Four months ago, 300 plus workers from the Shaw’s distribution center in Methuen, MA went on strike. This month, they're celebrating a victory.
The strike was born when workers voted in opposition to a contract that would cut their healthcare benefits. Shaw’s refusal to absorb the cost of an increase in premiums would cause workers a loss of $28 per week, which accumulates to $1,456 annually. Shaw's management stubbornly moved forward by hiring replacement workers and terminating healthcare for the striking workers.
In late May, the workers’ union, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 791, organized a 60-mile, 5-day “March for Justice” beginning in Methuen and ending in Boston. Public officials, including Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Michael Capuano, urged Shaw's/Supervalu president and CEO Craig Herkert to reach a settlement.
The workers approved a new four-year contract–including wage increases and more affordable healthcare–on July 8th, ending the bitter strike. The temporary workers will be phased out gradually, allowing for the union workers to resume their positions.
A joint press release by UFCW and Shaw's stated, “The four-year contract continues Shaw’s long-standing history of providing good wages, comprehensive and affordable health care and a generous retirement plan,” although the original contract didn't exactly live up to this commitment. Many continue to feel that the ratified contract isn't enough–especially considering the months of lost pay–but the victory is about more than the final terms.
This resolution demonstrates the perseverance of the workers and the commitment of the union and communities to stand behind them. Supervalu was greedy and determined to break the union with intimidation, but the workers were unbending and rallied an enormous amount of support, ultimately forcing the company to renegotiate the contract.
The victory was made possible, in part, by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which granted unemployment benefits that were vital to the workers’ ability to sustain the strike. Additionally, a strike fund, for which over $180,000 was raised, played a key role in giving the Shaw's workers the financial wherewithal and morale to continue the strike.
Anthony Zuba, leader of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, said healthcare should never be used as an “economic weapon,” and this 4-month battle is a lesson in why. The workers, union, advocacy groups and communities stood bravely and found their own weapon in a collective voice for workers' rights.