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Loblaw-owned Dominion grocery workers’ new deal an ‘important victory’: expert

May 1, 2024
The Canadian Press

A customer browses an aisle at a grocery store In Toronto on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. A labour expert says Unifor has achieved an "important victory" after grocery workers at 11 Dominion stores in Newfoundland ratified a new deal Monday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Unifor has achieved an “important victory” after grocery workers at 11 Loblaw-owned Dominion stores in Newfoundland ratified a new deal Monday, a labour expert said.

After setting a precedent with a Metro strike in the Toronto area last year, “it looks like Unifor has successfully extended the pattern to the East Coast,” said Adam King, an assistant professor in the labour studies department at the University of Manitoba.

Workers voted 88 per cent in favour of the deal, which Unifor said will boost wages by $4.50 per hour for full-time workers by the end of the five-year agreement. Part-time workers will receive $3.20 per hour more.

The union represents more than 1,600 workers at the 11 stores, which are owned by Loblaw Cos. Ltd.


“Unifor’s strategic and sector-wide bargaining strategy for supermarket workers has delivered the largest wage gains Dominion workers have ever seen,” Unifor national president Lana Payne said in a news release.

The deal also includes signing bonuses, a lower threshold of hours for part-time workers to get health benefits, and a commitment from the employer to create 22 new full-time jobs within a year.

That month-long strike at 27 Metro stores last summer resulted in a new contract that Unifor called “historic.”

Carolyn Wrice, president of Unifor Local 597, said Dominion workers didn’t face significant resistance from the employer in bargaining.

“I guess they didn’t want to put up a fight with Unifor,” she said.

The last time Dominion workers were in bargaining, in 2020, they went on strike for 12 weeks. This time they didn’t even take a strike vote, Wrice said. A tentative deal was reached after one day of conciliation.

The strike in 2020 was a fraught one, with workers spurred on by the recent loss of so-called pandemic hero pay, said Simon Black, an associate professor of labour studies at Brock University. But despite the job action and public sympathy, the eventual deal they reached fell short of their demands, he said.

Four years later, many of the concerns that led to the strike in 2020 are still in existence, but heightened, he said — like wages, full-time work and corporate profits. Others more recently came to a head, like inflation, or the mounting public frustration with the major grocers.

Black said he had expected the Dominion workers to strike again. The fact they didn’t means they must have seen the deal as pretty good, he said.

“Had the deal been insulting to the membership,” things might have been different, said Black.

King said Unifor used the rollback of early-pandemic hero pay as a mobilizing strategy in its strike against Metro to great effect.

“It’s clear that … there was a lot of pent-up frustration, especially on the wage front,” he said.

Between hero pay, inflation and grocery profits, it’s not surprising that workers have seized this opportunity to make significant gains, King said.

After the Metro workers ratified their deal, Unifor promised to bring similar gains to more stores, a tactic known as pattern bargaining where a union tries to more or less replicate a deal at multiple workplaces in the same sector.

So far it’s been successful. For example, the union achieved a similar agreement for No Frills workers at 17 Ontario stores in November.

However, it’s hard to know how much the pattern set by Metro factored into the subsequent deals, said Black, and how much it was simply the economic backdrop of inflation. The current frustration with grocers is likely helping boost workers’ bargaining power, he added: “These are not popular businesses right now.”

Even though inflation has waned from its highs, it’s clear that wages are still an urgent issue for workers who have lost purchasing power since their last agreement, King said.

“For workers who are in a collective agreement, they’ve got to kind of wait till their time comes to address those issues.”

There’s no knowing what the economic backdrop will be when all these grocery collective agreements expire, many not for five years, said Black. But he thinks the unions will be up for another round of fighting.

“I think that the unions in the grocery sector are fighting hard (and) trying to establish patterns with decent contracts, to build a better floor for wages and working conditions in a sector which has experienced for years and years now downward pressures on wages and working conditions,” he said.

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