Donald Morrison: Striking while the ire is hot

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BECKET — Labor Day is still a few months away, but it's not too early to celebrate. After an 11-day strike, 31,000 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union got pretty much the contract they wanted from Stop & Shop, the New England supermarket chain.

That's good news for America's labor movement, which hasn't had much lately. Unionized workers still earn about 20 percent more than their non-union counterparts, but the economy has been shifting away from well-paid, heavily unionized manufacturing work and toward low-paid, mostly non-union service jobs. Meanwhile, Republican-controlled legislatures have been passing anti-union laws and, along with their corporate benefactors, trying to convince us that unions are the devil in work shoes.

As a result, the unionized share of the U.S. workforce has shrunk by half over the past three decades, to less than 11 percent. That decline is a big reason wages have barely kept pace with inflation in recent years, and even fallen behind gains in worker productivity. After all, it's hard to demand higher pay if you have to face your bosses alone.

I learned that lesson the hard way. As young journalist at Time Inc., I belonged to the Newspaper Guild. When management threatened to end contractual raises, we went on strike. For several weeks I had no income and no idea if I ever would again, much like the Stop & Shop workers. Not a pleasant experience, nor was the settlement we won anything to cheer about. But it was far better than if we had not stood together.

That idea seems to be making a comeback. Last year there were at least 21 major strikes, triple the number the year before and the most since 1986. (Among them was the walkout of 800 nurses at Pittsfield's Berkshire Medical Center.) So far this year, we've had sizeable strikes by nurses, teachers, hotel workers, fast-food employees, flight attendants, even prisoners. Most walkouts these days involve public employees, but that could change. The Stop & Shop job action was the country's biggest by private-sector workers in three years.

BESIEGED WORKERS

American workers are getting fed up. They feel cheated by the recent federal tax cuts. They see a deregulation-driven president weakening protections for overtime, paid leave, health care, workplace discrimination and job safety. They see employers pushing for lower wages, irregular working hours, reduced job security and shrunken benefits.

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Benefits were a big issue for Stop & Shop. The chain wanted to cut them, also to end raises. I can see why. The supermarket business is brutal: low margins, perishable products, high advertising and real estate costs, ubiquitous competition. Stop & Shop, one of the region's few unionized chains, is squeezed at the bottom end by largely non-union Walmart, Target and Aldi, and at the top by Amazon-owned Whole Foods and its regional imitators.

Labor costs, of course, are a big factor for retailers, but some more than others. Partly unionized Costco is known for its profitability as well as its generosity toward workers. Stop & Shop's parent company, Netherlands-based Ahold Delhaize, is doing so well that it announced an 11 percent dividend increase last month. Ahold doesn't break out numbers for Stop & Shop, but the subsidiary is no doubt under constant pressure to increase same-store sales and margins. Management apparently felt it was time to get tough with employees.

So what changed during those tumultuous 11 days? We did. So many customers refused to cross the picket lines that Stop & Shop was losing an estimated $10 million a day. My local stores were mostly empty, and a few elsewhere had to close temporarily. We haven't seen that kind of popular support for a labor action in a long time.

We may be seeing more of it. The Federal Reserve reports that four in 10 Americans couldn't come up with $400 to meet an emergency expense. The Labor Department notes that one in four workers makes less than $10 an hour, which would put a full-timer near the poverty line. And even if the movement toward a $15 minimum wage gains ground, that's still not enough to afford a two-bedroom rental almost anywhere in the U.S.

Maybe what happened during the Stop & Shop strike is that people looked at those picket lines and saw themselves. They saw their own struggle for survival, a share in their own productivity, a slice of a growing economy that appears to be benefitting investors far more than workers.

And they realized that, in this worker-hostile economy, they might well lose their incomes and their very dignity. Unless they stand together.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and Advisory Board member.


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