The supermarket chain Stop & Shop has nearly 400 stores throughout New England, New York and New Jersey. Many of these stores may close if their employees' union orders them to strike.

The supermarket's contracts with its more than 40,000 employees expired in March. Unions representing these workers in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut were in constant negotiations with the company.

First, the workers voted to authorize a strike, but then workers gave their union leaders and management more time to reach a new contract. Under this extension, the workers won't stop working, at least for now.

What Is a Union?

A union is an organization of workers who come together to achieve common goals. Knowing there's power in numbers, they understand that collectively they can achieve their goals. The union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labor contracts with employers. This is called collective bargaining. They may also negotiate over:

  • Wages
  • Work rules
  • Complaint procedures
  • Hiring procedures
  • Firing and promotions
  • Benefits
  • Workplace safety, and
  • Policies

Agreements negotiated by the union leaders are binding on all of the union members and the employer.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) governs the rights of workers to unionize. Section 7 of the Act gives American workers the right to form or be a part of labor organizations.

How Do Workers Unionize?

The first step is for workers to show support for a union. Usually a petition is passed around for signing to show interest. It's filed with the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the group that enforces the NLRA. The NLRB determines if there's enough interest in forming a union. Usually, at least 30 percent of the work force must show interest.

If there is sufficient interest, the NLRB creates a bargaining unit and holds an election. If over 50 percent of the employees vote to join a particular union, the organization is "certified" and the employer is required to bargain with the organization.

Should You Join a Union?

When starting a new job, you may be faced with the decision to join or not join a union. Joining a union typically involves paying union fees and dues. Unions are common in professions involving manufacturing, teaching and film production. While a union can't force you to join, it's advantageous for you to join in some industries. For example, actors can't get major roles in movies unless they join the Screen Actors' Guild.

Whether or not you become a union member, the collective bargaining agreement reached between your employer and the union still benefits you.

How and Why Does a Union Strike?

When the employer doesn't meet certain conditions or contracts are set to expire, the union and employer negotiate a new contract. If the parties don't reach an agreement, employees may have the right to strike and the union can authorize it.

Can Striking Hurt Your Job?

Employees have the right to strike to gain better wages, benefits or working conditions. However, there is the potential you might lose your job depending on the reason for striking. Economic strikes and unfair labor practices are two acceptable reasons for striking.

Economic Strikes

If you're striking for economic issues, like workplace conditions or supporting your union's bargaining demands, your employer can't fire you. However, your employer can hire a permanent replacement for your job. When the strike ends, the replacement worker remains in the job and you, as a striking worker, need to wait until there's a vacancy.

Unfair Labor Practices

If you're striking because your employer committed unfair labor practices your employer can't replace you. If they do, you can demand immediate reinstatement when the strike ends.

When a collective bargaining agreement prohibits strikes (a "no-strike clause"), a strike could result in all striking employees fired for dereliction of duties.

What Triggered Shop & Stop's Strike?

Jim Carvalho, a union representative for 10,000 eastern Massachusetts Stop & Shop employees, explained they voted to strike after company negotiators insisted workers increase contributions to their health insurance and pension plans. He said the company also was unwilling to give annual wage increases and wants employees to accept bonuses instead. Negotiations have been going on for over a month, and depending on the progress of these talks, unions could agree to a further temporary extension or begin a strike.

What Will Happen?

Stop & Shop spokeswoman Faith Weiner said all 240 stores in the three states would remain open. As part of a strike contingency plan, Stop & Shop placed help-wanted ads in newspapers. Negotiations continue, but in the event an agreement isn't reached, the union may order a strike.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I have to strike if my union does?
  • Can I cross the picket line if I'm not in the union that's striking?
  • Can minors join a union?

Tagged as: Labor and Employment, labor strike, work stop