End of St. Louis grocery strike sends conflicting messages to strikers around the U.S., says labor expert

Neil Bernstein, an expert in labor law and legal issues relating to striking workers and a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, is closely following the grocery strikes. A member of the National Academy of Arbitrators, Bernstein serves as a mediator and consultant on labor and employment matters. He has followed labor issues for nearly a quarter of a century and most recently was a frequent commentator on the American Airlines employee disputes.

Neil Bernstein
Neil Bernstein

“The settlement of the grocery strike in St. Louis sends conflicting messages to the parties involved in similar strikes in California, West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky,” Bernstein says. “In St. Louis, the Union did achieve an important victory in convincing the employers to eliminate the annual deductibles that they tried to impose for the first time. On the other hand, the contract requires them to make larger co-payments for doctor visits and prescription drugs.”

Bernstein notes that the St. Louis settlement is a victory for the union, although it will probably not be felt in their paychecks. “The strike itself lasted long enough to create economic pressure on the companies, the employees, suppliers and customers, but it was ended before anyone suffered permanent harm,” Bernstein says. “It was a great victory for the Union and the employees in psychological terms, even whether or not their economic gains were worth the economic costs.”

In terms of the settlement’s impact on the other grocery strikes, Bernstein notes that “the St. Louis outcome will probably please the unions on strike in other locations more than it pleases management. It demonstrates that a group of workers who were willing to strike over management’s attempts to reduce their health insurance benefits can gain significant improvements in their compensation by their actions. They also showed that the public was willing to support them in spite of efforts by the employers to keep their stores open using temporary replacements. Management can take some comfort from the fact that the final contract may be better than the one initially offered, but it still is not particularly generous.”