Temporary wage increase for grocery store workers should be permanent, say unions

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In the ongoing push and pull between unions and employers, it's easier to fight to keep something you already have than to ask for something new.  

That's why some unions across the country are urgently lobbying for the temporary wage increase implemented by many grocery store retailers to become permanent -- both at the bargaining table and outside of it. 

Many grocery store workers across the country are currently being paid an extra $2 an hour temporary wage premium in recognition of the added risk they have undertaken by continuing to show up for work in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic given grocery stores have been deemed an essential service. 

Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW 832 of Manitoba, said that outside of collective agreement negotiations, "we're obviously limited" in that no job action can be taken. 

But union leaders see ongoing public support for all front-line workers -- including grocery store workers -- as the best way to pressure employers into making the premium permanent.

"The only true way I have leverage trying to get the premium to stay on permanently is to get the public on my side," Traeger said. "To say, hey, they're taking that premium away, maybe you should let the employer, whichever one it happens to be, how you feel about that." UFCW 832 represents Loblaw workers in the province, and workers at the Empire-owned Safeway stores, in addition to those working at the Winnipeg-based Red River Co-op. 

On May 22, Western Canadian grocery retailer Save-on-Foods rescinded the $2 an hour premium it was paying its employees, effective May 30. Its website states it has now "shifted to providing our team with a long-term benefit" of a 10 per cent discount on their groceries or more loyalty rewards points. 

B.C.'s UFCW 1518 represents Save-on-Foods workers in addition to those at FreshCo, IGA, and Safeway. In response to Save-on-Foods announcement, the union stated that ending the wage premiums now "is an irresponsible and unfair move."

On May 26, the union started a letter-writing campaign, urging union members and the public to write to Save-on-Foods president Darrell Jones to encourage him to reinstate the premium at least as long as COVID-19 is still ongoing. 

When other wage premiums will end is uncertain. As previously reported by rabble.ca, Loblaw announced in a May 22 internal letter to employees that it would extend its wage premiums for the third time, to June 13. In an email, Metro confirmed that it too had extended its wage premium to June 13. Each retailer appears to be re-evaluating the wage premium on an ongoing basis, with Loblaw having extended it every two weeks since its announcement. 

Unifor, which represents workers at Metro, Sobeys, and Loblaw in some regions, has established a "Fair Pay Forever" campaign. It is currently circulating a petition to "encourage" Canada's largest retailers to make COVID-19 wage premiums permanent. 

"We need fair pay forever, not just as temporary relief during the pandemic. Making wage premiums permanent is the next bold step you can take," reads the petition.

Chris MacDonald, assistant to Unifor national president Jerry Dias, said that under normal circumstances, "it's been hard to get the kind of attention that you need for these workers and build the public support." The current attention grocery store workers are getting presents an opportunity for Unifor "to leverage that to get fairness for workers." 

Traeger said his union will be starting a social media campaign to that end, and hosting a petition on its website for the premium to become permanent. He also said he would consider hosting information pickets outside of grocery stores. 

There is currently a petition on the UFCW 832 website calling on governments to legislate paid sick leave and on employers "to continue to recognize the crucial contribution that front-line workers are making."

Traeger said he's also already written to every unionized grocery store employer in Manitoba, laying out why the wage premium should be a permanent addition to the wages of all employees. 

Because grocery stores' revenues have been up so significantly, retailers "easily [have] the ability to pay this two dollar premium for all of their workers," he said.   

Loblaw Companies reported an 11 per cent jump in revenue in the first quarter of 2020, though the retailer said attributed the spike to shoppers panic-buying, and says it has since moderated. 

When asked whether UFCW Canada was working on getting retailers to implement the wage premium permanently, its president Paul Meinema said "conversations with all employers about the appropriate remuneration is a conversation that's always ongoing."

Bringing the pandemic to the table 

Unifor is currently at the bargaining table with Loblaw in Newfoundland where it represents nearly 1,500 workers at 11 Dominion stores. MacDonald said this is one way the union is fighting for the temporary wage increase to become permanent, and that the pandemic has changed the nature of the negotiations.

Wayne Hanley, president of UFCW 1006A, and international vice president of UFCW International, said the pandemic has "highlighted to employers and to the consumers and general public the importance [of the role] grocery store workers play in our society."

Hanley said when his union is back in collective agreement negotiations in two or three years, "we will certainly reflect upon this period of time, and leverage that to the maximum." UFCW 1006a represents workers at No Frills, Real Canadian Superstore, Valu-mart, and others in Ontario. 

In an ideal world, Traeger said employers would institute the premium permanently before current contracts expire. But "if we can't get this premium to be made permanent through a media campaign or public pressure" he said it will certainly be something that his union will be looking to entrench in the collective agreements when they do come up for renewal.

"Our Loblaw contract doesn't expire until 2023. But I don't think people are going to forget about COVID-19 by 2023…This is a pandemic. I think everyone's going to remember where they were during COVID-19 and many of us were at home and many others were risking their health by working," he said.

Meinema said based on the recognition he's seen from the general public, simply in terms of the number of customers that thank his members on a daily basis, he sees societal change happening in terms of "the importance of jobs that we just didn't really look at before."  

Traeger said whatever the other side of this pandemic looks like, he doesn't want to return to "normal."  

"I want to make sure that the public support we have for critical low wage workers translates into a change, so that these folks are actually recognized for the contributions to our society. They may not be doctors or lawyers or politicians but without them we can't live," he said. 

What Canada's major grocery retailers are paying their employees 

Save-on-Foods 

  • Paid a $2 an hour premium, rescinded effective May 30

  • Gave employees a $50 or a $100 gift card based on hours worked  

Loblaw Co. 

  • Stores include Loblaws, Shoppers Drug Mart, Real Canadian Superstore, Dominion, Fortinos, Your Independent Grocer, Zehrs, Valu-mart, Atlantic Superstore, No Frills, etc

  • Paying a $2 an hour premium 

    • Announced March 21, retroactive to March 8

    • Scheduled to end June 13

Metro Inc. 

  • Stores include Metro and Food Basics 

  • Paying a $2 an hour premium 

    • Announced March 21, retroactive to March 8 

    • Scheduled to end June 13 

Empire Co.  

  • Stores include Sobeys, IGA, Foodland, Safeway, Thrifty Foods, Marché Bonichoix, Marché Tradition, FreshCo, and Price Chopper 

  • Paying an extra $50 a week to all employees. A premium of $2 an hour for each hour beyond 20 hours a week 

    • Sobeys Inc. has said it would re-evaluate the premiums in mid-May, though no announcements have been made since. It did not respond to questions from rabble.ca about when the program would end.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Alex Guibord/Flickr

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