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Metro workers walk off the job as grocery chain closes GTA stores

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Toronto-area residents hoping to pick up groceries at Metro Inc. were greeted by closed doors and picket lines at many locations on Saturday as thousands of employees formally went on strike at 27 stores across the region.

Some 3,700 members of Unifor Local 414 walked off the job shortly after midnight, effectively shuttering operations at the stores where they work. Picket lines had gone up at affected locations by 8 a.m., while stores staffed by unimpacted workers continued to operate as usual.

At one east-Toronto Metro store, striking workers taking shelter from heavy rains called for fair wages and chanted "workers united!" as passing drivers honked their horns.

Both federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Unifor National President Lana Payne were on hand to support the picket after workers rejected a collective bargaining deal reached last week.

Unifor had endorsed the deal when it was first tabled and Payne described it Saturday as the "best agreement in decades," but said it still wasn't enough to properly address what she described as deteriorating working conditions across the national grocery sector.

"We are living in a time when working people, particularly working people at grocery stores, are just not making ends meet," Payne told a morning news conference.

"We have faced in the past couple of decades an erosion of jobs in supermarkets across the country."

Payne said grocery store jobs that were once considered stable sources of family income have largely morphed into part-time roles that are inadequate to address today's higher cost of living. Payne said 70 per cent of jobs at Metro are now part-time, asserting the situation is worse at other leading grocers.

But Marie-Claude Bacon, Metro's vice-president of public affairs, said part-time workers have opportunities to improve their prospects, noting the company currently has an unspecified number of full-time vacancies it has not been able to fill from its part-time ranks over the past two years.

Payne also cited soaring profits and CEO compensation at the grocery giants, saying workers earning an average of $16-17 an hour want a higher share of the earnings they helped generate.

A study released last month from Canada's Competition Bureau found Loblaws, Sobeys and Metro — the country's three largest grocery companies — collectively reported more than $100 billion in sales and $3.6 billion in profits last year.

Figures reported in April showed Galen Weston took in $8.4 million in total compensation in the 2022 fiscal year in his role at the head of Loblaw Companies Ltd. Michael Medline, CEO of Sobeys parent Empire Company Ltd., took in $8.7 million, while Metro CEO Eric La Fleche earned $5.4 million.

“This company is not under any hardships," Singh told reporters after briefly joining striking Metro workers on the picket lines. "This company is making massive profits."

The grocery chain heads have come under increasing scrutiny amid runaway food inflation, telling a parliamentary committee in March that higher prices were not caused by profit-mongering and their margins on food sales have remained low.

Last month's inflation data from Statistics Canada showed grocery prices rose 9.1 per cent year-over-year even as prices eased in other sectors.

Samantha Henry, a deli clerk who's worked at Metro for 10 years, said those rising grocery prices were part of what motivated workers to reject the latest contract offer.

The 36-year-old mother of three, who was on the bargaining committee for Local 414, said workers gave the union a 100 per cent strike mandate before talks got underway. Workers were also driven by the sense that their efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic — when they remained on the job delivering an essential service — have gone unappreciated, she added.

Henry said survival is nearly impossible these days, citing rising rent and grocery costs with which most cannot keep pace.

“It’s hard when you have three kids and you work at a retail job. You have to budget your money and make sure you know what’s there every single week,” she said.

A Metro grocery store is seen in Toronto, Tuesday, July 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Eman Chaudhry, 22, spent the past four years working as a Metro cashier while she completed an undergraduate degree in human resources.

She said her years with the company have not led to any improvements to her benefits and neither she nor her other three family members — who all earn minimum wage — have enough to get by.

“Putting all that money together does not make enough to live off of," she said. "We’ve been living paycheque to paycheque for the longest time. Rent is so expensive and buying groceries for so many people is so expensive.”

Bacon issued a statement on Saturday reiterating Metro's disappointment with the strike action and saying it remains committed to the bargaining process.

"We worked constructively with the union and the employees’ bargaining committee and we reached a mutually satisfactory agreement that they unanimously recommended to employees," the statement read. "It provided significant increases for our employees over the 4 years of the collective agreement in addition to improved pension and benefits, building on working conditions that are already among the highest in the industry."

Metro said affected stores will be closed for the duration of the strike, but pharmacies will remain open. Impacted stores include locations in Toronto and its suburbs, Brantford, Orangeville, Milton, Oakville, Brampton and Mississauga.

The labour strife at Metro marked an inauspicious start to a series of negotiations Unifor is set to take on in the coming months.

The country's largest private-sector union is preparing to bargain more than a dozen collective agreements with the major grocers over the next two years, with the Metro contract the first of the group.

Payne previously said the union plans to pattern bargain, meaning the Metro deal would ideally set a precedent for future negotiations.

The union has said its priorities for Metro workers were improving pay and access to benefits, as well as improving working conditions and stability.

Payne said those goals are shared by labour groups around the world as they work to address a rising wave of worker discontent.

"Working people are fighting back everywhere from the ports of Vancouver to grocery store workers here to Teamster workers in the United States," she said, referencing an ongoing labour dispute by British Columbia's port workers and a recent agreement for U.S.-based UPS employees.

"This is not just happening here at Metro stores, it is the moment that we're in. And you can only push it so long where corporations are doing so well, the CEOs are doing so well, and workers are getting crumbs. That is not going to work anymore."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2023. 

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