Her Toronto bookstore unionized in the middle of a pandemic. Now, she hopes others will join her

In the middle of a pandemic, Greta Whipple decided to help her co-workers unionize at a Toronto bookstore. And she's not alone. Private sector unions say more retail workers are interested in unionizing during the pandemic.

With COVID-19 worsening work conditions, advocates say there’s no better time to unionize

Greta Whipple, 25, was a key part of the unionization effort at her Indigo store in Toronto's Yorkdale shopping centre after working there on-and-off for over five years. (Submitted by Greta Whipple)

In the years leading up to the pandemic, Greta Whipple often wondered what would be the last straw that forced her to leave her part-time customer service job at Yorkdale shopping centre's Indigo book store.

There were many things that frustrated her, including stagnant wages and the fear management could lay her off at any time. But she thought if she went somewhere else, things wouldn't be any better.

"I can't tell you the number of times …  I contemplated a shift, but I really had the feeling that that would just be lateral," said Whipple, 25. "You're dealing with the same stuff under a different brand."

Then came COVID-19. Whipple realized she no longer felt safe at work wearing insufficient PPE and running the risk of dealing with customers who refused to wear masks.

But instead of leaving, she helped spearhead the unionization effort at her store last summer, following in the footsteps of at least five other Indigo stores in Canada where employees unionized. 

Whipple is now among 35,000 members represented by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1006A, which deals with workplaces such as grocery stores, retail shops, restaurants and more. 

"COVID-19 was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Whipple. "We locked down in 2020 [and 2021] and people had the time away from work. I think coming back, it sort of woke them up."

Why now might be a good time to unionize

The percentage of workers who belong to unions throughout the country has held steady — before and during the pandemic —hovering at over 30 per cent for about a decade, according to Statistics Canada. 

But while public sector workers are highly unionized at 77.2 per cent as of 2021, only 15.3 per cent of their private sector counterparts belong to unions, down from 21.3 per cent in 1997.

Jim Stanford, the director of the Centre for Future Work, a research institute in Canada and Australia, says industries like retail, hospitality and manufacturing are reckoning with the reality that their employees, who traditionally aren't unionized, may be looking to unionize to improve their working conditions.

"If you do a poll and ask workers, 'Do you want the protection of wages and benefits and pensions that come with a union contract,' the majority will say yes," said Stanford, a former economist and director of policy with Unifor, the largest private sector union in Canada. 

"It's more the legal and operational hurdles that have to be overcome in order to form a union in the face of very aggressive management opposition."

Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work, says he expects efforts to win rights and protections for gig workers will accelerate for a variety of reasons in the coming years, including due to a tightening of labour market conditions as the economy reopens after COVID-19. (Submitted by Jim Stanford)

Stanford says some of those hurdles include rules governing unionization campaigns and certification votes. Another barrier is employer intimidation, something he says governments don't do enough to stop, even though it's illegal. 

For Lyndsay Craine, one of 110 new members from The Salvation Army York Housing and Support Services who unionized with UFCW Locals 175 & 633 in December, unionization seemed within reach after COVID-19 showed the importance of her work. 

"I don't feel that it's an us-against-them situation," the program services case worker said of the relationship between the Salvation Army and its employees.

"But I believe that we're coming at it from two very different perspectives …  so it was necessary to create a situation where the people who [have] their feet on the ground and [provide] direct service have a greater say."

Over the pandemic, support services have been dealing with a worsening opioid, homelessness and mental health crisis leading to long service wait times and barriers to in-person treatment.

"Advocating for ourselves became essential to our ability to advocate for our clients," said Craine.

Unionizing and the labour shortage

According to Lesley Prince, director of organizing at UFCW Local 1006A, the local has seen "strong interest" from many retail workers.

"Since late 2020, workers at four book stores and eight retail cannabis stores in Ontario have voted to join UFCW 1006A," wrote Prince in an email to CBC News. "We see this trend continuing in 2022 as workers seek a meaningful voice on the job."

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce and the Toronto Board of Trade declined to comment on the effect of unionizations on businesses.

According to Statistics Canada, the total number of job vacancies across all sectors reached an all-time high of 912,600 in the third quarter of 2021. (Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press)

Whipple says while a collective agreement is still in the works, the immediate difference in morale is immeasurable. 

"I think the reason why so many of us have stayed at Indigo for so long is because we do like the work — we just don't like how disrespected we are," said Whipple, who says union dues are capped at about $11 a week.

"Knowing that we finally have somebody in our court to vouch for us, it makes it way more tempting to stay."

In response, Indigo says the unionization of its Canadian stores does not mean workers are benefiting from "higher wages, vacation, paid sick-time, health benefits or guaranteed hours."

"With the automatic deduction of union dues, unionized employees' take-home pay is actually less. Even with a minimal tax deduction the loss of income can be substantial," wrote Madeleine Lowenborg-Frick, Indigo's director of corporate communications, in an email.

"We respect our employees' right to seek third-party representation, but we prefer to have a direct relationship with them."

The Salvation Army wrote in an email to CBC News that it will "respect the voting process, result and look forward to better understanding the concerns raised" and working toward a resolution.

Stanford says despite the cost of paying higher wages and better benefits, employers should realize unionization can help them attract and retain employees in the long run.

"A union gives workers a safe, predictable channel to express their opinions and to challenge management decisions that they see as arbitrary or unfair" Stanford said. 

"Sometimes that makes all the difference in your work experience."