Stop & Shop workers in contract talks rally at Somerville store
SOMERVILLE — Stop & Shop workers and supporters rallied and marched through the company’s McGrath Highway store Saturday demanding a fair contract as negotiations are set to resume Tuesday in hopes of resolving a weeks-long dispute with the grocery store chain.
“What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!” protesters called out as they marched into the store, bringing a marching band.
The peaceful protest came less than two weeks after union leaders representing more than 31,000 Stop & Shop workers in Southern New England authorized their labor leaders with United Food & Commercial Workers to call for a strike.
“The company is trying to gut our entire contract in this great economy when they are making great money,” said Jeff Bollen, president of UFCW Local 1445.
Union leaders oppose the proposed contract’s changes, which they said would cut wages, pensions, and health insurance. The company has also cut staff and relied more on automation, he said.
The workers remain on the job. The sides are due to resume talks Tuesday, according to Amy Ritter, a UFCW spokeswoman, and a statement posted to the Stop & Shop website.
Ritter said the union is “still negotiating in good faith.”
In the company statement posted March 21, it said “Stop & Shop remains committed to good faith bargaining and to reaching fair new contracts as quickly as possible.”
Saturday’s “Customers Care” protest included representatives from several area community groups, including Massachusetts Jobs with Justice and Somerville Stands Together, said Gillian Mason, a co-executive director with the organization.
“Good jobs are important, not just to workers, but to the folks in our communities as well,” Mason said. “All of the good working people who depend on Stop & Shop to feed their families, we want to know that Stop & Shop is taking care of these workers.”
Peter M. Amati Jr., who works in the florist department at Stop & Shop’s Milford store, wrote his own take on a large sign he carried: “Worst contract proposal I have seen in my 58 years working for Stop & Shop.”
The 73-year-old, whose tenure with Stop & Shop goes back to its original owners, said management’s relationship to workers and shoppers has changed over the years.
“They cared about the employees, they cared about the customers, and not so much now,” Amati said. “It seems to be all bottom line.”
Kristen Johnson, who has worked for Stop & Shop for 12 years, including eight years in Somerville, said the demonstration showed how much support the store’s workers have in the community.
Johnson’s message to management: “Do us right and take care of [your] employees,” she said. “If they don’t take care of us, how are we going to take care of our customers and our community?”
Among the local elected leaders at the protest were state Senator Patricia D. Jehlen of Somerville, state Representative Michael Connolly of Cambridge, and Jesse Clingan, a Somerville city councilor.
As demonstrators marched into the store, curious onlookers filmed the scene with their phones. And as the procession made its way past the checkout counters, several Stop & Shop workers who were on the job grinned and joined the protesters’ chant.
The march only lasted a few minutes — enough for the protesters to march around the store twice, and then leave peacefully.
Among the shoppers who watched the procession inside the store was Randy Corpuz, who called the protest “a good show of unity.”
Corpuz is a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where in recent years, faculty, students, and staff have participated in on-campus demonstrations against issues like budget cuts and tuition increases.
“We have had our share of protests ourselves, so I can empathize with whatever they’re asking for,” he said. “I’m not sure if they should have been inside [the store], but it was appreciated to see them outside.”
Customer Amandeep Agnihotri, who left the store shortly before protesters entered the building, said he supported the workers in contract talks.
“I’m with them,” Agnihotri said. “Those big companies don’t pay enough to the workers.”
He said Stop & Shop workers should have a fair contract. If they were to strike, he’d refuse to cross the picket line.
“I would stop shopping here,” Agnihotri said.
Clarification: A previous version of this story indicated that Stop & Shop representatives didn’t respond to emails Saturday. In fact, because of a technical glitch in the Globe’s email system, Stop & Shop representatives didn’t receive the emails.