On strike at Shaw’s

March 17, 2010

METHUEN, Mass.--On March 7, workers at Shaw's Supermarkets distribution center here voted 224 to 8 to reject a contract offer and go on strike.

The primary conflict is around health care. Shaw's latest offer would require an increase of $70 per week for an individual plan. The company recently rejected the union's offer to meet with a federal mediator.

Work at the distribution center is physically demanding and relentless. The center uses the Jennifer voice-directed system, a headset system wired into a central database. A computer voice instructs workers what to get and where to put it, turning them into little more than robots and allowing every move to be tracked.

The Shaw's chain of stores is part of Supervalu, which also owns the Albertsons and Jewel-Osco brands. It has $9 billion in yearly sales and accumulated $109 million in profits during the fourth quarter of 2009. CEO Jeffrey Noddle receives $10 million a year in total compensation. Clearly, Supervalu can't claim to be going out of business. The company is profiting handsomely from its workers' efforts, yet feels entitled to more.

The strike has shut down the distribution center in Methuen, which normally moves 70 to 80 trucks an hour, but is now moving only a few trucks a day. Shaw's has tried to have its non-union C&S Distribution center in Hartford, Conn., make up the work. However, reports from stores across the Boston region indicate that it isn't able to keep up.

Items such as bananas and flowers have been observed being delivered from people's cars. At other times, a tractor-trailer will make a delivery, but only of a single pallet. The Methuen distribution center handles perishable items, including fruits, vegetables, meats and fish. Delays in the distribution system quickly lead to waste.

The 310 striking workers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 791, are heavily focused on pickets at individual Shaw's stores, as well as the distribution center. Pickets have been active at more than a dozen stores in the area, through a blustery cold and rainy weekend. Spirits are high, with nearly unanimous strike support within the union and solidarity from many other unions in the area.

Shoppers at the stores have received the pickets well, with people taking their business elsewhere. Pictures on the Internet confirm these reports, showing many stores with empty parking lots. One shopper stated, "I think it's so great. You're standing up to them for what you think is right. I'm not shopping there, and I recently convinced my mom to do the same."

One worker who hasn't been able to pay his mortgage for the last six months talked about the economic crisis facing workers: "Everybody's waiting for Obama to fix the economy. We should be using these trillions of dollars to create jobs--create more work for factories. Where is the assistance he promised for the housing crisis?"

Supervalu's actions indicate that it is looking for a fight. The company's recent profits are formidable. However, the strike has been effective at disrupting the store's functioning. The workers are strong, united and have received solidarity from other unions and shoppers. Maintaining and elevating this strength will be key for the workers to gain an acceptable contract.

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