- Interview by
- Naomi LaChance
Joe Jarmie is a meat cutter at the North Haven, Connecticut Stop & Shop, and Kristen Johnson works as a deli manager at the Stop & Shop in Somerville, Massachusetts. They are among the 31,000 Stop & Shop workers in 240 stores across New England who went on strike for eleven days this month.
The company and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) reached a tentative agreement Sunday. The union said the new potential contract addresses workers’ concerns over health care, retirement plans, and wages. Employees returned to work today, although the five locals have yet to vote on whether to accept the proposal.
Faced with potential hikes in health insurance costs, the workers saw a harsh reality. Johnson worried about workers who already skip the doctor because it’s too expensive, Jarmie about spouses who could get kicked off of workers’ insurance plans.
Stop & Shop’s parent company, the Dutch retailer Ahold Delhaize, reported $2 billion in profits and $244 million in US tax cuts this year. In addition to Stop & Shop, the company also owns supermarket brands Hannaford, Giant, Food Lion, and Peapod. At non-union grocery stores like Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, workers have had less influence in a near-perpetual list of labor concerns. Through their UFCW membership, Stop & Shop workers found a historic way to fight back.
Naomi LaChance interviewed Jarmie and Johnson during the strike. “Not only are we standing up for our own rights and our own benefits,” Johnson said, “but we’re standing up for people all across the country, even non-union workers.”
Can you tell me about your work at Stop & Shop before the strike started?
I’m a meat cutter at the North Haven Stop & Shop. I’ve been employed here for thirty-three years. I cut meat each and every day to take care of our customers.
What’s it been like on the picket line?
It’s been very inspiring. Since we went out, the public support has been tremendous, overwhelming. The first day on the picket line, we had like seventy boxes of coffee, we had thirty dozen donuts, ten cases of water, sandwiches, cash donations, you name it. And it’s continued, not as much, of course, but it’s continued every single day. Someone just dropped off water, they’ve been dropping off donuts and coffee and pizzas. It’s just been phenomenal community support. I can’t explain how good it makes you feel that there are people out there so willing to support the little guy.
How did you become involved in union activism?
I have five uncles. They were all meat cutters. My father was a meat cutter. My grandmother was, up until about fifteen years ago, the only female meat cutter I knew. So I come from a family of meat cutters.
I came to work in the store when I was sixteen, and my dad was the meat manager. I couldn’t work in the meat department, because back then you had to be eighteen. So I worked in the grocery, in the produce a little bit, and then when I turned 18, I went to work in the meat department. That’s basically all I wanted to do.
I got involved in the union a few years later when I graduated from high school. I got a full-time job and met the union reps. I got interested in it. I’ve been in Local 371 now for going on forty-seven years in July.
I just like helping people. I think it’s the right thing to do, and I think the union does a lot of good things for people. It’s hard to explain or to tell everything, but I’m proud of my union membership, and I’m proud that I’m a union member and going strong.
Can you tell us a bit about the bargaining process before the strike started and Ahold Delhaize’s proposals compared to what the union is asking for?
The original proposals were outrageous. The way it works with us is there are tiers for when you were hired, how long you’ve been here, that kind of stuff. They basically didn’t want to give anything to one group — they just wanted to give them a bonus. The raises were miniscule compared to what they wanted us to pay in health care.
For example, I pay $20, which is not too bad, for the health care plan I have for me and my wife. They wanted that to go to over $100, without giving me a raise. That’s only the beginning. Then, they wanted the deductibles. My deductible is like $350, so for me and my wife it would be like $700. They wanted it to go to $1,500.
They wanted to eliminate time and a half on Sunday and make it a regular workday. They didn’t want to fund our pension. They wanted to cut part-time pensions. They wanted to take spouses off of our health care. They want to take people — there’s about a thousand of us — that have been on our plan for twenty, twenty-five years, just throw them off. We just can’t do that. It’s just not right.
So we’re trying to stand up and protect these people.
Ahold Delhaize reported $2 billion in profits this year and $244 million in tax breaks from the US. What’s it like to be on the picket line and know those numbers?
It’s nothing but pure greed. It’s pretty obvious at this point that they’ve got deep pockets, because the stores are empty. They’re not doing any business, there’s nothing on the shelves, there’s nobody in the deli, there’s no seafood, but they have deep pockets so they can afford to be out.
But some poor Joe on the line who’s just making a little bit over minimum wage has to try to survive. It’s pretty sad. It’s nothing but greed, and people are tired of it. That’s why you have the community support that you have. Because people are tired of it. People are starting to stand up all across the country. Teachers are too, that’s another example.
We were on strike for one day thirty years ago over a disagreement. I never expected it to go this long, so I don’t know what else we can do to get this resolved. It’s up to [Stop & Shop], really. They have to get off concessions.
What has it been like this past week or so on the picket line?
It has definitely been a new experience for a lot of us. But on my picket line, it’s been pretty good, pretty positive, pretty upbeat.
It’s been a little frustrating, just the waiting and the not knowing — everything being up in the air. It’s starting to get to some people. But I’m the strike captain on the line here, so I’m trying to keep the mood positive and trying to get people to really understand that what we’re doing is really important.
How long have you worked for Stop & Shop, and what do you do there?
I’ve worked for Stop & Shop for just about twelve years. I’m a deli manager. I started in the deli and worked my way up from part-time to deli manager. I’ve been in the Somerville store for eight years now, going on nine.
How did you become involved in the union?
Actually, I became involved in the union because of my fiance. At the time, we were just friends, and then we ended up dating, and he was super involved with the union. He’s now a business agent for the union, but at the time when I first started, he was trying to educate me on what a union was, what they do, and how it works. He was a vice president on the Executive Board for UFCW for my Local 1445. So he would take me to meetings and introduce me to people to let them tell me what a union was about and what they do and started taking me to rallies and things like that.
In my store here, just from me talking to people every day, it ended up being that a lot of people would come to me with their problems anyway, or any issues they were having with their pay or with vacations, or asking questions about some of their benefits. They would come to me and ask questions, so I became a shop steward for the store and started helping people that way.
Could you tell me a little bit about the bargaining process before the strike and what you’re looking for in a contract?
The local leadership was at the table beginning of January with Stop & Shop trying to negotiate a contract. The contract expired in February and they were still at the table, and the only thing that Stop & Shop was offering was a ton of take-backs. They wanted to take back health care, take back pensions, take back sick time, take back holiday and Sunday time. Basically everything we have in our contract, they wanted it all back.
My big thing was the health care. We depend on that health care, to survive for our families and ourselves. To just do what they want to do, increase the weekly amount that we pay into our health care by like, quadruple that and then double our deductibles, it’s crazy.
People don’t go to the doctor now because it’s expensive, even with the health insurance we have. So it’s like we wouldn’t be going to a doctor at all because we couldn’t afford it. That’s not really why we started working for Stop & Shop, you know? We started working here because it was a union company and you could get great benefits, and the longer you work here, the more dedicated you were, the better you made out. Now it’s kind of pointless.
They want to basically dissolve anyone with longevity and get a bunch of part-timers in. But you need someone to run the place, and they want to get rid of the people who have twenty-plus years who really earned those benefits. And they don’t want anyone new coming in to earn those benefits or have those benefits. And that’s just not fair.
And then you compare it to Ahold Delhaize’s reported $2 billion in profits and their $244 million in tax cuts this year, what’s it like having that in the background too?
I lost all respect for anyone that is higher up in the Ahold Delhaize chain… if I had any at all, I’ve really lost it all this past contract, just because they are so greedy. They got a $225 million tax cut, they made $2 billion in profits, and they did $4 billion in stock buybacks, and they want us to pay more for our health care.
We just want to keep what we have. Just keep what we have and give us a decent raise so that we can go along with the rising minimum wage and everything. It’s going up everywhere. They don’t want to address that at all.
There’s a part-timer that I know in my store. She’s worked here for thirteen years, part time, and she works for $13.30 an hour. And the minimum wage right now is at $12 an hour for Massachusetts. So she’s only making a dollar more an hour than a new part-timer off the street, and she’s been here for thirteen years. She’s come in during blizzards and rain storms. She’s shown up, and they don’t want to fix that for her.
It’s really a shame when you have places like Whole Foods and Wegmans starting at $15 an hour, and this poor woman has been here for thirteen years of loyalty and she’s only making $13. It’s disgusting, really, to see that much greed coming from one entity. They own 21 percent of the supermarket business in New England, and it’s like, how much greedier can you get? You’ve already taken up pretty much every corner of New England, and now you want to just keep taking back from your loyal employees, the ones who make the money for you? We’re the ones that deal with the customers every day, and we see them face to face. We’re the ones that are making them their billions of dollars in profit and this is how they treat us? It’s really sad.
I feel like a line that Stop & Shop uses is that, well, at other companies workers aren’t even unionized.
But it’s giving people a voice that might not have had a voice before. It’s showing that you can stand up for yourself and say ‘hey, wait a minute, this isn’t right,’ you know?