It’s now been a month since roughly 3,700 workers at Metro grocery stores across the Greater Toronto Area walked off the job. Members of Unifor Local 414 have been picketing the 27 affected stores — and more recently, Metro distribution warehouses — demanding the employer meet their demands for higher wages, better benefits, and more full-time work.
Unifor’s GTA contract with Metro sets the standard for similar collective agreements across the province. The outcome of this strike is therefore vitally important.
Thus far, it seems workers’ resolve hasn’t wavered, though Metro is applying additional pressure. Last week, the company filed a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board alleging the union isn’t bargaining in good faith after it refused to entertain a substandard offer from the grocery giant. The union, however, is simply following the directive provided by members: bring back acceptable wage increases. The offer Metro was poised to table apparently didn’t meet that criteria.
This important labour fight is at the juncture of multiple post-pandemic crises. Workers earning low pay whose wages have been further eroded by inflation are facing off against a grocery giant enjoying excessive profits during a period of persistent food price inflation.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still fresh in mind, workers are also drawing on public support they garnered while risking their health and lives to perform essential work. As a Unifor press release summarized: “The resilience and commitment demonstrated by grocery workers during the COVID-19 pandemic have been truly extraordinary. However, their dedication has come at a great personal cost. The toll of working through these challenging times, the physical and mental exhaustion, cannot be underestimated or simply undone. Metro workers bravely carried the burden of ensuring the availability of essential goods while risking their own health, and some frontline grocery workers lost their lives as a result.”
To help address persistently low wages, workers have called for $2 per hour “hero pay” to be reinstated.
It was clear from the beginning that workers were heading into contract negotiations with heightened expectations and a willingness to fight. Before bargaining officially commenced, on June 20, Unifor announced that workers across the 27 GTA Metro stores had voted unanimously for strike action, should a withdrawal of labour prove necessary. The union thus entered bargaining with an unequivocally clear mandate from workers.
In this first round of bargaining since the pandemic, workers have also been unafraid to publicly air their frustrations over substandard wages and the inflated cost of living, record corporate profits at Metro and across the grocery sector, and general disrespect from management.
“Metro must address low wages that have been further reduced by inflation and give workers their fair share of record company profits,” Unifor national president Lana Payne said at the time, relaying workers’ feelings. “Grocery workers deserve good jobs, it’s that simple.”
Unifor has prioritized three key demands throughout the strike: improved wages, greater access to benefits and relatedly, more secure, stable, and full-time jobs.
Wages, in particular, have been a pressing issue. According to the union’s figures, 70 per cent of the bargaining unit earns less than $20 per hour. The average wage of a full-time employee at Metro in the GTA is $22.60 per hour, while part-timers earn only $16.62 per hour on average. The highest hourly wage in the bargaining unit is just $27.29. For context, according to the latest Labour Force Survey from Statistics Canada, the average hourly wage in Canada is $33.24. In other words, this is a strike of workers earning low-pay whose wages have fallen behind due both to inflation and percentage-based increases currently below average wage growth overall — and certainly below the revenue and profit growth of the company.
Job stability is also front and centre in this strike. The union has long been fighting to increase the share of full-time jobs at Metro, and the issue has come to a head in this round of bargaining. At present, 72 per cent of union members on strike are part-time workers, which is actually a marked improvement from 2015 when part-timers made up 81 per cent of the bargaining unit. Workers are unwilling to tolerate insufficient hours and substandard conditions for the majority of members in their union any longer.
Unifor Local 414 originally set a strike deadline of July 18, as wages, benefits and other monetary issues remained unresolved at the bargaining table. Extended negotiations produced a tentative agreement on July 19, which the union bargaining team recommended to the membership for ratification.
In its official announcement, the union characterized the tentative contract as a “milestone agreement” that would “lay the foundation for grocery workers across the country.” Payne elsewhere described the proposed settlement as the “best agreement in decades.”
Local 414 members apparently disagreed. In keeping with a trend among union members across industries this year, Metro workers voted to reject the tentative agreement and instead strike for more. Members then hit the picket lines on the morning of July 29.
To the union’s credit, leadership quickly shifted full support behind the striking workers. “We brought the tentative agreement to our members because it contained considerable gains, but our members are clear that it simply isn’t enough,” Payne said at the time.
According to some commentators, the tentative agreement was in fact industry-leading and, pre-pandemic, would have likely been considered a significant victory. The proposed contract contained paid sick days for part-time workers, pension and benefit improvements, and a $3.75 per hour raise by July 2026.
But things have changed, especially when it comes to workers’ expectations. The combined factors of an ongoing cost-of-living crisis, sustained public attention on inflated food prices and grocer super-profits, and workers emboldened by a tight labour market and their pandemic ‘essentiality,’ have fundamentally transformed what workers will accept from their employer and what they expect from their union.
As Unifor has been reiterating throughout, the public also seems to be largely on the side of the striking grocery workers. Before the strike even began, feature stories about struggling Metro workers unable to afford food from the very stores in which they work appeared in major news outlets. Maclean’s, for example, published an article featuring a 41-year-old produce manager, who despite working for Metro since 2010, earns less in inflation-adjusted dollars now than he did a decade ago. Another piece at the CBC highlighted the experiences of several long-tenured Metro workers struggling with low wages and increasingly unable to afford groceries and housing costs.
Public scrutiny of grocery sector profits has only underlined the moral legitimacy of striking workers’ demands. Metro, like other Canadian grocery retail corporations, has been rolling in cash. According to the union, in 2022 Metro netted $922 million in profit, the highest haul in the company’s history.
Last year was no outlier either. The grocery giant has set a new profit record every year since 2018. The pandemic seemed to have little impact on Metro’s balance sheet. Between 2020 and 2022, the company amassed roughly $2.5 billion in net profit.
Last year was also a good one for Metro’s CEO, Eric La Flèche. While not showered quite as lavishly as the infamous top dog at competitor Loblaws, La Flèche nevertheless took home $5.3 million in total compensation, a 5.6 per cent increase over the previous year. That works out to roughly 115 and 156 times the average hourly pay of a full-time and part-time worker at Metro, respectively.
The CEO wasn’t the only one at the top with a ballooning pay package last year though. The company’s top five executives shared $13.2 million in total compensation. Their bonuses alone increased 13.7 per cent from the previous year.
This year too, profits at Metro continue to boom. Earlier this month, Metro’s third quarter earnings report showed a 26.1 per cent increase in profits over quarter three of 2022. Over the first 40 weeks of 2023, the company managed nearly $797 million in profit, 11 per cent higher than the same period last year.
Clearly paying workers a living wage is entirely feasible. In fact, last year Metro conceded a 23 per cent raise in a contract settlement with Unifor members at its GTA warehouses.
At one time, work in the grocery sector provided family-sustaining wages and job security, before employers engaged in a concerted battle to crush unions and consolidate corporate bargaining power. The current strike could begin the process of reforming the industry and undoing these damages, but only if the union organizes and sustains workers’ energy beyond the current contract fight.
While the outcome of this strike remains uncertain, workers at Metro have demonstrated the power of the strike. Don’t be surprised if workers in other industries take note.
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