Striking Stop & Shop workers got a jolt of support Thursday at a boisterous rally packed with members from some of the state’s biggest unions and headlined by former vice president Joe Biden, who told the crowd that their treatment at the hands of corporate America was “morally wrong.”
“What’s happening here is workers are not being treated across the board with dignity,” the potential Democratic presidential candidate said from a podium outside the Stop & Shop at the South Bay Center in Dorchester. “They’re not being treated like they matter.”
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who ran the regional Building and Construction Trades Council prior to being elected in 2013, and state Treasurer Deb Goldberg, whose family once owned the supermarket chain, spoke before Biden.
Walsh said he had one message for the company: “Sit down and negotiate a contract and respect your workers.”
Goldberg said of her parents, Avram and Carol Goldberg, who ran the company until the late 1980s, “This breaks their heart.”
Some 31,000 Stop & Shop workers, many of them part-timers, went on strike last Thursday after months of negotiations between the United Food & Commercial Workers union and the company failed to reach a new contract agreement.
The key sticking points: proposed increases in health care costs; reductions in pension contributions for many nonvested part-time workers and new hires; and changes to Sunday and holiday overtime pay for current and new part-time employees.
“Our primary goal remains to get our associates back to work with a contract that has pay increases for all associates, continued health benefits for eligible associates, and increased pension contributions,’’ Jennifer Brogan, a Stop & Shop spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement. “We remain focused on getting back to fully serving our customers every day.’’
Brogan said talks are ongoing.
But the strike has taken a toll on the company’s business. Pickets, who remained in front of the Stop & Shop during the rally, said few shoppers had entered the store during the strike. On the other side of the parking lot, a Stop & Shop gas station was deserted and a sign on the cashier’s window read, “Gas Station Closed!”
Jose Lopes, a 37-year Stop & Shop company veteran, told the crowd he was angry.
“I am going to speak from my heart,” he said. “What’s in my heart? I am pissed off” because the company keeps demanding more from its workers.
Turnout by other unions was strong, with signs held aloft by members of Unite Here Local 26 and International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. A group from the Massachusetts Teachers Association posed for pictures. Members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association arrived in a tour bus.
Steve Tolman, president of the state AFL-CIO, demanded a fair deal for the striking workers.
“This isn’t just a contract fight. . . . This is a fight for the middle class,” he said.
Sean O’Brien, president of Teamsters Local 25 committed $10,000 to the UFCW strike fund.
Stop & Shop, the only major grocery chain in the region with a largely unionized workforce, is facing stiff competition — not only from other supermarkets such as Shaw’s and Market Basket but more specialized retailers including Whole Foods and Trade Joe’s.
The walkout, which involves workers at 240 stores in three states, comes less than three years after Stop & Shop’s parent company, Royal Ahold, acquired rival Delhaize Group for $10.4 billion.
The combined Ahold Delhaize is the fourth-largest supermarket owner in the United States, trailing only Walmart, Kroger, and Albertsons, according to data from Progressive Grocer.
The Netherlands-based company saw earnings slip to 1.79 billion euros ($2.1 billion) in 2018, from 1.82 billion euros a year earlier. Revenue was basically flat at 62.7 billion euros ($70.5 billion).
In backing the UFCW, Biden, 76, joined a group of candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination, including Senators Corey Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey both addressed rallies last week, and Markey was also at the Dorchester event Thursday.
Biden appeared about 90 minutes into the event, as a light ran began to fall and the crowd had started to thin out. He spoke for about eight minutes, sounding like a candidate for office, ending with a promise that “we will take back this country.”