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Mayworks 1

Grocery’s long war: Part II

Workers at grocery chains across Canada have seen their world replaced by a low-wage, low-benefit, part-time reality

Labour

A group of Dominion employees block the entrance to the parking lot as they strike at the Blackmarsh Road location in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Photo by Andrew Waterman/The Telegram.

In part one of this series, we explored how good jobs turned bad in the grocery sector as a result of a country-wide corporate attack. By replacing full-timers with part-timers, smashing benefits, and flattening wages, retailers across Canada redefined the sector in the 1980s and 1990s. Workers fought back, but found themselves disadvantaged by the scale of the attack and the long historical tendency toward “business unionism” within the labour movement. The story picks up in the 2000s, where grocery’s long war continues.


“Everybody fought for everybody else.”

Following the corporate attacks of the 1980s and 1990s, and their attending defeats, grocery workers across the country ended the century in a workplace radically different from the one that existed several decades earlier. Workers who spent years making careers at supermarkets watched as their former world unraveled in a few short years and was replaced by a new low-wage, low-benefit, part-time reality.

By the new millennium, these labour practices were the bedrock of the sector’s business structure. It is now so deeply entrenched that the idea of decent work at the big, profitable supermarket chains seems hard to imagine. To many in the business, it’s even harder to imagine that life with decent wages and benefits ever existed at all.

Luckily, grocery workers have not given up the fight. New blood, mounting grievances, and a determination to extract concessions from employers have led to significant battles. Some of them have been very successful, like the 2013 Superstore strike in Alberta.

Within grocery workers’ unions, there have been examples of membership training, reforms to promote democracy, and rank-and-file militancy. Although these proved promising, grocery work is still far from winning back the modest standards of the past. Grocery unions are still fighting company by company, and province by province, against a cartel of corporations spanning the continent.

Striking Dominion workers at the Loblaw Distribution Centre in St. John’s. Photo by Unifor Local 597/Facebook.

Local 597 hits the picket line

“Our police have been reduced to doing the bidding of billionaires,” wrote Unifor rep Sharon Walsh after the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) showed up at grocery worker picket lines this summer. “This is public funds protecting billionaires assets against minimum wage [workers].”

In Newfoundland, a grocery strike at Loblaw-owned Dominion stores disrupted business as usual. Walking off the job on August 22, grocery workers spent 12 weeks on the picket lines in a brutal fight for full-time work and the restoration of $2/hour pandemic pay. The cartel of big grocery corporations suspended this special provision in June.

The strike demonstrated incredible tenacity—perhaps the most among any recent grocery strike. The workers were taking on Loblaws, the largest grocery corporation in the country, and its owner, Galen Weston Jr., the third-wealthiest Canadian. During the COVID-19 crisis, these workers were the first to take on Canada’s largest food distributor and its bosses.

As the strike dragged on, workers turned up the heat. Pickets began spreading out, targeting other Loblaws-owned banners like No Frills. They also organized secondary pickets at a subsidiary Weston bakery and distribution centres in different parts of the country, like the massive Loblaws warehouse in Ajax, Ontario.

Secondary picketing cost the company big money, emptied some store shelves, and raised the strike’s profile. It was then that the RNC volunteered their services to the corporation. Despite not having an injunction, police leapt at the union-busting opportunity, and showed up at the secondary picket lines threatening arrests.

With the police threatening violence, workers were told by union leadership to err on the side of safety and head home. They didn’t. They marched to police headquarters and protested.

After another visit from the police a few days later, a mediator got involved. It became clear that Loblaws, known for its hard-headedness and cutthroat commitment to remaining “competitive,” had no intention of budging. The union agreed to put a “final offer” to the membership, and voting began on the weekend of November 7, lasting through to the following week. That same week, the company announced that it beat their profit expectations for the third quarter of 2020 (July-September).

On November 13, the result of the vote was released. To the dismay of many members, workers voted to ratify the contract and the strike was over for almost no gain. The local even acknowledged a feeling of defeat. For example, there are reports that 22 of the 60 full-time job cuts have been restored, but those who lost full-time hours must reapply. Others have reported getting a gift card to Dominion stores as part of the settlement. An anonymous source relayed that, per Canada Revenue Agency rules, the gift cards will be treated as taxable income.

As yet, Unifor and Loblaw have not released the vote numbers. A source inside the union told Canadian Dimension that both the employer and union plan to continue withholding the results for the foreseeable future. Another source mentioned that the company—and it is unclear whether this is occurring at the corporate level, or just among individual stores—has discouraged talk about the strike on social media and in the workplace, including to customers.

Workers speak out

In interviews with Canadian Dimension, Unifor members spoke about the strike and the lessons that might be learned for grocery workers and the wider labour movement.

Brittany*, a Dominion worker, offered some insight. At her store, a perfect storm of full time job cuts, attacks on seniority, and the elimination of pandemic pay pushed workers to strike at the expiry of their contract. Another important factor was the company’s cavalier use of “part-time” classification, an infamous practice in the Loblaw playbook.

“A lot of people were fed up by then,” she says, “because part-timers [were] working forty-plus hours a week, [and there were] less full-time people. I think that was the last straw, plus the wages.”

By keeping part-timers under 40 hours a week, the company can maintain production levels at a significantly lower cost.

The picket lines operated 24/7, and Brittany observed the majority of workers were actually students and young people. “There’s a lot of students in our store, or people who got second jobs, or [are] in university,” she says. “But [mostly] everybody was up for the fight and walking the picket line and showing support.”

“I think that brought us a lot closer together as a group with the students and the older people, the full-time. It definitely brought us all together.”

Beyond Dominion workers, Newfoundland’s Fight for $15 campaigners and members of other unions joined strikers on the picket line. The broader community stepped up, too, supplying the strikers with coffee and homemade food.

“Up to the very end,” Brittany says, “it was going great. I think we were getting a lot of support. We were standing our ground. We were doing secondary picket lines.”

Then the vote happened.

“There’s definitely, I’d say, a majority of people at my location [that] was actually very upset about it, because we did not expect to be back to work yet,” she continues. “With that contract, we definitely were surprised when we heard that there was a majority [that] wanted to go back to work and accept the contract.”

Brittany says that she and her coworkers remain curious about the results, but that information is being kept secret by the company and union.

In any case, the strike demonstrated the power of solidarity between part-time and full-time workers. For what lessons she might have gleaned from the strike, Brittany says: “A lot of people actually [came] together and [showed] support for each other, and you know what, on our picket line everybody fought for everybody else.”

“You gotta be positive no matter what.”

The strike also showed the advantages of secondary picketing. Brittany observes that the secondary pickets in Newfoundland “definitely made an impact. It definitely opened a lot of people’s eyes of the community and staff that worked there.”

Secondary pickets are known for their disruptive power. It’s why they’re considered illegal in many provinces and subject to injunctions.

Another Dominion worker, Shannon*, had similar observations. “Sorry,” she says midway through the conversation, “I’m feisty. I was one that wanted to stay and fight.” Like Brittany, Shannon also finds herself frustrated about the results being kept secret. “We have a right to know,” she says. “But the union is not giving it to us.”

Other workers feel the same, she says—some even feel the desire for a recount, or to have the Labour Relations Board intervene and review the vote.

After the company made their final offer, Shannon felt they had hit a standstill. Union leadership offered no real plan forward, she says, noting that she and others felt like they had “gave up on us.”

“They said the company wasn’t budging and we couldn’t keep going to court.”

Talking about strategy, Shannon says, “I think we should’ve stayed on the secondary picket lines. But we were told we couldn’t keep going to court for injunctions.” Asked how she might respond to that argument, she says, “We pay enough in union dues for those costs and many more.” She also noted that some secondary picket lines, like the one at the Weston bakery, were not subject to injunctions.

Unifor Local 597 workers are joined by members of 15 and Fairness Newfoundland and Labrador during a demonstration at the Loblaw Distribution Centre, August 27, 2020. Photo by Unifor Local 597/Twitter.

Upping disruption: The power of secondary picketing

Shayne Fields, incoming president of Oshawa-based Unifor Local 222, worked at the Loblaw distribution centre in Ajax and helped organize one of the secondary pickets outside of Newfoundland. The centre employs just over a thousand unionized workers, with a total staff of 1,300. Most workers are young and work three shifts around the clock. The warehouse only shuts down on Christmas Day.

“We were fed up with Loblaws in general,” says Fields. He suggests that no matter where you live in Canada, “the Loblaws business model seems to be the same.” Their bargaining approach, he notes, is brutal and uncompromising. It takes a lot for the corporation to even take notice.

“You’re dealing with the same people, the same mindset,” says Fields. “I’ve done three sets of negotiations with them, and I know what the workers in Newfoundland were up against.”

When Unifor union leaders like Fields began discussing how to help the strikers, they knew they had to take action outside of Newfoundland and Labrador. Because the business done in the province is only a fraction of what is done in Ontario, the national union realized they had to “put pressure on other areas.” Disrupting business in Ontario could really hurt the corporation. They landed on a secondary picket as a tactic. Workers still went to work at the distribution centre that day, but no product left the premises.

Fields says bluntly: “We show the strength of the union when we withdraw our labour and we shut them down.”

In the near future, Fields thinks more battles in the grocery sector are possible. “More people are staying home,” he says. “The shopping bags are getting bigger. I don’t think the workers are gonna stand for it much longer. Nor should they.” As contracts begin expiring across the country in the next year, the likelihood of job actions elsewhere will likely increase.

But for grocery workers to win, it may not be enough anymore to just walk off the job. Secondary pickets and disruption of supply lines and production is a critical weapon.

As a result, most of these tactics are untried or used in a very limited, cautious way. For example, it was several weeks into the Dominion strike before secondary picket lines were set up. In any case, it will clearly take such actions and sacrifices to bring the corporations back to the bargaining table—and even more to extract concessions and dismantle the unacceptable status quo.

Thinking long-term about young workers

Despite how the Dominion strike ended, the grocery sector remains an enormous source of potential for the labour movement beyond the pandemic. Figuring out how to make certain potential advantages real is a challenge for grocery workers and their unions. An important consideration, which the Dominion strike foregrounded, is the role of young workers.

Like many retail settings, grocery stores are populated by workers in their teens, twenties and those well into their thirties. As Fields points out, this is the case with distribution centres, too. In stores, young workers are sometimes full-time, but more often they are part-time. Many often work what are essentially full-time hours across multiple jobs. In big urban centres, many young workers are racialized. Most are very aware of how difficult it is to make a living on the wages and hours the employers choose to provide.

However, unlike other retail workplaces, young grocery workers experience remarkably high levels of union representation. The big players in the industry are widely unionized. This means the potential for training and organizing young workers is more readily available than in the other industries dominated by young people—such as clothing retail, restaurants and fast food, and service centres.

Young workers may be in the union, but they are hugely overrepresented in part-time positions, meaning they are often paid less for the same work as full-timers, and are often neglected at the bargaining table. They often experience the all-too-familiar grift of being scheduled (as was the case at Brittany’s store) over 30 hours a week but still classified as part-time. Two-tier wages and contracts, as well as these conniving classification tactics, divide the workplace and damage unity.

Just as the grocery cartel executed a long-term strategy of part-timing jobs and ramming through two-tier contracts to drive down labour costs, the future for the labour movement in grocery requires a long-term strategy of combating two-tier contracts with a struggle for equal pay.

Engaging young workers, bringing workers into the fold and building worker power across age, gender, and racial lines. This necessitates building bridges between part-timers and full-timers. The Dominion strike showed unity is possible when there’s a common cause.

Historic attacks and an historic strike

The Dominion strike is the latest in the grocery industry’s 30-year offensive against workers. Not even during a global pandemic—when grocery workers were downright essential to the functioning of Canadian society—could the hugely profitable grocery corporations stomach pandemic pay for more than three months.

Beneath their cruel decision to rescind pandemic pay, there’s a core reality to be understood: the big grocers have had it on their own terms, and have had it very good, for a long time. Their billionaire owners have built palatial homes abroad with their head-turning profits, and can count on federal and provincial support on a whim.

Pandemic pay was just scratching the surface, but the Dominion grocery workers struck at the heart of the problem. The fight for an alternative to the decades-long corporate assault is long overdue. Achieving this is naturally a complicated question. At a minimum, we know it will require an ambitious program of organizing the sector’s workforce and solidarity actions from the broader labour movement. And it will require drive and sacrifice—which Newfoundland’s grocery workers showed in spades.

Winning will also likely require the use of disruptive tactics. Grocers like Loblaw don’t fight fair, and, as demonstrated in the first part of this series, grocery workers and their unions stand to lose when the fight minimizes this reality, falling back on the same tactics or embracing concessionary bargaining. This time around, Unifor members in Newfoundland and on secondary picket lines did begin to break out of these practices. Building on that ingenuity in the future might change the course for workers.

There is much more that can be said about the important and strategic location of grocery workers in the overall architecture of the economy. On a basic level, the pandemic proved how critical grocery workers are in keeping society going. But if one takes the analysis further, it’s obvious how much leverage they truly have: through coordinated action, workers could grind the country to a halt. It’s important to remember that this commonly unionized sector is also represented—overwhelmingly so—by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), whose members in grocery are waging the same battles.

Connecting struggles, and showing up for each other’s fights, is a clear way to flex collective strength and win a better deal for all grocery workers. But this realization of workers’ power also means union members across the country getting organized and taking action in their own workplaces, too, fighting whatever new business models bosses try to impose.

Names has been changed to protect the anonymity of the interviewees.

Dan Darrah is a writer of nonfiction and poetry from Toronto. He has written about work, culture, money, and debt for Jacobin, Canadian Dimension, Briarpatch Magazine, and more. He is a member of Spring.

Doug Nesbitt is a historian, union organizer and researcher. He is co-founder and editor of Rankandfile.ca, and lives in Kingston, Ontario.

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