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Grocery’s long war: Part I

Weak wage growth, and cutting full-time jobs, have been hallmark features of a long war on grocery workers across the continent

Canadian PoliticsLabour

Workers participate in Manitoba’s 1987 Westfair strike. In the summer of that year, grocery store workers at 12 Westfair stores went on a bitter 125-day strike against a company push to drive down the standards established by collective bargaining. Photo courtesy of Rankandfile.ca.

In 2013, Toronto Life magazine ran a story on Galen and Hilary Weston’s vacation community in Vero, Florida. The Westons, who come from Canada’s third-richest family, call it “Windsor.” As the owners of Loblaws retailers, Holt Renfrew, and Shoppers Drug Mart, Toronto Life reported how the Westons “transformed 168 hectares of former citrus groves into an enclave of 226 houses,” all worth millions of dollars. It is described as “part country club, part corporate retreat,” and boasts pools, fountains, golf courses, a theatre, and an equestrian centre. It’s all designed to entertain themselves and the CEOs, royals and other VIPs that visit—a veritable “plutocrats’ playground.”

Today, Loblaws, the jewel of the Weston corporate crown, is in the news again. Some 1,400 workers at Loblaws-owned Dominion grocery stores in Newfoundland and Labrador are on strike, having rejected their most recent offer from the company.

The striking workers, members of Unifor Local 597, have unified around the recent rollback of $2 pandemic pay, which the three largest grocery companies collaborated on taking away in unison. Meanwhile, families like the Westons saw their wealth boom by the billions since the March lockdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Local 597 workers are also focused on longer-term issues over stagnant wages and the destruction of full-time jobs. One key slogan is “Fair Pay Forever.”

Weak wage growth, and cutting full-time jobs, have been hallmark features of a long war on grocery workers across the continent. Before the 1980s, grocery work in Canada was generally characterized by its stability and the standard of living it afforded. Employers usually “did not resist unionization and offered decent wages and working conditions,” according to labour researcher Jason Foster in his recent book Defying Expectations. Even benefits like company pensions were common enough.

During a global health crisis that has wrecked economies and impoverished workers around the world, Canadian billionaires got richer, gaining $37 billion since March.

Union strength in the sector grew in the mid-twentieth century, which in turn helped workers secure and protect benefits. Compared to other retail work, grocery jobs could be quite attractive. “Back then, it was a career,” says Susan Hart-Kulbaba, who worked at Safeway in Manitoba, and was a member of UFCW Local 832. She was also the first female leader of the Manitoba Federation of Labour.

Then came the 1980s and 1990s. All the major grocery retailers in those decades began slashing their overhead costs as unionized stores faced increasing competition from huge, non-union big-box multinationals like Wal-Mart and Costco, as well as discount banners. Corporate free trade agreements made matters even worse.

Employers saw labour as their most controllable cost. They went to war with the grocery unions to hire part-time workers en masse, in what Foster regards as having the most “enduring” impact on the industry. There were also new efforts at rolling back wages and benefits, and cutting hours, by using labour-saving technologies like electric scanners. According to Foster, these moves effectively “destabilized” the industry, creating a new reality that few unions in Canada were prepared to confront. Within a few short years, good jobs turned bad in a bid to boost profits and drive down prices.

The grocery work of today all happens in this new reality. Wages remain stagnant, while employers have cried poor when facing provincial minimum wage hikes. Galen Weston Jr., along with Sobeys and Metro executives, have been vocally opposed to $15 minimum wage demands in numerous provinces.

Benefits packages have been stripped away, often only available to the small numbers of full-time workers. Cost-saving technologies and other Taylorist reforms like self-scanners continue to threaten workers with displacement and obsolescence.

Most work is part-time, and has led to depressed wages and “two-tier” collective agreements. The latter case has led to substantially worse conditions for everyone, but particularly part-time staff. This two-tier wage structure is what leads to women and racialized workers being paid less on average for the same work as men.

But the corporations have not just steamrolled workers. As in other industries, grocery workers hit the picket lines many times throughout the 1980s and 1990s. One important battle was the 1987 Westfair strike in Manitoba involving UFCW Local 832.

While the primary issues for the union were hours and seniority, as historian Scott Price observes, an important aspect for grocery workers was the introduction of “departmental assistants” to bring about a “two-tier wage structure.” Westfair was not adjusting business strategies so much as it was “trying to create the kind of business model they wanted to compete in grocery retail and become the major player in that market.” Westfair’s drive for “low overhead costs, mostly part-time staff, [and] little to no benefits” set the template for today’s Superstores. After the strike, which turned out to be neither much of a win or a loss, the “departmental assistant” position remained in place.

But it was labour strife in the early 1990s that really demonstrated the massive challenges that workers faced from corporate restructuring—as well as the labour movement’s acceptance of catastrophic concessions. A number of examples between 1990 and 1993 demonstrate what happened.

First, in 1990, the UFCW in Ontario bargained away wage increases every six months in favour of wage progression based on hours worked. According to labour researcher Jan Kainer, the new contract signed with Loblaws “altered the conventional wage structure in food retail.” This structure, still in place today, creates a ladder that is staggeringly difficult to climb for hour-deficient part-time workers. With this agreement in place, other employers were compelled to press for concessions.

In 1993, Alberta Safeway workers and members of UFCW Local 401 secured an awful deal bargained by union executives. As Foster illustrates in his study of Local 401, the company claimed they were on the brink of collapse, leading to a contract that allowed a “virtually unlimited use of part-time workers” and huge wage rollbacks, as well as “buyouts” to destroy seniority and full-time jobs. “In their negotiations [Safeway] were suffering apparently,” said Lorraine Stalknecht, a worker at Safeway and later President of the Fort McMurray and District Labour Council. “They needed people to take cutbacks. The union really believed them, and the president or CEO at the time was promising them that once they got their monies back, they would share the wealth.”

Buyouts, as Kainer notes, allowed the employer to permanently eliminate full-time as well as high-seniority part-time positions and replace them with new, worse part-time positions—which in turn dropped the pay scale for existing part-timers.

Oftentimes, workers would accept buyouts, then employers would rehire these already-trained workers at a worse pay rate, and with fewer hours. Moves like these further entrenched unequal pay for equal work across the entire industry, widening the divide between full- and part-time workers while simultaneously squeezing out the decent full-time jobs that remained. Given their overrepresentation in part-time grocery work, Kainer notes that women often felt the brunt of these industry-wide changes.

It’s worth noting that, four years after this deal, in 1997, Alberta Safeway workers again went on strike for 74 days in opposition to the two-tier wage structure and to address some of the losses from 1993. Though the strike demonstrated that workers wouldn’t be pushed around, it was still (mostly) deemed a defeat.

Another key battle erupted in 1993 across 63 Miracle Food Mart stores owned by A&P in Ontario. Over 6,500 workers in two UFCW locals engaged in what is regarded as “one of the longest strikes in the history of retail in Canada.” The story of the three-month strike captures the period in two key ways: the employer’s ramped-up attack to secure wage cuts (which were worse for part-timers) and proliferate part-time work; and the brutal union concessions that came of it.

Like other employers during this era, Miracle Food Mart (MFM) played hardball, proposing to slash their way to greater profits. “I can’t afford to be out on strike, but I can’t afford to take a wage cut, either,” Paddy Noble, a worker from Georgetown, Ontario, told the Toronto Star in November of that year. Later in the article, the company reiterated its desire for “competitive labor costs.”

Local 175 picketers. Credit: Richard Lautens. Photo courtesy of the Toronto Star Archives.

Though workers were resolute, the results of the bitter strike were disastrous. In her examination of the strike, Kainer comments that the union engaged in full-blown concession bargaining. The result was a (slightly better) $1.75 across-the-board wage cut and, thanks to the precedent set by the 1993 Safeway strike, buyouts for workers to kill seniority and jobs. Many of the full-time job classifications that typically employed women at a full-time level were eliminated province-wide. As well, 26 articles of the contract that was eventually brokered were violated by the company so that the slashing could continue. MFM had also violated the provincial anti-scab law that was on the books at the time, leading to an order to stop from the Ontario Labour Relations Board. The assault proved to be too much to stave off.

Overall, relations in this period resulted not just in substantially worse material conditions, but drove a wedge between full-time and part-time workers. Employees were pitted against each other through two-tier bargaining, and concrete issues like hours, benefits, and wages. Following these defeats, the aggressive restructuring spread across—and became entrenched in—the entire industry. Store by store, standards were rolled back; concessions made on the backs of workers.

Put simply, grocery unions were not ready for the fight. Citing reduced profits and competitive disadvantages, employers threatened everything from mass layoffs to store shutdowns. They bargained aggressively, in some cases even contravening contracts and laws, to get what they wanted.

Mostly unseen in the industry, the scale of these threats and attacks determined the bargaining arithmetic for unions that suddenly feared for the survival of their locals, to say nothing about their jobs. Strike funds were ravaged, leaving many unions in financial ruin and severely limiting how, and for how long, they could fight. This point is crucial. And it’s worth noting that retail unions in general must contend with the logistical challenges of marshalling a membership fragmented both geographically, and along part-time and full-time lines. These problems are of course exacerbated when the employer’s offense involves hour-cutting, further atomizing the workforce.

Grocery unions were also bargaining against the grim backdrop of massive private sector union defeats among autoworkers, steelworkers, trucking, construction, and more. This was an unquestionably difficult time for the labour movement, and the outcomes of these battles must be understood in that context. But is there more to the story?

To many, the defeats were not solely attributable to an unrelenting business attack. The brutal concessions have also been explained as an example of business unionism and its legacy in the food retail sector. As Foster writes, the long period before employers went on the offensive had “bred a cozy, cooperative relationship between management and the unions representing the workers.”

Inherent in this arrangement was a highly-regulated industrial relations regime, which functioned through mutual respect and bargaining in good faith. In food retail, Foster illustrates, business unionism was apparent early on with many employers voluntarily recognizing certification, a flimsy model on which unions are sometimes built.

In some cases, wages and working conditions were decent to start with; in others, they were won by workers in strikes or other job actions, and not often threatened in a serious way. This helped minimize militancy among grocery workers, but also reduced the amount of effort unions spent on building up the membership’s capacity through training and education. Bargaining was mostly done behind doors and with limited avenues for democratic engagement with membership. For many decades, and still today, many unions did not build and maintain their potential strength. As a result, their collective muscle atrophied, if it ever existed at all.

As stores aggressively restructured in the 1980s and 1990s, this weakening had severe consequences. Union leadership at large, writes Kainer, fell victim to the “old pattern of negotiations.” They found themselves either unready (or incapable) of mounting meaningful challenges to the radically changing circumstances. They did not come to terms with how low employers were willing to go.

Nor did they believe they could command the collective strength of their membership—now significantly divided along part- and full-time lines—to militantly carry out the fight. Many simply fought harder, subsisting on strike pay for months as they marched cold picket lines. But successfully staving off restructuring would have required mass militancy scaled to the level of employers’ vicious attacks (as well as hard-headed leadership).

Of course, the unions themselves had a role to play in this. Many staunch activists did exist within the ranks, but building this base of power on the shop floor was, throughout grocery unionism’s long history, a low priority.

And yet, the “business unionism” story is often oversimplified in many ways. All histories have texture, exceptions, and broader considerations. But at a general level, it can be concluded that many decades of divestment in membership ultimately underdeveloped what could have been a more effective and collective response to the employer’s offensive, making the question of concessions a more long-term issue than a few strategic missteps.

The story of grocery’s aggressive low-wage, part-time restructuring is, then, a broader history of the vicious rollbacks of the 1980s and 1990s. But it’s also partly a history of labour bureaucracy and of how a bill had come due. The result was a mostly unchecked assault across the entire industry that decimated the key benefits that characterized grocery work for half a century prior. “Within a very short period of time,” Kainer observed in 1998, “‘good jobs’ in the industry have been transformed into ‘bad jobs.’”

But the story is still being written. Given the demographics and high union density of grocery work, opportunities and possibilities of the store as a site of youthful, intersectional labour militancy are clear. But how is that being built now? And how might it be built in the future?

With files and assistance from Doug Nesbitt.

Dan Darrah is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

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