Metro strike deal raises bar for grocery workers, experts say – National

As Metro workers at 27 Toronto-area grocery stores return to work after a month on strike, experts and union representatives say their new collective agreement raises the bar for grocery workers across the country.

“It’s time for workers to be recognized for what they have given to these companies,” said Kim Novak, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 1518 in British Columbia.

More than 3,700 Metro workers went on strike in late July after rejecting their first tentative agreement, fighting for better wages. On August 31, they voted “yes” on a second agreement, which included immediate wage increases, starting with a $1.50 increase.

The Unifor-Metro deal helps set a threshold for future deals, even if they won’t be identical, said Stephanie Ross, an a*sociate professor at McMaster University’s School of Social Studies.

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“They’re going…to these next tables with a win in their pocket,” she said.

Unifor has made clear it intends to use the Metro deal as a bargaining template, meaning it will seek similar gains in upcoming negotiations with grocers.

The union said it has 13 contracts with grocers, mostly in Ontario, that are set to expire before the end of 2024, covering a total of more than 6,000 workers. Two other agreements are currently under negotiation and one recently expired.

But Unifor is not the main union for grocery workers in Ontario or the country. Today, there is pressure on the UFCW to make similar breakthroughs, Ross said.

The UFCW calls itself the Grocery Store Workers Union, representing about 140,000 people in the grocery retail sector across the country. In British Columbia, Novak’s Local 1518 represents about 18,000 grocery workers, and in 2023 its two largest contracts were under negotiation.

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One of them was for Save-On-Foods, covering stores across the province under the chain owned by the Jim Pattison Group. Aggressive negotiations resulted in an agreement providing the highest wage increases these workers have seen in 25 years, Novak said.

But she said that at the other big bargaining table, talks with Safeway, owned by Empire Co. Ltd., have not gone as well. Eight months later, the grocer proposed wage increases of less than one percent per year over a five-year period, she said. The union is holding a strike vote next week.

Empire did not respond to requests for comment on the Safeway negotiations.

Empire, Loblaw and Metro make up the big three grocers, which occupy a large part of the market. These grocers have been criticized in recent years for their high profits amid soaring inflation. Workers are demanding their fair share, Novak said, especially after losing their “hero pay” during the pandemic.

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If Safeway workers went on strike, it would affect 40 B.C. stores, including 29 in the Lower Mainland, Novak said. Even if meat, deli and seafood workers are covered by a different agreement, they might be able to strike at the same time, effectively closing stores, he said. she declared.

Working in a grocery store once offered a decent, well-paying job, but that has changed, said Steven Tufts, an a*sociate professor of labor geography at York University. Unions won concessions at the bargaining table during the 1990s and 2000s as grocers tried to compete with Walmart.

Now that the Big Three grocers are on solid footing and posting strong profits, Tuft said the proverbial chickens are coming back to roost.

“The Walmart threat is over,” he said. “They are all very profitable institutions.”

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The Unifor-Metro deal doesn’t mean bargaining in the grocery sector will be easy in the future, Alison Braley-Rattai, a*sociate professor of labor studies at Brock University, said in an email.

“Workers will still have to be ready to walk if negotiations do not take shape,” she said.

“But the past year suggests that workers are increasingly saying, ‘Enough is enough,’ and putting pressure not only on their employers, but also on their own unions by rejecting tentative agreements that were recommended to them.

One challenge is that union coverage for grocery store workers is fragmented across the country among different unions, locals and agreements, Tufts said.

Unions need to step up negotiations, he said, so they can negotiate with employers at a higher level, as in the case of UFCW’s BC-wide contracts with Save-On-Foods and Safeway.

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Unions should also work together and strategize their sectoral negotiations, but they probably don’t, he said.

Regardless, the deal with Metro in the Greater Toronto Area will help Unifor and the UFCW advocate for more bargaining amid labor market conditions that also give more power to workers, Tufts said .

In a market where grocers also compete for workers, even non-union workers will likely benefit from improvements made by Unifor and the UFCW, Ross said.

Right now, the landscape has changed and grocery store workers are able to make real progress across the country, Novak said.

“I think it’s a really powerful moment.”

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