Former Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday at a rally in Dorchester that the 31,000 Stop & Shop workers on strike in New England are part of a movement to "take back this country."
"I know you're used to hearing political speeches, and I'm a politician. I get it," said Biden, who is mulling a White House bid in 2020. "But this is way beyond that, guys. This is way beyond that. This is wrong. This is morally wrong, what's going on around this country. And I have had enough of it. I'm sick of it, and so are you."
Biden, a Democrat, was quick to support members of the United Food & Commercial Workers union when they walked off the job last week.
Thursday's appearance in Boston gave Biden face time with a key Democratic constituency — blue-state union members — on the home turf of potential primary rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who already has entered the presidential race.
Workers greeted Biden warmly on a raw afternoon but did not swoon. A few "Run, Joe, Run" signs dotted the crowd, though the former VP's brief time onstage lacked the energy and enthusiasm that he might hope to generate at a campaign rally.
Some workers suggested Biden's visit might have been motivated, in part, by optics.
"Probably it's more benefiting him than us," said Peter Amati, a longtime florist at the Stop & Shop in Milford. "This is the right place."
Warren joined picketing Stop & Shop workers in Somerville last Friday, saying, "Unions built America's middle class, and unions will rebuild America's middle class."
Biden's message was similar, though he delivered it without the offering of Dunkin' doughnuts that Warren brought along.
Stop & Shop workers went on strike to protest the company's proposed changes to their wages and benefits. Labor contracts for five UFCW chapters in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island expired Feb. 23, and the two sides have been unable to agree to new terms, despite meeting with a federal mediator.
Stop & Shop, a subsidiary of the Dutch conglomerate Ahold Delhaize, is asking workers to contribute more to their health-insurance premiums. The company says workers currently pay an average of 8.2 percent of the cost of single coverage and 6.6 percent of the cost of family coverage. Those contributions are well below national averages, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's 2018 Employer Health Benefit Survey.
Stop & Shop also wants to reduce pensions for some workers, arguing that the company is an industry outlier and is therefore at a competitive disadvantage. Stop & Shop said it wants to freeze its monthly pension-fund contribution for new, full-time workers. Pension payments for part-time workers hired after Feb. 23, 2014, would also stop increasing, under the company's proposal.
In addition, Stop & Shop wants to freeze the 50 percent hourly bonus paid to part-time workers on Sundays. New, part-time hires would receive smaller bonuses: an extra $1 per hour for the first year of employment and $2 per hour after that.
The eight-day strike has shuttered some Stop & Shop stores and slowed business at others, as the company offers reduced hours and limited food selections.
Picketers are going without pay and say they don't expect much financial assistance from the union. Paul Batista, a butcher at the Stop & Shop on Everett Street in Allston, told WBUR this week that the union won't begin to make up for lost wages until the strike hits the two-week mark, and checks will be just $100 per week for full-time workers and $50 per week for part timers.
Batista added that May 1 is an important date for striking Stop & Shop workers. That's when company-sponsored health insurance will lapse, he said.
Strikers can apply for unemployment benefits but might not receive them. According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, "employees participating in a labor dispute (i.e., strike) that results in a substantial curtailment of the employer's business do not qualify for benefits."