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Know Where Your Bread and Butter Come From

Guest Column Gretchen K. Aleks

Welcome freshmen! This phrase has echoed throughout campus since your arrival; you’ve heard it from upperclassmen in the dorms, orientation facilitators, and even the MIT administration. There are other entities that are very welcoming to new students: I’m sure everyone has seen the Fleet Bank and COOP representatives in the student center who recognize that new students mean a whole new generation to hook on their convenient, yet overpriced, goods and services.

Soon, you’ll meet with another corporation trying to lure you in with their convenient location: Star Market. In a week, when you’ve seen every meal cycled through at least once at Lobdell, and you realize how much you’re paying for food that most people wouldn’t feed their dog, grocery shopping starts to look like a good option. However, there are a couple things the informed MIT student should know before they set foot in Star.

Star Market, to put it bluntly, abuses its employees. Recently, Shaw’s Supermarket, a company whose workers have been represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), bought out Star Market, a historically non-union chain. The UFCW approached Shaw’s with the request that they be allowed to unionize Star Market workers, since they now fall under the aegis of Shaw’s. Not only did Shaw’s refuse to allow the UFCW to approach Star workers with information on voting for unionization, but Shaw’s began reneging on the contract it had reached through collective bargaining with Shaw’s employees, attempting to force the UFCW to have a two-front fight: protecting its current members at Shaw’s, while unionizing Star Market workers.

Why is blocking the unionization of its supermarkets an abusive, not to mention illegal, action by Star? An employee union at Star is necessary to ensure that its workers have an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families. Most Star Market employees work part-time, not out of choice, but because the management does not want full-time employees who require additional benefits, such as partially subsidized health insurance. For these part time workers, the hours they work in a week are highly variable, based on a capricious managerial decision. A union could ensure that part-time workers have guaranteed hours. Not only do most Star employees work fewer hours than they’d like, but their pay for the hours they can work is pitiful -- under eight dollars an hour. In Boston -- a city with one of the highest cost of living indexes in the country -- this hardly represents a living wage. The hardships incurred by low wages are only compounded by the fact that part-time workers do not have health insurance, and full-time workers pay triple the weekly cost for health insurance than do union employees.

MIT students provide substantial business to the Star Market in University Park, and others throughout the city. Rather than continuing to support an organization that has no sense of common decency, we should write letters to Star management explaining our decision not to shop at a supermarket that disdains its workers, and then follow through by exploring other grocery stores in the Boston-Cambridge area. Trader Joe’s -- which has locations on Boylston Street across from the Prudential as well as on Memorial Drive just past Tang Hall -- sells many grocery staples and is easily reachable from campus. Bread and Circus is an all-purpose grocery store with multiple locations in Cambridge and a new store opening in Boston. Additionally, a Harvest Coop is open in Central Square, and anyone looking to buy inexpensive produce can shop at Haymarket by Faneuil Hall on Fridays and Saturdays. With so many options available -- and accessible -- it makes little sense to support a company with such an atrocious labor record as Star Market.

Gretchen K. Aleks is a member of the Class of 2004.