Jerry Dias, Unifor National President
The 1400-worker strike in Newfoundland at Dominion grocery stores owned by Loblaw Companies Limited, now in its eleventh week, will go down in history as the first major Canadian labour dispute of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On one level, it is a dispute about fundamental workplace standards, wages and job security. Dig deeper and you quickly realize this dispute is about fairness, decency and respect in Canada’s low-wage retail sector.
Negotiations that started well before the pandemic hit focused heavily on mistreatment of part-time workers, constant cuts to full-time jobs, poverty wages, limited work hours, no paid sick days and no benefits.
Sadly, this is par for the course for most workers in retail, one of Canada’s single largest employment sectors, and has been for decades.
Since 1987, the growth in part-time retail jobs has far outpaced full-time work. Average pay for part-time retail clerks in 2019 is less than $15 nationally, and among the lowest of all occupations measured by Statistics Canada - far from a living wage in most cities.
Loblaw’s decision to pull back a special $2 per hour pay boost, with the pandemic stilling lingering and profits fattening, was actually not the catalyst for this dispute. It was simply the last straw.
The campaign has drawn near universal public support and captured the hearts and minds of many, including local politicians, celebrities and songwriters. It is hard not to sympathize with a group of workers, some paid so little they cannot afford to shop where they work.
The fact that this happens under the roof of Canada’s richest retailer, owned by the Weston’s – Canada’s own obscenely wealthy billionaire family – makes the situation even more infuriating.
Talks resumed briefly this past week, yet still Loblaw refuses to budge. They refuse to acknowledge that the pandemic has shifted the goalposts on what retail workers expect from employers.
Stubbornly refusing to re-engage in meaningful talks with our union is like pointing a middle finger at hundreds of thousands of front-line retail workers, right now toiling for substandard pay.
Loblaw’s constant rejection of high road, living wage policies means more than 2 million workers throughout the industry are destined to keep scraping by.
All of this begs the question: what is to be done?
How do Canada’s retail workers turn the tide?
Frankly, it is complicated.
Low wages often mean high turnover. It is not uncommon for retail workers to walk away from a bad job than stay and fight for change.
The pandemic has also accelerated changes in shopping habits, with fewer customers heading to stores and quicker adoption of automation. The full extent of this on workers is still unknown and, like other sectors, may result in a redistribution of work rather than the elimination of it as online and delivery services gain popularity.
Despite the challenges, change must start somewhere.
As Newfoundlanders are showing the country, it may simply start by saying no.
No to low pay. No to mistreatment. No to inequality.
These are principles all Canadians can stand by.
Whether this translates into tens of thousands of other Loblaw workers taking a stand against a greedy employer, or more workers exercising their right to unionize, it is hard to know.
Perhaps this catalyzes long overdue labour law reforms, mandating $15 minimum wages, paid sick days and other needed measures.
Maybe this historic Newfoundland struggle inspires millions of retail workers, union or not, to walk off the job in a national day of protest.
Whatever the way, action is needed.
For Canada’s retail workers, it’s long overdue.