Canadian grocery workers strike

Striking workers at Baxtrom’s on the picket line fighting for decent wages and conditions

THE employees of a Your Independent Grocer (YIG) franchise – in Cornwall, Ontario – have been on strike since November 23rd, as employer and franchise owner John Baxtrom and the bargaining agent of parent company Loblaws Companies Ltd refuse to return to the table. spoke with Roland Lapins, Eastern Region Director of Local 1006A of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Canada, to get an update on the situation.
‘It’s been a tough time on the picket line all along,’ he says. Workers have been on the picket line through the holidays and all kinds of winter weather.
‘The picketers have been out every day. They’re resilient, they’re tough and so we’re trying to keep their spirits up in different ways.
‘We believe we have good community support in Cornwall. Evidenced by the fact that (John Baxtrom’s) business is down. A lot of customers are not crossing (the) picket line.’
Community members drop by with coffee, pizza, snacks and money for the picketers. ‘We’re trying to keep spirits up, we’re trying to keep people engaged. The members know why they’re out there.
‘The majority of them are still out on the picket line. Understandably they get frustrated from time to time because of the weather. It’s tough sledding when you’re out there picketing in 8-10 hours a day in those conditions.’
Additionally, Lapins says Franchise owner John Baxtrom has come to the picket line multiple times and is ‘trying to convince our people to cross the line. He comes out and talks to us at various times’.
Approximately 79 of the 130 Local 1006A members on strike have been out on the picket line and about twenty have crossed the picket line and returned to work.
Lapins says workers on the picket line tell Baxtrom he should get back to bargaining. ‘If you’re ready to bargain fairly and seriously the union will go and book the rooms and we’ll head right over and start bargaining,’ says Lapins.
It bears noting that while Baxtrom is the franchise owner and employer, Loblaws as the parent company also has a corporate bargaining agent that participated in negotiations. The UFCW Conciliation Officer has contacted the agent to return to bargaining but so far, they have refused.
According to Lapins, Loblaws ‘puts on this charade that John is running the show and they are simply there in an advisory capacity. I say that’s nonsense.
‘John does whatever Loblaws decides he should do. I don’t think he’s in control of this at all.’
Bargaining began with an exchange of proposals in December 2017, and included multiple meetings in April, July, September and November before workers went on strike on the 23rd of that month. The union has since filed unfair labour practise charges against the company.
So, what are the issues? Here are some of the key concerns of UFCW and its members: ‘The union sought a shorter term contract for workers. The employer wanted five year contracts, and the union wanted three years or four retroactive to expiry.
‘It’s not a problem in any of our other units,’ says Lapins.
‘Only Loblaws companies complain about this.’ In the final offer, he explains, the employer took a step back and offered six year contracts which Lapins calls ‘a poke in our eye because they were proposing 5 years all along.’
According to Lapins, UFCW is seeking ‘substantial increases that don’t put us at, under, or near minimum wage during the life of the contract. We are a union shop after all and our employees deserve more than the minimum wage.’
YIG’s final offer was a $1 wage increase over six years, with employees receiving $500 lump sums in two of the six years. For part-time workers, it was 85 cents over six years (60 cents of which is retroactive to 2017) and $250 lump sums.
Wage increases are compounded yearly and lump sum payments are just one-time payments, meaning they reduce the pay over the life of the contract that employees receive.
‘We don’t want the lump sums, we want increases that are substantially over minimum wage and at least reflect the cost of living. And reduce the amount of time it takes to get to top rate,’ he said.
Additionally, the wage scale for part-time workers is an increase 6,501 hours worked. Starting at $14, the current minimum wage, you would have to work for eight years at 18 hours a week to get to 6,501 hours. ‘That’s unacceptable to us,’ said Lapins.
Contracts for part-time workers are especially critical as many workers in the grocery industry are part time.
‘This industry gets away with employing mostly part-time workers,’ says Lapins. ‘They need to be paid accordingly so even when there is a reduction in hours they still take home a decent paycheck that allows them to survive. These people depend on it.’
Additionally, the union is also seeking parity for managers who are currently earning ‘substantially less’ than other department managers.
Lapins said they were also trying to get a couple of personal days in the contract, ‘especially because the government of Ontario has decided to remove that from the Employment Standards Act.
‘You don’t need a union to bargain for minimum wage.’
As debates about the minimum wage in Ontario continue, and hard-won victories like the briefly-won $15 minimum wage are rolled back by the current provincial government, it’s key to remember why workers like the members of Local 1006A deserve more than a minimum wage.
YIG workers are skilled workers that complete duties with required specialised skills and training and some have been working at the store for decades.
Lapins explains it best: ‘My personal philosophy is the minimum wage is exactly what the word says it is. It’s minimum. It’s the floor. It’s what employers can get away with without breaking the law.
‘It’s what society deems to be the very base compensation that employers should be paying to employees. So when you join a union you expect to bargain something a lot more fair that that, than the minimum. That’s why we feel our wages should not be informed by minimum wage.
‘They should be fair and they should be higher than everyone else’s. You don’t need a union to bargain for minimum wage. You get that in the law.’