Shaw’s strikers borrow from history

March inspired by farm actions in ’60s

Employees walked a picket line outside a Shaw’s in Somerville. Employees walked a picket line outside a Shaw’s in Somerville. (Josh Reynolds File)
By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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When striking Shaw’s warehouse workers embark on a five-day march this weekend to draw renewed attention to their nearly three-month fight against the supermarket company, they will also be evoking the civil rights and farm workers’ marches of the 1960s.

“It’s interesting that the leaders are turning to the history of social movements to find tactics that will attract public attention,’’ said James Green, a labor historian at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “Historically, of course, this was very common and often very effective.’’

Marches like this don’t take place very often anymore, but drastic action is necessary to get the public’s attention, organizers said. The 300 warehouse workers walked off the job on March 7, largely over rising health care costs, and the union has been holding pickets at about 16 local Shaw’s stores ever since.

“You can’t win a strike these days, generally speaking, just walking around on a picket line,’’ said Russ Davis, executive director of Jobs With Justice, which helped plan the march.

The march will go a long way to dramatize the work stoppage, he said: “Frankly, 12 weeks into a strike, what’s the news? They’re still on strike.’’

Shortly after the strike began, Shaw’s Supermarkets Inc., owned by Supervalu, cut off the workers’ health benefits and hired replacement workers to operate the forklifts and process orders in the 34-degree warehouse. Shaw’s declined to comment on the march, but said that more than 50 of the warehouse workers are back.

“Almost three months ago, the union walked away from well-paying jobs, excellent health care, and very generous retirement benefits,’’ said spokeswoman Judy Chong. “The union continues to be unrealistic and is placing their own members in unfortunate circumstances.’’

The Shaw’s march is modeled after the march from Delano, Calif., to Sacramento organized by United Farm Workers founder César Chávez in 1966, organizers said. It will begin Sunday at the distribution center in Methuen and culminate Thursday with a rally at the State House and a final push to the Shaw’s at Prudential Center. Between 20 and 50 people a day are expected to walk along Route 28, visiting Shaw’s stores and the Verizon call center in Andover, among other stops, on what organizers estimate will be a 60-mile march. The workers will spend the night at churches in Reading and Medford and at a temple in Somerville, adding aspects of a religious pilgrimage to the march, Davis said.

About a dozen people, including warehouse worker Mike Upton, 56, plan to walk the entire route. “I don’t know if this old body can withstand that,’’ he said. “I’m willing to walk 60 miles to prove a point . . . Will they be bringing me to the hospital? That’s a maybe.’’

Support for the warehouse workers has been growing. On Monday, Senator John F. Kerry, Representative Michael Capuano, and nine other Massachusetts congressional leaders sent a letter to the chief executives of Shaw’s and Supervalu, addressing the “talks that seemed to have perilously broken down’’ and urging them to go back to bargaining table. More than 80 faith leaders are drafting a letter to the Supervalu chief, and the UFCW International Union is calling for a boycott of Supervalu stores across the country.

Shaw’s is in a sensitive position, said Green of UMass-Boston, citing the strikers’ ability to convince consumers to shop elsewhere. He said it will be tough to top the power of the 1903 Mother Jones-led march of 100 child workers from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s Long Island home to abolish child labor, but the Shaw’s march from Methuen could push the company into action.

Of course, that would mean pushing the public into action, too. Robert Gendraw of Dorchester shops at the Shaw’s on Morrissey Boulevard, and said he hasn’t changed his habits because of the picket line outside.

“It just has nothing to do with me,’’ he said.

K atie Johnston Chase can be reached at