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The fight for the future of grocery store chains and compensation for the workers who staff them is heating up.
Unfolding in the northeast, the United Food and Commercial Workers union and supermarket chain Stop & Shop are in a protracted battle.
Workers in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts walked off the job on April 11 to press their beleaguered employer Stop & Shop to increase their already generous contract proposal.
Stop & Shop is offering across the board pay increases for 31,000 employees as well as continuance of their Sunday “time and a half premiums” for all current and future full-time employees, and an extension of their 100 percent company-funded pension plan, increasing the company’s pension plan contribution by 20 percent for current workers employed for at least five years.
The offer is pretty wonderful considering the state of the supermarket industry. In a market reeling from the successful opening salvos launched by Walmart a decade ago, and Amazon Pantry persistently crowding out local grocery stores, Stop & Shop is making a play to keep valued employees and keep thousands of people gainfully employed.
Accepting the offer by Stop & Shop would eliminate the possible unintended consequences resulting from closures of Stop & Shop markets in three states. For low-income households far less likely to access trendy newcomers such as Amazon or Insta-cart, the elimination of a long-trusted source of staples would be devastating.
Unions have long sought to stop non-labor union employers from entering retail spaces they dominate, causing exactly the type of food deserts that could occur in the areas served by Stop & Shop supermarkets.
Notably, most of the new entrants changing the expectations of grocery customers are not unionized, making their cost basis much lower than traditional grocery retailers. Aldi and Amazon are just two of the many innovators completely upending the model in a market once dominated by traditional grocery stores. Walmart paved the way, and now a myriad of players are rushing to take advantage of a very malleable and unpredictable food retail market.
Price-conscious shoppers open to new experiences are choosing options that were once unthinkable: bare bones experiences like Aldi, which intentionally minimizes the array of choices in everything from store size to offering only a single brand of pasta sauce. Others seek convenience above all else and find the Insta-cart shopping and delivery service and Amazon’s Pantry a great fit for their busy lives, which are increasingly lived online.
Consumers are opting to have their dry goods automatically delivered on a set schedule, taking advantage of a new brand of “set it and forget it” convenience. Even CVS Pharmacy has a robust grocery market that offers staples to their customers, swiping a considerable amount of business from neighboring grocery store chains.
Seemingly cognizant of the optics of the strike, Stop & Shop President Mark McGowan emailed customers with an apology, and mandated on the company website that striking employees maintain a calm and courteous demeanor toward customers.
With the strike now over a week in duration, many store locations are devoid of shoppers. In response to the strike, Stop & Shop is guaranteeing that no employee or spouse will lose access to health insurance coverage or be forced to change health care providers.
Whatever supermarket loyalties remain, unions ignore the new supermarket landscape at their own peril. This isn’t an example of grocery chains refusing to increase pay and benefits out of stinginess or malintent. Grocers are being crushed from all sides. In light of these realities, Stop & Shop employees should temper their demands and thereby preserve their employment. If not, Stop & Shop will unwillingly go the way of former supermarket powerhouses A&P, Grand Union, and Pathmark.
Stacy Washington is an Air Force Veteran, syndicated radio host and Emmy nominated tv personality. @stacyontheright on Twitter!