by Bruce VailA leading supermarket chain in New England began recruiting scabs on a large scale this week as the union representing some 40,000 of its workers girds for a potential strike later this month.Stop & Shop, with more than 250 grocery stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, opened 14 recruitment sites across the region with the goal of hiring “replacement workers,” confirms company spokeswoman Suzi Robinson. The recruits would replace members of five local units of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union in the event of a strike or lockout on February 24, when current collective bargaining agreements expire. The hitch in negotiations has been over the implementation of the federal Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.“We must prepare for the worst,” regional union leaders told rank-and-file members in an online contract negotiations update on February 1. Talks are continuing, but the core disagreement of healthcare costs remains unresolved.
Recruiting scabs to replace union members is a “crude threat” that is not likely to intimidate many workers, one Massachusetts UFCW leader, who asked not to be named, tells Working In These Times. Stop & Shop, a subsidiary of the Dutch-owned food retailing giant Ahold USA, has used the threat of replacement workers in the past, he says.
The most divisive issue in the contract talks is how to handle healthcare coverage for union members as the provisions of Obamacare are implemented. Stop & Shop is currently demanding the right to cut off insurance coverage for many part-time workers in early 2014, according to a statement from Rick Charette, chairman of the New England UFCW negotiating committee. The demand is based on the supposition that good health insurance coverage will be available to those workers through state-operated insurance “exchanges” envisioned by Obamacare, Charette indicated.
Both the threats to employ strikebreakers and the standoff over healthcare benefits are familiar issues to grocery workers in other parts of the country, says Tim Goins, executive vice president of Baltimore-based UFCW Local 27. Union members in Maryland ran into exactly the same situation in 2010 in dealing with another Ahold USA subsidiary, the supermarket chain Giant Food, Goins says. Giant Food used the same tactic of recruiting strikebreakers in the 2010 talks, but a short-term contract was reached before the threatened strike/lockout date. The new contract, however, did not definitively deal with health insurance issues, Goins says, and Local 27 will negotiate again with Giant Good this year to address the thorny issue of health care insurance.
“New England could provide a template for us,” to resolve the issue of coverage, especially for part-timers, Goins says. “There is no guarantee that it will, of course, but we will be looking very closely at what they come up with. [ObamaCare implementation] is complicated, and there is no easy way to describe [a solution].”
More part-time workers are expected to be covered by insurance, but there is little agreement on how it will be paid for, he says. Insurance exchanges may provide a solution, but such exchanges are so new that contract negotiators are unsure how they will work, Goins continues. Maryland’s own proposed exchange, for example, is not expected to be in operation until late 2013–at the same time that the current Giant Food-UFCW contract expires. Threatening workers with the widespread use of scab labor does not seem to be a particularly productive tactic, Goins adds. In the case of Baltimore-area workers, the threats worked to create greater union solidarity among the members, he says.
In New England, it is also reported Stop & Shop is generating some anger because strikebreakers are being offered higher starting wages than the starting wages specified in the UFCW contract. The same thing happened in Baltimore, Goins says, and did nothing to speed resolution of the contract or resolve the financial issues surrounding health insurance.
A UFCW chapter that represents more than 23,000 Stop & Shop workers in New York, Local 1500, issued a statement of solidarity with the New England workers on February 8.
Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau. This post originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog.