Folks driving past suburban Stop & Shop locations this week might wonder why laborers are suddenly concerned about food safety. To onlookers, the protesters at mini-malls from Dedham to Framingham likely appear to be good Samaritans in work boots who simply want to warn shoppers that, among other things, spiders may be nesting on grocery-store shelves.
As it turns out, though, these picketers are not motivated by goodwill alone. They're disgruntled Local 103 IBEW electricians who are applying organized pressure on management to hire union workers for wiring jobs at Stop & Shops statewide. (Currently, the food-retail behemoth does use IBEW tradesmen in the Boston area, where municipal orders dictate contractual obligations, but does not elsewhere in the commonwealth.)
To wage war on the Web, union operatives built stopandshopexposed.com — a simple blog that features six articles about dangers that may lurk down Stop & Shop aisles. In addition to the 2007 MetroWest Daily News story "Woman finds black widow spider in grapes" and last year's "Stop & Shop recalls tuna salad over Listeria fears" from the Boston Globe, the site also offers medical advice on how to "recognize the symptoms of a spider bite" and "protect your baby and yourself from Listeriosis."
"We strongly object to the claims," writes Stop & Shop Senior Director of Public Affairs Faith Weiner in a statement to the Phoenix. "The motive . . . has nothing to do with health care or food safety [but rather is] to force Stop & Shop . . . to hire Local 103 electricians on all building projects, regardless of cost."
"Unfortunately — especially in today's economy — unions are vilified," rebuts IBEW business agent Rich Antonellis, who claims Stop & Shop tends to contract cheaper, uninsured non-union workers. "You see it in the paper every day. But this isn't a union issue; it doesn't say it on our Web site, but this is a health-care issue more than anything else."
Local 103 organizers have previously employed similar tactics and yielded big results. Earlier this year — after six months of pickets in East Cambridge — Governor Deval Patrick publicly urged the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council to give unions "a fair shake." That campaign — dubbed "Stop Biotech Looting" — cast the target industry in an unflattering light, as did an offensive this past January against the North Shore Physicians Group. IBEW leaders accused that group of employing non-union contractors, and built a Web site to advertise purported malpractice claims against individual North Shore physicians. Soon after, the Local 103 was offered a contract for all future electrical work.
It's unclear which side will emerge the winner in this showdown, but recent history favors the electricians. Local 103's methods are sure to draw some ire — Howie Carr will likely throw a corporate pity party over this — but the union seems confident in its approach. "It's unfortunate that it's come to this," says Antonellis. "But it's the only way we can get them to hire contractors who pay a decent wage."