Chris Powell: Nursing-home workers have better claim than Stop & Shop's

Stop & Shop’s headquarters, in Quincy, Mass

Stop & Shop’s headquarters, in Quincy, Mass


Are all those Connecticut elected officials who have been joining the picket lines in the strike by the United Food and Commercial Workers union against Stop & Shop experts in the supermarket business? Or are the only numbers that matter to them the numbers of their constituents on strike as compared to the numbers of the supermarket chain's Dutch owners who can vote in Connecticut?

A few days ago U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal boasted that he had told Stop & Shop's president to do better by his employees. But the senator didn't say how he came to that judgment.

The supermarket business is high-volume, low-margin and extremely competitive. Most of its labor is not highly skilled and so is difficult to unionize. Organizing it and keeping it organized as the UFCW has done at Stop & Shop is an achievement.

But that doesn't make the company's contract offer unfair. Not being unionized, the company's competitors enjoy substantial advantages over Stop & Shop and more easily can offer better prices to their customers.

So what does anyone outside the business really know about who is right or wrong in the dispute, or if there is any right or wrong rather than mere self-interest?

Meanwhile, a far more compelling labor dispute is developing in the state.

Workers at 20 nursing homes, members of the New England Health Care Employees Union, are threatening to strike May 1, and their wages and benefits are largely matters of state government appropriation. That's because most nursing-home patients are welfare recipients and what the nursing homes pay their employees is determined mainly by how much state government pays the nursing homes.

The nursing-home workers are not highly skilled either and organizing them is as much a challenge as it is to organize supermarket workers. But the work of nursing home employees, caring for the infirm and disabled, can be much more tedious.

While state government treats its direct employees luxuriously because of their political mobilization, it always has treated the nursing-home workers poorly, controlling patient reimbursements so tightly that raises have been tiny and have badly lagged inflation.

The nursing-home workers union wants state government to appropriate enough for 4 percent raises in each of the next two years. While that may seem high, it is not when averaged with the meager raises of the last decade.

But it would be hard for state government to appropriate such raises for the unionized nursing homes and not for the scores of other homes. So big money is at issue here even as state government faces a budget gap of $1.5 billion or more.

Despite that gap, Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration and the Democratic majority in the General Assembly lately have been approving substantial raises for unionized state employee bargaining units and even approving the unionization of supervisors who should not be unionized at all. Further, the jobs and compensation of all state employees have been guaranteed for years to come by the Malloy administration's infamous long-term contract with the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition.

In these labor issues the nursing home workers are plainly far more deserving. But when fairness requires direct state appropriations for people who are not politically influential, the politicians are not as eager to be photographed.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.