurance premium copayments for employees as an example. Personally, he said his copay would increase from $27 per week to $140 per week.
Floral Department Manager Jennifer Bugai said that the store closed and most everyone exited right at 1 p.m. when the strike was called. Customers who were already at the registers were able to check out, and the doors to the store were then locked.
Barry said that 157 employees work at the Farmington Avenue store, and all were honoring the picket line thus far. As employees arrived for their shifts – including one who had just started work a few days ago – they joined the dozens already wearing sandwich boards and standing in front of the store or at the entrances to the parking lot.
“We’ll be here until we get word that it’s settled,” Barry said. “We have put our faith in the union.”
Barry said that the picket line will be covered 24 hours a day. He was keeping track of the number of employees on the picket line, and how long they stayed. He said he would also keep track of anyone who “crosses the line and becomes a scab.”
“They’re fighting a good fight,” said West Hartford Town Council member and labor lawyer Ben Wenograd, who joined the Stop & Shop employees in the picket line Thursday.
Many drivers honked their car horns in support as they passed by on Boulevard or Farmington Avenue. A few people who entered the parking lot from the far end, where no picketers were standing, were surprised to find the store closed and locked when they walked up with their carts.
“I understand your point of view,” said Carolyn Lind, a potential customer from West Hartford who had not heard that the strike had begun.
A sign in the doorway said that the nearest open Stop & Shop store was on New Park Avenue, just over the line in Hartford.
A person who answered the phone at the 150 New Park Ave. store said it had been closed earlier, but reopened and was being staffed by managers. Only the self-checkout was available, she said.
The manager of the West Hartford store was unable to comment, and the employees did not have any information about whether or when the Farmington Avenue store might reopen. “I hope that it if does reopen, people will respect the picket line,” Wenograd said.
In a statement, AFL-CIO Connecticut President Sal Luciano said that management’s “final offer” to workers “included significant cuts to healthcare, massive increases (over 100 percent in some cases) to workers’ health care premiums, and replacing wage increases with so-called bonuses. All in all, this represents a massive step backwards with many workers facing reduced weekly earnings if they agreed to their ‘final offer.'”
Luciano’s statement said that Stop & Shop’s parent company “reported over $2 billion in profits last year. This is not the time to ask for concessions. Rather, this is a time to invest in the workers who have made Stop & Shop so successful and profitable.”
He urged customers not to break the picket line, to sign a petition in support, and to shop at other union stores if possible during the strike.
Stop & Shop’s workers are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
Company-wide, Stop & Shop’s 31,000 workers in 440 stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Northern New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York City all went on strike Thursday.
A Stop & Shop spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
The Stop & Shop website states: “Given that negotiations with assistance of the federal mediators are continuing, we are disappointed that the UFCW chose to order a work stoppage in an attempt to disrupt service at our stores. Stop & Shop has contingency plans in place to minimize disruption.”
The company states that its most recent offer provides:
- “Across-the-board pay increases for all associates – no one’s pay would be cut;
- “Continued ‘Gold Level’ health care benefits for eligible associates – at a fraction of what employees at other retail companies pay and with no changes to already unusually low deductibles; and
- “Increased company contributions to the UFCW’s defined benefit pension fund for current full- and vested part-time associates – a rare benefit in the New England food retail industry.”
According to the website, “Stop & Shop remains ready and available to meet with the union locals at any time.”
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