Union holds strike vote for all Safeway stores in Manitoba

The union representing nearly all Safeway workers in Manitoba, from bakers to butchers to cashiers and overnight stockers, is asking employees to approve a strike mandate this month that could see workers walk off the job in March.

Grocery chain using bully tactics to sway negotiations, United Food and Commercial Workers union says

The union that represents most Safeway employees in Manitoba is asking members for a strike mandate later this month. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

The union representing nearly all Safeway workers in Manitoba, from bakers to butchers to cashiers and overnight stockers, is asking employees to approve a strike mandate this month that could see workers walk off the job in March.

Talks between United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW 832) and Safeway, which is now owned by Sobeys, broke down Wednesday after the employer refused to budge on a long list of concessions, said Jeff Traeger, president of UFCW Local 832.

"They simply are saying it's our way or the highway, and we don't think that's appropriate," Traeger said Friday.

UFCW is travelling across the province in late February and early March to meet with the 2,200 Safeway employees it represents to ask for a strike mandate.

A decision to strike could be made as early as March 4, when the votes will be counted. The earliest possible strike date is March 18 at 12:01 a.m.

'Bargaining with a gun to our head'

On Jan. 15, Safeway tabled a proposal that included "massive concessions that would effectively gut the collective agreement," Traeger said.

When the two parties met again on Tuesday and Wednesday, Sobeys had not made meaningful changes to its proposal, he said.

Traeger accuses the company of acting the way a "bully operates in a schoolyard."

The strategy includes threatening to close stores if the union doesn't accept the employer's terms, Traeger said.

"At the table, the company has said to us they are closing Safeway stores in Manitoba and that how many they close depends on what kind of a deal they get," Traeger said. "Effectively we are bargaining with a gun to our head."

'Stable jobs for the future'

Jacquelin Weatherbee, a Sobeys spokesperson, denied the company is making threats.

While Weatherbee would not discuss the particulars of what is discussed at the bargaining table, she said it is standard practice to discuss the viability of Safeway locations at the meetings.

"These are not intimidation tactics. This is what happens at the negotiation table. We sit down and describe and explain the performance that the company is seeing within each of the stores," she said.

"With all that information in mind, the union and the company is able to put forward recommendations on how collective bargaining agreements can be amended."

Store closures are based on a number of factors, including how much revenue the store generates, customer need and operating costs, Weatherbee said.

"We remain committed to working with the union to reaching an agreement that allows us to provide stable jobs for the future."

The grocery business is rapidly changing and highly competitive, she said. Sobeys has taken several steps in recent years to become leaner in that environment.

At the brand's peak in 2014, there were 35 Safeway stores in Manitoba, the UFCW said. Today there are 23 stores.

Last year the company announced 800 job layoffs across Canada as part of a company reorganization plan.

In B.C. in January, Sobeys announced closures at 10 Safeway locations but noted half may be turned into FreshCo locations. FreshCo is a discount brand.

UFCW representatives said it is difficult to negotiate in the grocery industry at present and the union has no interest in asking for terms that force Sobeys to lay off employees.