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Health care at heart of Shaw’s strike

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse

For Shaw’s worker Mike Upton, “family comes first.” And that is why the 56-year-old from Lynn has been on strike for nearly three  months — to reclaim their health insurance. After working in Shaw’s distribution center in Methuen, Mass. for 15 years, Upton’s health benefits were abruptly cut in a new contract this year — making them “unaffordable” on his salary.

As a result, on March 7, Upton, along with 309 of his colleagues who faced a similar plight, went on strike.

 According to Steve Paviseau, a Methuen resident who has worked for Shaw’s for 14 years, the new contract decreased the company’s contribution to health care costs to just 1.5 percent — meaning workers would have to pay $135 each week just for health insurance.

 Upton added that basic services like mammograms and MRIs, which were once covered by their employee health plan, are no longer available under Shaw’s new contract.

And as Paviseau pointed out, the workers at the distribution center perform very physical labor, thus making health care coverage particularly important.

 Shifting these expenses onto Shaw’s workers comes as the overall cost of health care skyrockets throughout Massachusetts. According to Attorney General Martha Coakley, “health insurance premiums increase an average of 9 percent each year.”

 Paviseau also explained that Shaw’s has cut workers’ health care expenses by laying off many of its full-time employees and replacing them with part-timers who receive no benefits at all. The grocery chain justified these actions by claiming their Connecticut stores have performed badly in recent months and caused an overall loss in company profits.  

But Paviseau said he doesn’t understand why he should pay for the company’s bad business decisions.

Shaw’s is the second-largest grocery retailer in the Northeast after Stop and Shop, owns more than 180 stores throughout the region and employs more than 30,000 workers.

In 2009, Supervalu, which owns Shaw’s, brought in $44.5 billion in net sales.

But the workers want to be clear that they are not striking for money. “We’re not asking for a big pay raise,” Paviseau said. “The company made millions off our backs . . . we just wanted to be recognized and treated fairly.”

Craig Herkert, CEO and president of Supervalu, made more than  $2 million in total compensation last year — in addition to a $5 million stock award from the board and eligibility for a bonus of 150 percent base salary.

By April 1, Shaw’s terminated health care for the striking workers and their families, leaving more than 150 children and two 8-months pregnant women without coverage. The workers say they have consistently tried to negotiate with Shaw’s, including making concessions, but the company has repeatedly denied their requests for fair health coverage.

They were “absolutely unwilling to negotiate anything,” Upton said.

Angel Hernandez, who has worked for Shaw’s for 14 years, explained that the company’s policies do not just affect workers — they affect the community as well. “If we stay on unemployment and health care, it’s going to be taken from the government, which is going to hurt the community,” he said. “And we don’t want that. We want to contribute, instead of taking from the community.”

For Anthony Zuba, lead organizer for Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, the situation at Shaw’s is simply “immoral.”

Health care, he said, “shouldn’t be used as an economic weapon” against workers. Zuma and the ICWJ have been supporting the workers throughout the strike, organizing protests outside Shaw’s locations, and collecting food and other goods for the workers’ families.

A group of local clergy representing ICWJ sent a letter to the Shaw’s president, asking for a meeting to discuss the workers’ plight. When their request went unacknowledged, the assembly went to the company’s headquarters — but was removed by security.

Others have also come out in support of the Shaw’s workers. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents the workers, has helped to organize numerous activities, most importantly a march this week that concludes today in Boston.

The march, which began Sunday, covered the 60 miles between the Methuen distribution center to the Boston Statehouse. The 300 marching families spent nights at churches and synagogues along the way.

Local politicians have taken note of the workers’ plight even before they reached the Statehouse. Last week, 11 politicians, including Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Mike Capuano, wrote a letter to Herkert urging a fair settlement.

 For Steve Paviseau, “this is a bigger fight than just us.” This struggle, he explained, is fought on behalf of all workers.  And this is why he has continued for so long. “If they can break us,” he explained, “then anyone can break other unions.”