News & Events

Shaw’s workers start 1st leg of 60-mile march

Journey will end with State House rally

By Sarah Schweitzer, Globe Staff  |  May 24, 2010

METHUEN — Before shoppers step into a Shaw’s Supermarket, Laurie Mahoney would like them to think about her daughter, Ryleigh.

The 3-year-old has a condition that has left her blind in one eye and in need of frequent medical consultation, creating costs that Mahoney says are prohibitive under the company’s proposed health care provisions for warehouse workers like herself.

“I dedicated my whole adult working life to this place,’’ said Mahoney, 38, waving a hand at the sprawling Shaw’s Perishable Distribution Center where she has worked for 19 years. “And now that I need affordable health care, they are trying to take it away.’’

Mahoney was among 80 Shaw’s warehouse workers who marched from the company’s Methuen distribution center to Lawrence yesterday, the first leg of a 60-mile, five-day march marking the start of the twelfth week of a strike by company workers. The march will end in Reading today, travel to Medford tomorrow, to Cambridge Wednesday, and culminate Thursday with afternoon rallies at the State House and the Prudential Center.

The striking workers — some 240, down from the original 306 after some workers crossed the picket line and some retired — have been picketing 20 company stores since March 7 when they rejected a contract offer from the company that workers said would have resulted in the loss of $28 per week, or about $1,456 annually for people on the family health insurance plans.

A company spokeswoman, Judy Chong, said in an e-mailed statement, “Our offer provided a comprehensive health care plan with employee contributions below the regional and national averages.’’

Peter Derouen, a spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 791, said: “I don’t know what the company is using as a comparison, whether they are comparing union or non-union workers. In terms of unionized supermarket workers, we pay higher contributions than most plans, but the members agreed to pay more because they have a comprehensive level of benefits.’’

Shaw’s parent company is Minnesota-based Supervalu, which earned $40.6 billion in net sales in fiscal 2010, a drop of $4 billion from the previous year, according to its annual statement. For striking workers, three months without paychecks has meant privations and for some, financial risk.

Christian Ovalles, 36, a father of four, has worked at the distribution center for eight years. Since he went on strike, his wife, a special education teacher in Haverhill, has picked up a second job tutoring. But it’s not enough. They are three months behind on their mortgage.

“What’s so hard to know is: When does he stop doing this and find something else?’’ said his wife, Caitlynd Jerez. “But it’s hard because he’s been here so long and what are the chances he’d find something that pays as well?’’

Workers have been aided by a strike relief fund that has raised about $150,000 in contributions from other labor unions, community groups, and individuals. Many workers became eligible for unemployment starting the week of May 1. The workers lost health insurance on April 1.

Laboring at the warehouse is arduous, striking workers said. The warehouse is chilled to 34 degrees, and the loads that must be lifted can weigh up to 90 pounds. Pay is good, averaging between $18 and $19 hourly, but reasonably so, they say. “There is no sitting around; this is a very labor intensive job,’’ Derouen said

Since the strike began, Derouen said, the union has been able to stave off the direst consequences for its workers, such as evictions and utility shut-offs.

Chong, in a written statement said, “The union continues to be unrealistic and is placing their own members in unfortunate circumstances.’’

Among the hardest-hit striking workers is Juan Arias, 46, of Lawrence. He was behind on his mortgage when on May 17 the three-decker he co-owns burned to the ground in a fire caused by a visiting 6-year-old child who was playing with matches.

Now, he and his wife and children are homeless and he is uncertain how the bank will proceed.

Meanwhile, he waits to see what will happen to the job he held for 11 years at the distribution center where he made $19.50 an hour.

“This is why the company doesn’t like it,’’ Arias said. “People are making good money, and they don’t want to pay it.’’

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at