In today’s seemingly hyper-efficient economy, people expect things to just work. American corporations are well aware of increased consumer demand elasticity when things don’t function the way they are supposed to; this is the reason internet companies such as Facebook prioritize minimal downtime over all else. When things malfunction, hiccup, or slow down, consumers notice and pay attention. They go elsewhere, and the company with the short end of the stick loses business. This has always been the basic principle behind organized union strikes: corporations can only afford threats to their business for so long, and operating without employees is such a significant threat that it brings everyone to the negotiating table. However, strikes seem to be a rarity in today’s world. To those of a younger generation, they might be a completely unfamiliar concept. Why? The case of the recent Stop and Shop protests illustrates perfectly how corporations have optimized efficiency and reduced the negotiating power of unions when strikes are used as a bargaining tactic. The days of strikes are numbered. All hail modern American supercorporatism.
To most shoppers heading to Stop and Shop for their grocery rounds on Thursday, April 11th, finding striking employees was a bit of a surprise. Stop and Shops dot the suburban communities of New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and their employees are the only in the Northeast to be represented by a labor union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). The chain was bought out by Dutch retailer Ahold in the 1990’s, which would later merge with its competitor Delhaize in 2015 to form a massive food conglomerate which today includes American chains Food Lion, Hannaford, Giant Food, and Giant Food Stores (a separate brand from Giant Food), in addition to Stop and Shop. The ownership over so many brands gives Ahold Delhaize a market dominance in the supermarket industry never seen before in the Northeast, rivaled only by Albertsons and Kroger in the U.S. market for the title of largest supermarket chain.
However, strikes were not just a surprise to customers of Stop and Shop because of the company’s size and market dominance. In the United States, work stoppages rarely occur. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that total work stoppages over the past 10 years totaled 134. In 1981, the year of the infamous PATCO strike, there were 145 stoppages that year alone. Strikes have become a dying breed of labor protest in the United States, thanks to tighter labor laws and decreased union membership since the rise of neoliberalism in the United States. Democrats, the party that used to be the bedrock of organized labor, turned against unions under the Clinton administration, as the mindset of corporatism became commonplace among the American elite. Most recently, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court ruled that unions could no longer collect fees from non-members, as they violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. This ruling overturned years of precedent and decimated unions’ abilities to collect fees, grow their membership bases, and maintain solidarity.
While strikes used to be considered “labor’s most powerful weapon” and still is by some today, the declining power of the strike can be measured by the increasing amount of automation which makes the type of labor that most often mobilizes against corporations unnecessary and obsolete. Walking into a local Stop and Shop is all it takes to see the effect of automation on the modern grocery store. Gone are the fleets of registers that were formerly staffed by cashiers and baggers. In their place is something of a Frankenstein machine: metal monstrosities and technical marvels that completely replace the cashier with a simple computer. All it takes to satisfy these employees is a steady dose of electricity and some receipt paper. The rest is up to computer software and usually one attendant who exists mostly for retail loss prevention. While strikes used to be a crippling possibility, threatening to literally stall a supermarket’s ability to earn revenue, today these stores pretty much run themselves, save for a few stock managers and supervisors. During the Stop and Shop walkouts, some stores were staffed with as few as three managers in order to keep the business running and revenue flowing.
Stop and Shop employees have many other reasons to strike. Despite increasing profits, Ahold Delhaize wants to strip down employee healthcare plans, work benefits and pensions. This is despite the fact that many employees already struggle to make ends meet on a Stop and Shop salary. Many work multiple jobs and live paycheck to paycheck, which makes it difficult for workers to save and actually move into higher paying jobs. Stop and Shop already practices the cost-cutting measure of hiring many employees as part-time only, which means they don’t receive the benefits that come with full employment. Other rapacious companies such as Walmart engage in this practice, which drives industry labor costs down in a competing race to the bottom. The difference between Stop and Shop and Walmart is the existence of unionized labor, which is what made a collective strike possible, but it has yet to yield results for employees who must subsist on reduced strike pay of only $100 a week.
American presidential hopefuls have seized at the chance to capitalize on labor strikes as proof that they “stand with workers.” Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, among others, have joined in picketing lines, the optics of which are needed for Democrats who, since Bill Clinton and the era of neoliberalism, are in dire need of support from blue-collar Americans who belong to unions such as UFCW. The 2016 election was a wake up call for U.S. political parties, alerting them of the undercurrents that have been building for decades, and it appears that labor solidarity will be at least one strategy used by 2020 candidates to shore up support among an alienated political faction. However, it remains to be seen if such solidarity will yield tangible change in U.S. labor law. While taking on the supermarket industry may be one thing, labor laws that weaken unions correspondingly empower major corporations, many of which are important donors for politicians, including Democrats.
An FAQ in the Connecticut Post asks from its readers perspective, “Should I cross the picket line?” The Post’s answer? “That’s your decision.” This frames the issue as a matter of popular politics—that people, if they hold out long enough from shopping at corporate behemoths, will be able to defeat the beast with collective power. Looking at the issue through such rose-colored glasses ignores the essential issue that people no longer have collective power. It has been taken away in both the work sphere, through the aforementioned destruction of labor unions, and in the personal sphere, through the destruction of class consciousness. The American Dream makes people believe that they have true unfettered class mobility into a middle class where all basic needs are provided for. In reality, incomes for the poorest have fallen while economic mobility has declined. A series in the New York Times revealed that Chinese citizens born into poverty now have a better chance of rising to the middle or upper classes than Americans. And yet, many Americans eschew defining themselves “working class” and think those in poverty are “lazy.” These divisions in the American class system were carefully constructed in the 1980s in order to weaken collective solidarity, and they work. In anonymous interviews conducted for this article, those asked about the Stop and Shop strike were largely ignorant and unconcerned of labor demands, seeing such walkouts as an inconvenience. Even if politicians call for action, and effect change on labor laws, the damage of weakened intraclass dialogue has been done.
The fate of the American strike that is fought on battlefields such as Stop and Shop parking lots has broader implications for the moral consciousness of the American worker in years to come. Corporations have successfully fought against the ever-present deluge of labor stoppages in the ‘70s and ‘80s and returned with a vengeance to strike at the power of the American workforce. When a new generation of laborers grows up without a model of what collective action looks like, they will lose the power that idea holds in the soul. Working without hope for self-improvement or improvement of labor conditions makes one subservient to business interests which strive for profits, not people. Your local Stop and Shop would like nothing more than for you to forget that they continue to provide substandard wages and benefits to their employees. So, on behalf of Stop and Shop and the Ahold Delhaize Corporation: please ignore organized labor and continue to consume about in your Corporate America™ life.
Postface: Victory of the Vanquished
Upon the end of the strike with a tentative agreement between Stop and Shop and the UFCW, commentators were quick to judgement. Senator Richard Blumenthal called it “a win for all American workers,” and Elizabeth Warren saw it as proof that “when workers fight, workers win.” So can this be read as a victory against the modern American multinational? Not so fast. There is no doubt that protest and resistance can spur change, but there is no certainty other than legal certainty. Will anything change with the modern American canon being skewed against organized labor? It’s doubtful. It’s more likely, in fact, that union leaders and employees, with a false sense of security from a minor strike victory, will miss the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of big business and government lobbyists working to prevent future corporate losses from ever happening again. It’s happened before, and will happen again. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.