Unifor's Jerry Dias warns Loblaw of a coming national campaign as Newfoundland workers head into fourth week of strike

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Dominion workers on strike. Image: Contributed photo

Three weeks into Dominion grocery workers' strike in Newfoundland, Unifor national president Jerry Dias warned that his union is ready to escalate its actions if Loblaw, the employer, continues to refuse to come to the table.

Dias hinted at organizing a nationwide boycott in the near future. 

"If we need to start saying to Canadians that in order to show your support for the Loblaw workers in Newfoundland, you may want to start going elsewhere, we'll start talking about that. We're not there yet, but that's not too far off in the horizon," he said.

On Labour Day, Unifor began ramping up its public campaign in support of Dominion workers in an effort to bring the strike into national consciousness. The national campaign will begin with information pickets, said Dias, which Unifor launched at one Toronto store on Labour Day. 

In a candid interview, Dias expressed anger and frustration towards Loblaw Companies executive chairman Galen Weston.

"Once we expose what they really are about to the average Canadians, people are going to view Galen Weston and his team for what they are. A bunch of incredibly filthy rich people who frankly don't give a crap," he said.

Dias added that Dominion workers were there for Loblaw during the pandemic lockdowns, allowing the company to see a jump in its profits during that time. Now, he said, Dominion workers are being disrespected by Loblaw's unwillingness to negotiate.

So far, Loblaw has refused to budge on negotiations, and said so when it couriered letters to all of its Dominion employees promising it would not be returning to the table with a better offer.

Spending the money to courier those letters, even after the employees already received digital copies, was an insult, said Dominion employee Robert Peddle, who has worked for the company for 40 years.

"We don't want the sky, we just want to be able to improve our situation," said Peddle.

Dias said it's all about getting back to the bargaining table, but says Unifor also has no intention of backing down.

"Ultimately we're going to fight for as long as it takes in order for us to win a fair contract. If we can't do that, then we will cause them as much harm as we can. As a company they should be ashamed of themselves," he said.

Loblaw Companies did not respond to questions from rabble.ca.

Lack of full-time jobs, low pay the major issues  

Once a full-time employee, Peddle said last year, Loblaw made his and 60 other full-time positions redundant, and offered to buy those workers out.

At the time, Peddle said he didn't feel like he had any option other than to take the buy-out and lose his full-time position, though he was able to keep his pension. Now, he says he works the exact same job, for the same amount of time, but makes $5 an hour less as a part-time employee.

According to Peddle, only 17 per cent of Dominion workers still have full-time jobs, while everyone else -- 83 per cent -- is part time. 

The elimination of full-time positions has been a major issue throughout bargaining, as is the matter of low wages.

Newfoundland and Labrador has the second lowest minimum wage in the country, at just $11.65. In 2020, the province has been slowly raising the minimum raise and it should arrive at $12.65 in April 2021.

But workers say that when the minimum wage increases, their pay should increase in kind. Otherwise, workers who were making above minimum wage end up earning minimum wage after all, and their pay scale becomes redundant.

That's why Unifor is fighting for a new "minimum wage plus" pay scale, where the rate of pay would be minimum wage, plus a certain dollar amount. This way, when minimum wage rises, those workers earning minimum wage plus $3, for instance, would see their pay rise proportionally, and continue to earn $3 above the current minimum wage.

"We know the company can afford it and it's a matter of they don't want to. We know we can fight them," said David Burke, a St. John's-based Dominion store worker.

Banking on public support 

Peddle said he has been with the company through two previous strikes, but this time feels different.

When Newfoundland's Dominion workers first began contract negotiations with their employer Loblaw in November 2019, they didn't necessarily have the public on their side.

Burke said at that time, one customer said to him that if he wanted better pay he should go find a "real" job.

One global pandemic later, Burke said that kind of sentiment has gone by the wayside.

"The public support we've gotten has been phenomenal. I can't thank the public enough, but they can't thank us enough," said Burke, who has worked at Dominion for ten years, and works 40 hours a week, but is still a part-time employee.

Grocery store workers in Newfoundland have shown up for the province during the year's hardest times, said Burke, both as essential workers not only during COVID-19 lockdowns, but also during what some refer to as "snowmageddon," when in January 2020 the province declared a state of emergency due to an unprecedented amount of snow that quite literally buried the Eastern part of the island.

Through each of these events, Dominion and other grocery workers were lauded by the public as front-line heroes.

As previously reported by rabble.ca, unions across Canada have said they plan to make full use of the shift in public perception of these retail workers' jobs, and Unifor appears to be sticking with that approach.

Dominion worker Ralene Cull said folks are bringing picketing workers donations of coffee, donuts and cash every day, which is helping keep spirits high as the strike heads into its fourth week.

Burke said three weeks of striking have flown by, largely due to the support coming from customers, small businesses and other labour unions.

He said it's that kind of support that has allowed the workers to turn down the last tabled offer from Loblaw and demand more.

Precedent-setting power 

Dias said that Loblaw is holding out because it doesn't want Dominion workers to set a precedent to which it can be held once contracts expire at its 2,400 stores across the country.

"They're saying to us they're not going to allow the small players to determine the economic impact across the country, which means they're disrespecting all 1,400 of their own employees in Newfoundland," he said.

Dominion's contract is the first to be in negotiations after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, during which Loblaw's employees were making a $2 an hour pay premium.

Burke said the company is right: any contract they sign will be setting a precedent for grocery workers across Canada, but he said he'd like to see Newfoundland workers be able to win something that other retail workers across the country can potentially benefit from.

"For too long, retail workers have been given the worse end of the stick," said Burke, citing low wages, working the busiest times of the year and the fact that this year has made it clear that they're expected to work through anything and everything, including major blizzards and public health crises.  

"I hope not only do we win this for us [but for] others so they can turn around and say listen, Newfoundland went and they fought and now it's time for us."

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

Image: Contributed photo

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