Loblaw workers in Newfoundland to hold strike vote

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Image: Unifor

Dominion store workers in Newfoundland will hold a strike vote across the island beginning on Sunday, July 12, said Unifor's Chris Macdonald. 

Macdonald is the lead negotiator on Unifor's retail files, and has been at the table with Loblaw throughout bargaining. He said he is 100 per cent certain that Unifor members will vote in favour of taking strike action, at which point Unifor will move quickly to put Loblaw on a deadline to respond to issues of fair pay and an over reliance on part-time employees. 

"The $2 [an hour] certainly is what our members are very upset about losing. They felt like they were finally getting some respect. And there's a lot of folks out there, specifically in Newfoundland, but all over the country, that are upset about losing this, especially when workers are continuing to get COVID," Macdonald said. 

Macdonald, who is also the assistant to Unifor’s national president, said the union is fighting for "fair pay forever" in these contract negotiations, but declined to specify exactly what amount would be fair for Dominion workers. The current minimum wage in Newfoundland is $11.65 an hour, and is scheduled to increase to $12.15 on October 1, 2020. 

The majority of Dominion workers make less than $15 an hour, according to Macdonald and Unifor president Jerry Dias.

"It's our view that the pandemic pay really highlighted the group of workers in an industry that were undervalued and underpaid," Macdonald said. 

Loblaw Companies -- which owns the Dominion stores -- and Unifor entered into contract negotiations in November 2019, but reached a breaking point after only one week over the issue of Loblaw's reliance on part-time work. At that time, Unifor members were considering a strike before Christmas, though it never came to fruition. Negotiations were then further stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Should the 1,300 Dominion workers vote in favour of strike action, it will be the second such strike vote in recent weeks after Canada's major grocery retailers removed the $2 an hour pay premium in mid-June. 

On June 30, 79 per cent of Safeway workers in Alberta voted in favour of strike action after Sobeys rescinded its $2-an-hour "hero pay" for workers on June 13. The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 that represents them said there was a record turnout for the strike vote. UFCW members are now able to strike with 72 hours notice. Those workers have been without a valid contract since 2017, reports CTV. 

In a UFCW statement, secretary treasurer Richelle Stewart said their goal in bargaining "is to make sure our members can make a fair living while making sure that the company does not become nonchalant about the continuing risks of COVID-19." 

According to UFCW, Sobeys -- which owns Safeway -- is also taking steps towards a lockout vote in response to the strike vote. Sobeys would then also be able to lock out employees with 72 hours notice. 

At this time, bargaining between UFCW and Sobeys is scheduled to recommence on July 13 with the assistance of a government-appointed mediator.   

Grocery retailers have received widespread criticism for removing the pandemic pay premiums as workers continue to work under pandemic conditions. 

This issue is currently getting attention at the federal level in the form of a House committee study on front-line grocery store workers. This week, the House standing committee on industry held its first session on this topic, and heard from union leaders from Unifor, UFCW, and Teamsters Canada. Grocery executives are expected to appear before the committee on Friday. 

"It's recognized that the majority of these workers earn very low wages. Who in their right mind would risk contracting COVID in some cases for $11.32 an hour?" asked Dias at the committee.

Dias told the committee that among Unifor's membership, over 20 grocery store workers and over 15 grocery warehouse workers are currently off sick with COVID-19. 

Dias said while he believes the pandemic pay premiums ought to be reinstated, that won't fix the "rampant inequalities" in the industry. Rather, a permanent adjustment that includes better pay and the opportunity for workers to access the benefits associated with full-time work is what's needed. Each of these issues are at the fore in the dispute with Loblaws' Dominion stores.  

"What we're dealing with today is an outcome of neglect and lack of oversight about declining work standards and inadequate labour laws. Let's not waste this moment to get at the heart of this problem," he said. 

UFCW national president Paul Meinema said the "so-called premium pay" needs to become permanent, but said that greater corporate responsibility is only one part of the issue. Meinema suggested increased government intervention in the industry is needed to level the playing field between workers and employers.  

Macdonald agreed that the impending strike vote in Newfoundland is not just about the temporary pay premiums, though that might be what is sparking this conversation. 

"This is about a long term problem in retail that needs to be addressed, and Loblaws is first on the table in Newfoundland here," he said.

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

Image: Unifor

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