Nfld. & Labrador

Strike vote ahead for Dominion workers, says union president

Unifor says the loss of a $2 an hour pandemic pay bump shows "a lack of respect" for grocery store employees.

Grocery chain cut its $2 pandemic wage increase last week

The union representing Dominion's 1,300 employees is considering a strike vote. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

The union representing employees of Dominion grocery stores in Newfoundland and Labrador could once again be calling for a strike, as contract negotiations coincide with the loss of a temporary pandemic pay bump.

Dominion's parent company Loblaw Companies Limited, ended the $2-an-hour wage increase June 11. Other chains, such as Walmart and Metro, followed suit.

"The bottom line is Loblaw should be ashamed of themselves. Here's a company that made over a billion dollars in profit last year. This year they are benefiting from the pandemic and are doing incredibly well," Jerry Dias, the national president of Unifor Canada, said Tuesday.

"They start off by cutting the $2 pandemic pay, saying, 'Well, we're all in the clear now.' They know better. They can't be so naive to actually even believe that. So it's about greed."

The COVID-19 pandemic stalled contract negotiations that began in 2019, said Dias. But as the two sides continue to talk, he said, there is no question Unifor will be taking strike votes, and a deadline for strike action will be set "ASAP."

"Our objective is to find a settlement. That's the entire objective, but ultimately Loblaws is going to have show more respect at the bargaining table than the lack of respect that they showed when they cut the $2 pandemic pay. That was just outrageous," he said.  

Unifor national president Jerry Dias says his union will go to strike vote after Loblaw Companies Limited cut its $2 pandemic wage increase on top of ongoing bargaining agreements which began in November. (CBC)

The bargaining agreement between Unifor Canada and Loblaw Companies Limited ended in November.

At that time, a dispute over the elimination of 20 per cent of full-time jobs in Newfoundland and Labrador nearly brought the union to a strike vote shortly before Christmas.

Dominion stores employ more than 1,300 workers in 11 locations across the province.

Pandemic costs

In a memo to staff members on Monday, Sarah Davis, president of Loblaw Companies Limited, said the wage increase was about recognizing employees who worked through the pandemic, never about hazard pay. 

"The premium was about recognizing your extraordinary effort during the early, complicated phases of the pandemic. So to refer to the pay premium as hazard pay is inaccurate. Today, our stores are operating much like they used to, just with new safety measures in place," Davis wrote.

"Our supermarkets and drugstores have now settled into a stable and consistent rhythm, and while profit did increase noticeably in the last few weeks of the first quarter, our expenses related to our response have since increased considerably."

Davis said the company has invested more than $280 million in COVID-related adjustments and safeguards, and noted pandemic-related costs are now much greater than the upside from pandemic-related sales.

"Another thing to keep in mind anyone outside of our business simply doesn't have the appropriate information to comment on this topic," the letter reads. 

Shoppers line up outside a Loblaws grocery store in Toronto in early May. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Part-time problem

Beyond the pandemic pay loss lies a larger problem, as Dias said Loblaw cut 60 full-time jobs in 2019 and converted them to part time. He said about 80 per cent of the work force for Dominon grocery locations in Newfoundland and Labrador are now part time. 

"The majority of all the Loblaws Dominon store employees in Newfoundland on average make below $15 an hour," Dias said.

"So what they did is they kept switching from full-time to part-time jobs. It forces workers to work through two or three different jobs.… It's not as if the office hours close and they can't schedule full-time hours. They hire part-time people to pay them less and provide them no benefits. So enough is enough. We've had enough."  

The part-time issue proved a major sticking point to negotiations in 2019.

In Davis's letter Monday, she referenced a note sent by Loblaw owner Galen Weston to PC Optimum members, which "reaffirmed our support for a progressive minimum wage."

"We've been saying this for years, consistently, and it's disappointing to hear misinformation spread at this time," Davis wrote.

A Loblaw spokesperson said the company will not be commenting on union negotiations at this point in time, but will be available to speak after they are complete.

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