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Larry Edelman | Analysis

What the Stop & Shop picket line says about 2020

Joe Biden spoke at a rally in Dorchester organized to support striking Stop & Shop employees.
Joe Biden spoke at a rally in Dorchester organized to support striking Stop & Shop employees.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

The sprawling field of Democratic presidential candidates is giving a lift to striking Stop & Shop employees, drawing wide attention to a job walkout that otherwise might not make the national news.

But the parade of pols showing up on the picket lines in Massachusetts also underscores the pivotal role the issue of economic security will play in the coming presidential campaign.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign clock seems to run faster than the rest of the pack, was first to move, bringing doughnuts to striking workers outside a Somerville store last Friday. That was followed by the highly publicized appearance of former vice president Joe Biden Thursday at a big rally at the Stop & Shop in the South Bay Center in Dorchester. Then on Friday, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar popped up at the Somerville store, while Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., joined strikers in front of the Stop & Shop in Malden.

“I’m running for president largely because I believe that our freedom depends on understanding how to make sure the changes in our society work for working people,” Buttigieg said. “What’s happening at Stop & Shop is an example of the exact opposite.”

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Senator Elizabeth Warren addressed the media and Stop & Shop workers on the picket line at the Stop & Shop in Somerville on April 12.
Senator Elizabeth Warren addressed the media and Stop & Shop workers on the picket line at the Stop & Shop in Somerville on April 12. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

The visits have been a PR blessing for the United Food & Commercial Workers, which represents the more than 30,000 workers at 240 New England stores who walked off the job on April 11.

But it also raises a key question: Can any Democratic candidate galvanize not only organized labor and other struggling workers, but social justice warriors and centrists — and still swing enough Republicans and independents to the cause?

At least that’s what I was wondering as I scanned the crowd standing in the chilly, wet parking lot of South Bay Center on Thursday waiting for Biden to speak. Turnout by other unions was strong: Unite Here Local 26, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Massachusetts Nurses Association, and Teamsters Local 25 were among those with a visible presence.

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There was plenty of talk about greedy corporations concerned more about profits and stock buybacks than their employees. A lot of us vs. them, evil billionaires vs. salt-of-the-earth working people. The crowd was diverse. The banner on the podium read: “One Job Should Be Enough.”

It was a reminder that many unions have long fought for the underdog. Their members are reliable Democratic backers, but Hillary Clinton carried the union vote by just 8 percentage points — the smallest margin for a Democrat since Walter Mondale was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1984.

It is also a reminder, in all the thunder over the Mueller report and calls by some Democrats to impeach Trump, that the issues behind the strike are at the core of voters’ concerns: a living wage, affordable health care, retirement security.

It didn’t help her campaign that Clinton was seen as being cozy with the Wall Street elite. And Donald Trump made inroads into labor, especially with older white factory workers in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, with his tough stance on global trade.

But something bigger is going on here, too. Despite a decent economy and a rising stock market, many workers are being squeezed.

It’s not just cashiers and meat cutters, it’s blue- and white-collar workers everywhere whose livelihoods are threatened by global competition, automation, and a growing callousness to the plight of those stuck on the wrong side of this country’s expanding income divide. Most aren’t union members.

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There’s a showdown coming — and I don’t mean the one between Republicans and Democrats in 2020. It’s a fight for who will lead the Democrats.

Biden’s heart is in the right place, but his timing is wrong. He is too centrist — and too old-school. He had trouble holding the crowd for 10 minutes.

Bernie Sanders would have had the place rocking. But is he electable? Can he, Liz Warren, or any candidate running hard left — Medicare for All, disbanding ICE, free college tuition — carry the center? Can a moderate like Klobuchar or former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper inspire the Green New Dealers?

There is something clarifying about a picket line in front of your favorite supermarket. You have to decide whether you’ll walk past people you see regularly, maybe even know. Your choice will be influenced in part by whether you think the economy works for everyone or just the affluent.

So pay attention to which politicians show up to stand with the UFCW. It may help you pick from the bumper crop of candidates asking for your vote.


Larry Edelman can be reached at larry.edelman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeNewsEd. Click here to sign up for his Talking Points AM newsletter.