Grocery Store Workers Are at Their Breaking Point
Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden are showing up to picket lines to support overworked and underpaid grocery store workers. When will the rest of the country care?
by Jaya Saxena, Eater
Jun 5, 2019
On April 11, over 31,000 workers at 240 Stop & Shop locations in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island went on strike. Represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, workers were protesting proposals from management that included increased health care costs, and reduced pension contributions for many part-time workers. Stop & Shop’s parent company Ahold Delhaize claimed the cuts were in order to stay competitive, though they made $2 billion in profits last year, so few bought the argument.
It should be obvious that better conditions for workers means better conditions for customers, but the through line isn’t always clear. If your waiter has the flu, your dining experience is going to be worse (even without the risk of spreading germs). If your Uber driver has been driving for 18 hours because that’s the only way he can make rent, he’s going to be a worse driver. But if you’re shopping at bigger, chain grocery stores, chances are you can do it with minimal employee interaction. Your meat is pre-packaged, your produce stacked, and sometimes your checkout is self-service. The toll bad conditions take on grocery employees is less obvious.
But looking at the things unions and employees are protesting reads like a page out of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s Guide to Management. Stop & Shop proposed eliminating premium pay on national holidays and eliminating raises. At Walmart, one pregnant employee had to continue heavy lifting or risk being put on unpaid leave. And organizing group Whole Worker says the store’s “order to shelf” inventory management system (the inter-store system that lets workers track what’s being bought and what needs to be replaced) is so punitive it regularly makes employees cry from stress.
Grocery workers, like workers in many industries, have reached a breaking point. Working conditions have deteriorated since the ’90s, taking a total nosedive after the recession of 2008. “The ’90s were really a period of transition for a lot of industries, and we saw a lot of consolidation in the grocery industry,” says Stephanie Luce, Chair and Professor of Labor Studies at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. Between 1996 and 1999 there were 385 grocery mergers, according to one USDA report. Bigger companies began crushing unions, and traditional grocers now had to compete with mega-corporations like Walmart for customers. In order to keep operating within such tight margins, grocers cut costs in labor by cutting benefits and shifting full-time jobs to part-time ones.
The shift led to a lot of employee dissatisfaction, and organizing, especially in the last few years...
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