Hundreds of striking Stop & Shop workers and friends in the labor community received a pep talk Thursday afternoon from former Vice President Joe Biden, who visited Dorchester to lend his support to the workers fighting proposed reductions in health care and retirement benefits.
Biden, a Delaware Democrat and likely presidential candidate, headlined a spirited rally outside the South Bay Center Stop & Shop where striking workers marched in a picket line outside the grocery store. Hundreds of supporters, including many from other unions, gathered to hear from prominent labor and political leaders.
Arriving under a light rain more than an hour into the rally, Biden spoke from the back of a Teamsters Local 25 flatbed, telling the pro-union crowd that he's seen examples across the country of workers not being treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.
"I know you're used to hearing political speeches and I'm a politician, I get it. But this is way beyond that, guys. This is way beyond that," Biden said. "This is wrong. This is morally wrong, what's going on around this country, and I've had enough of it. I'm sick of it. And so are you."
Biden faulted the parent company of Stop & Shop, Ahold Delhaize, for seeking concessions from workers after netting nearly $4 billion in profits over two years and getting what he said was a $250 million tax cut "through that scam that the president put through."
He also questioned the move by the company to buy back billions worth of stock to increase the value of remaining shares to the benefit of shareholders and top executives.
"Let me get something straight with you all. Wall Street bankers and CEOs did not build America. You built America," Biden said. "Middle class people built America."
"And you know who built the middle class? Unions," Biden said.
The visit from the former senator and vice president came eight days into a strike that began last Thursday when 31,000 employees walked off the job in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Employees say they're being asked to accept minimal wage increases and make concessions on health care and pension benefits, while Stop & Shop said it has proposed a fair contract, in line with what other large corporations offer. The company's contract proposal includes an offer to pay at least 92 percent of health premiums for family coverage and at least 88 percent for individual coverage. Spouses would be eligible for coverage unless their own employer offers a plan.
Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance spokesman Paul Craney blamed the strike on "out of touch" union bosses who are doing their members and customers a disservice.
"As millions of Massachusetts taxpayers pay their taxes this week, it would be more appropriate for [Boston] Mayor [Martin] Walsh and Vice President Biden to show some warm feelings toward our state's employers, rather than just joining the picket line. The Vice President should make time to meet with employers. It's a great opportunity for an elected official to figuratively give our employer community a warm embrace," Craney said in a statement.
The Stop & Shop strike has drawn attention and support from scores of elected officials, including many of the Democrats running for president. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren brought Dunkin' to picketing workers in Somerville last Friday, while other White House contenders like U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have issued statements.
The rally in Dorchester at the tail end of school-vacation week also drew a crowd of state lawmakers, including Sens. Nick Collins, Marc Pacheco and Walter Timilty, and Reps. Claire Cronin, John Rogers, Stephan Hay, David Robertson, Patrick Kearney, Elizabeth Malia, David Biele, Michelle DuBois and Tommy Vitolo.
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey said he's visited with striking workers outside stores in Quincy and Malden over the past week.
"You are what has made Stop & Shop the success that it has become," Markey said at the South Bay rally, calling the corporate contract offer "drastic and unreasonable" and accusing the company of wanting to replace workers with automated check-outs.
"Nothing can replace the friendly face at the butcher counter or the bakery," he said.
Negotiations continue, and Biden told labor leaders to hold firm: "Don't give up," he said.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh introduced Biden at the rally that also included speeches from labor leaders like AFL-CIO of Massachusetts President Steve Tolman, Treasurer Deb Goldberg, and workers like Yvonne Bento of Swansea.
Bento works at the Stop & Shop in Somerset, and said she has been with the company two decades -- since she was 16.
"You're giving me a 50 cent raise to hike my health insurance? Shame on you, Stop and Shop," Bento said.
Tolman said Ahold USA was putting the interests of stockholders ahead of workers. "Robots and self-checkout will never replace human beings," he said.
Goldberg, whose family founded the company in the early 1900s and ran it until the late 80s, said her grandfather "would be wanting to kill himself if he saw this."
The treasurer has said her family valued employees and the unions that represented them, asking, "How far can Wall Street greed go?" She said her parents sent her to the rally to tell workers that they stand with them.
"We are all one family. This breaks my heart," she said.
After the rally, neither Biden nor Walsh took questions, but Goldberg said she appreciated the former vice president lending his voice to the cause.
Goldberg has not yet endorsed in the Democratic primary for president, but when asked about Biden said, "I do think Joe Biden should run. I do."