Nationally, there’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of preserving institutions and utilizing established processes to the fullest extent possible, and how they touch virtually all aspects of our lives and what we do in business. We recently saw an example of how management and labor successfully used long-accepted methods of dealing with each other to resolve a conflict.
Typically labor disputes are simplified by the media as essentially a battle in which workers are seeking higher wages.
But there was much more than the size of paychecks on the line in the recently concluded Stop & Shop strike in New England. Health care was also at stake not only for the workers, but for their families as well.
Something that went largely unnoticed was contained in the announcement by the United Food and Commercial Workers that its members had voted in favor of a new contract: “All Stop & Shop members will continue to have access to affordable and quality health care that maintains eligibility for spouses.”
Boston.com reported on the company’s “desire to implement a so-called ‘spousal exclusion’ to its family health care plan.” The exclusion would result in a denial of health care coverage for workers’ spouses who had coverage through their jobs. The union fought this proposal and said, if enacted, it would eliminate about 1,000 spouses from the family health plan. This would be done without considering the expense or quality of care provided by a spouse’s company.
And for those who think the strikers were alone in their fight, think again. It was reported that in a four-day period during the strike, a hardship fund received donations from more than 1,000 supporters.
There were politicians showing support for the workers on the picket lines. There was even a Boston hockey legend, Ray Bourque, who apologized for crossing a picket line. It was reported that strikers had pointed out his hypocrisy in crossing the line since he was in a union during his playing days on the ice.
The bottom line to the story, as reported by The New York Times: more than three months of negotiations; an 11-day strike; and more than 30,000 Stop & Shop employees impacted at over 240 locations, with most full-time workers earning $21.30 per hour. (Based on working 2,000 hours per year, that comes to an annual salary of $42,600.)
With some families in the U.S. paying close to $30,000 a year for health insurance, the importance of the health care-related aspect of the settlement can’t be overstated, as health insurance premiums and medical expenses not covered by insurance carry the potential to financially devastate middle-class and working-class families.
But the fight of the Stop & Shop workers must be understood in the larger context of what labor unions have done for everyone in the workforce, including executives and all who inhabit the white-collar world.
According to thinkprogress.org, it was labor unions that achieved widespread employer-provided health coverage. By 1950, half of all companies with fewer than 250 employees and two-thirds of companies with more than 250 workers offered health insurance.
Also, everyone who enjoys weekends of fun and leisure should think about the labor movement every Saturday and Sunday. The average workweek in 1870 was 61 hours. Unions subsequently used strikes to obtain the shorter workweeks that most of us take for granted today.
It is also important to keep in mind that for many American families, union membership represented an opportunity to escape crushing poverty characterized by low-skill, low-wage jobs and join the middle class, which represents the foundation for a vibrant consumer-focused economy.