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In roughly half the states in the country, grocery stores aren’t unionized, so the idea of a labor dispute disrupting your regular grocery shopping routine may be completely foreign to you. Most everywhere else, a grocery strike hasn’t happened in a generation or so.

But it’s happening now in New England, seven years after the country’s last major grocery strike, which lasted all of ten days, and 16 years after the largest, longest and costliest strike in the history of the grocery industry.

More than 31,000 employees at 240 Stop & Shop stores in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut walked off the job yesterday afternoon after months of stalled contract negotiations. The rest of the Ahold Delhaize-owned Stop & Shop stores in neighboring New York and New Jersey are unaffected.

Union workers had previously voted to authorize the strike, so the walkout was not unexpected. But the timing still caught many shoppers and managers off guard. Several stores had to shut their doors temporarily while managers worked to put their strike backup plans into place, while other stores managed to stay open by directing shoppers to self-checkout lanes.

“We’ve been in negotiations with Stop & Shop since January 14th. Here it is, April. We are still miles apart,” Jeff Bollen, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445, said in a video message to union workers. “This company has shown us that they do not respect you, they do not respect the hard work you do every day, and we’re done talking.”

The union is seeking improved health benefits and pensions, while Stop & Shop says the union’s demands are too expensive and “would make our company less competitive in the mostly non-union New England food retail marketplace”.

“We are disappointed that the UFCW chose to order a work stoppage in an attempt to disrupt service at our stores,” the retailer said in a statement. “Stop & Shop has contingency plans in place to minimize disruption.”

Those contingency plans include calling in corporate employees and temporary workers to fill vacant positions, stock shelves and serve customers. But trying to stick to business as usual during a grocery strike isn’t easy.

In 2012, union workers at Raley’s grocery stores in Northern California walked off the job, and many customers stayed away. The owners tried to win shoppers back by enticing them with special coupons and freebies, a move that one union leader characterized as “desperate measures to get our members and the public to cross our picket lines and enter the stores”. That strike ultimately ended after just a week and a half, before any long-lasting disruptions could occur.

That wasn’t the case in 2003, though, which saw three simultaneous grocery strikes across the country. Grocery workers at Kroger stores in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia went on strike days after union employees at St. Louis-area Schnucks, Dierbergs and Shop ‘n Save stores walked out in Missouri. But the biggest and longest disruption took place in Southern California, where 59,000 union members went on strike or were locked out in a dispute with Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons. That strike lasted more than four months, and despite the retailers’ best efforts to keep things running smoothly, many stores ended up with plenty of empty shelves and aisles that were empty of shoppers.

The last time Stop & Shop employees went on strike was way back in 1989, and that was only for one day. So many local shoppers may be unaccustomed to having their grocery shopping routines disrupted during what could turn out to be a long strike.

Bollen appealed to shoppers to “help us out and shop someplace else until the strike is over”. And many Stop & Shop customers are planning to heed his call. While a handful of visitors to Stop & Shop’s Facebook page have criticized the strikers, most are speaking out in support.

“I’m a loyal customer but I won’t be until you pay your employees what they deserve,” one shopper wrote. “I put up with your less than competitive prices, but the treatment of your workforce really turns me off,” another commented. “Price Chopper was mobbed with people like me who would not cross the picket lines. I strongly encourage corporate Stop & Shop to accommodate the workers, so I can go back,” a third wrote.

Complicating matters for Stop & Shop in its quest to keep things running smoothly, is the fact that the local Teamsters union representing the stores’ warehouse workers and truck drivers plans to honor the strike. That means deliveries could be disrupted – so shoppers who do cross the picket lines may have a hard time finding groceries to buy.

On the other hand, automation at checkout and in the aisles may help free up Stop & Shop’s temporary workers to perform more pressing tasks. The stores have been installing more self-checkout lanes lately, and have even deployed robotic assistants called “Marty” that roam the aisles looking for spills and other hazards.

Ironically, automating these tasks that were once performed by humans is among the very issues that the unions are upset about.

Another potential irony has to do with businesses that stand to benefit from the Stop & Stop strike. Shoppers who support the strikers are likely to take their business to other – nonunion – grocery chains instead. That’s what happened in Southern California a decade and a half ago, and once shoppers got used to their new routines of shopping at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and various independent grocers, many never went back. Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons lost an estimated $1.5 billion during the strike, and the Southern California grocery landscape was never quite the same.

And today, there are even more grocery options. The nonunion Walmart and Target are much bigger players in the grocery space than they were back in 2003. Discounters like ALDI and dollar stores are legitimate grocery shopping destinations now. And online grocery shopping was barely even a thing in 2003. Today, if Stop & Shop customers who want to avoid crossing picket lines choose to order their groceries to be delivered, then decide they like it, those are customers who may never be back.

There’s no telling how long this strike will last. It could be over in no time, allowing things to return to normal with no lasting repercussions. If not, though, the first major U.S. grocery strike in years, could end up having an impact that’s felt for years to come.

Image source: UFCW Local 1445

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