More than 30,000 Stop & Shop grocery store workers have been on strike in New England since last week in the largest private-sector U.S. work stoppage in three years. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union says the company wants to increase employees’ share of health care costs while reducing benefits for new hires, including phasing out time-and-a-half pay on Sundays.
One of the striking workers is 67-year-old Pete Katsigianis, of Wrentham, Massachusetts. He’s worked for Stop & Shop for nearly five decades. Katsigianis spoke with HuffPost about why he’s on strike, how to hold a picket line and what a hot item yogurt is in his store. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You want to know how long I’ve been there. Are you sitting down? I’ve been there since 1971. I work in the dairy department. I load yogurt. It’s the biggest-selling item in the store. It’s amazing what an item that is, yogurt. It just never ends. The department gets blown to bits.
We’re out there every night picketing. Everyone who’s scheduled to work is showing up for the shift they would normally work. If there are 20 people scheduled that day, then there will be 20 people out on the picket line. There’s a lot of honking horns going by. It’s appreciated, believe me. There’s a new pizza place opening up around the corner. They’re shipping over pizzas.
The customers aren’t crossing the picket line, for the most part. It’s just a trickle. We have a pharmacy in our store and a bank, so people are going in for those, but really there’s very little. I have no idea how much product is left in the store. We don’t know what the condition of the stores is like. [Editor’s note: Teamsters members who drive trucks for Stop & Shop have said they will honor the picket lines and not deliver products to stores during the strike.]
We’re out there every night picketing. Everyone who’s scheduled to work is showing up for the shift they would normally work. If there are 20 people scheduled that day, then there will be 20 people out on the picket line. Pete Katsigianis
If we see a truck pull up, we rally our cars and we swing around back of the store. But we haven’t seen a truck. We heard from a warehouse that 40 trucks went out to make deliveries, and 40 came back [still full]. They would not cross the picket lines. The crazy thing is, there’s no one in the stores. Overnight there’s no one in the stores to unlock the doors and let them in. God bless them. They’re pretty militant, those guys.
I’m 67. I’m a short-timer. But I am deeply concerned about the future. A serious problem the company has is attracting talent. With this contract here, it is making conditions a lot worse. We just don’t feel like it’s deserved. It’s a lot of work in a supermarket ― very hard work ― and we don’t feel this is necessary.
[Workers at] other grocery stores have counted on us to get a good contract so they can, too. We’re the big kahuna here.
The decline of the American middle class corresponds pretty much parallel to the decline of labor unions.
Over the years, Stop & Shop has been a very good corporate citizen. The owner now is Ahold Delhaize [a Netherlands-based company formed by the merger of Royal Ahold and Delhaize Group]. We call them Royal A-hole. I don’t know what their game plan is, if they have one. Somebody’s making a lot of money, but it’s not translating into the stores. These world beaters, I hope they have some idea of what they’re doing.
They’re cutting back wherever they possibly can. I come in at night and the milk is blowing up, the juice is blowing up, the eggs are blowing up. So we have to do all that and then start our work. It really creates problems all over the place. Plus, the kid that we have [in the back of the store] can scan at the registers, so he’s always being called up there to help.
I would not want to be a kid coming into the company now. I just don’t see the upside to it. It’s a shame.
It used to be that the night crews had six or seven full-timers. Now they’re lucky to have four, sometimes just three. Now it’s mostly part-timers. They’d love to be full time, sure. Many part-timers are on a lower pay scale, but they’re still scheduled for 40 hours. We have a kid on the overnight crew. He’s part time, and he’s working 40 hours a week. It happens all the time.
Many of them, especially in the produce department, they’re mostly from Latin America. Donald Trump would come in and he’d probably haul them all off. But I’d go with them. They’re the greatest people on the planet.
The generation before us went to bat for us. They didn’t throw us under the bus. We have an obligation to those who are coming up. But there aren’t that many. The “help wanted” sign in all the stores is up all year long. Very few people come through the door. There’s all this talk about automation, but they can’t get anybody anyway.
The Sunday [time-and-a-half] pay, it was good for me. I worked Sundays for 25 years, working six days a week. I had one day off, Wednesday. I had to stop doing it, with the chemo. But people really rely on that extra income, working the weekends.
I have bone-marrow cancer. I just came back from chemo infusion today. And it’s not cheap. It’s like $6,000 for every week of chemo. I had like $70,000 of chemotherapy in the last year. The insurance company has picked up almost all of it. I’m so fortunate in that respect. I have a defined-benefit pension plan. How many people in this country still have that?
I only have another year to go. I could retire now. I have a reasonable retirement. But some of the kids I’m working with are in their 30s or 40s, and they’re really upset. These companies have to realize we count on them to create decent jobs so that people can get married, buy a house, pay property taxes and support local public schools. This is how you build a middle class.