For over a decade, retail workers in Ontario have faced an onslaught from the companies. Workers have had their wages and benefits slowly whittled away. The companies make up excuses like market performance, management shake-ups, and changes of ownership to scare workers into concessions. They argue that if they don’t bring labour costs down, everyone will lose their job. Now, citing competition from larger non-unionized operations such as Wal-Mart, the bosses have prepared the ground for an all-out offensive against the remaining rights of retail workers. The patience of workers who may have once listened to such arguments is running out. For every step back we take, the company demands ten more. Now, the battle lines have been drawn.
On 22nd September, the Globe and Mail reported that:
“Since 2003, (Allan Leighton) has manoeuvred through a labour minefield at Royal Mail (UK), where he serves as non-executive chairman. Working with the mail carrier's CEO, he has led a financial turnaround while cutting jobs and pushing modernization.
“He has also developed a reputation for forging direct relationships with the work force that often bypass union leaders. During the height of labour problems in 2003, he sent a letter to staff imploring them not to walk out.
“‘If you vote with the activists amongst the union against this deal – or don't vote at all – we begin the process of commercial suicide,’ he wrote in phrases that might be echoed during Loblaws' bargaining. The threatened strike was averted.”
Leighton demands that the workers shoulder the burden so that the bosses may reap better profits and sleep well at night. The capitalist system is what is responsible for commercial suicide. If companies do not make an ever increasing profit, their investors will take their money elsewhere. When companies collapse, it is the result of the anarchy of market competition, not the so-called extravagant wages of grocery store workers. We, on the other hand, argue that if decent wages are not compatible with capitalism, then it is the system that has to go!
According to the same article in the Globe,
“Wayne Hanley, national director of the UFCW union, says it doesn't know anything about Mr. Leighton, but is starting to do its own research into his background. He says he's keeping an open mind about Mr. Leighton and the role he might play.
“‘Concern is probably a good word,’ he added, although he's not necessarily positively or negatively concerned. ‘The tone of the company will be set at the bargaining table when we meet.... As far as we've been told, Galen Weston Jr. is running the show.’”
Militancy is the way forward. Whether or not Weston Jr. (Loblaws’ CEO) is running the show, he clearly understands this. Otherwise, he would not have brought in Leighton to do his dirty work for him. The bosses are planning an all out attack on what little they haven’t already taken.
In an attempt to divide the workers, retail companies have imposed two-tier contracts. This means a double standard in pay and benefits for the same work. Only the most senior of workers, who were hired before the collective agreements were gutted over the last decade, have better pay and benefits. All of the new low-paid part-time workers are marginalized in this process. By offering a carrot to the upper layer of workers who are rightly concerned with maintaining their current pay and benefits, the company slams a stick against the youth and new part-time workers. They justified this by citing Wal-Mart's move into groceries, as well as concessions made by other bargaining units. Today, they want to eliminate the last holdouts of decent wages and benefits in the retail sector.
Retail companies mainly hire youth because they think they are more easily exploited. A combination of school and busy social lives leads them to accept the idea of casualized labour. But sky-rocketing tuition fees and personal debt have increasingly come into conflict with the purchasing power of ever meagre wages.
The present situation where hardly any workers, let alone youth, show up to union meetings will change. When the interest of the senior workers is at stake (such as at ratification meetings), they do show up. With such a strong strike mandate in a sector with so many young workers, it is obvious that they see that their interests are at stake too. This strike vote proves that UFCW members are ready to stand up and fight; the question is in what direction the leadership will go. Either the UFCW leadership will stand and fight, or, they will stand aside while the companies gut the contracts.
The Westons are one of the top five richest families in Canada. Galen Weston himself is the second richest man in Canada, worth nearly ten billion dollars. No reasonable person could argue that they can’t afford to pay their workers decent wages. But it is precisely these heartless attacks that got them their money in the first place. They have made their money by lowering the living standards of their workers and marking up prices on food. With so many people going hungry, it is ridiculous that these people are allowed to make their millions in this manner. The Westons have proved that they do not deserve to run these stores. The grocery retail sector should be taken into public ownership and run by the people who know how to do it best – the workers themselves. This way, we could not only give UFCW members a decent standard of living, but also lower the price of food for everyone else.
If the Weston family forces this war on retail workers, they must be met with resistance. An injury to one is an injury to all! The entire labour movement must stand shoulder to shoulder with the workers of the UFCW. Our strength is in our unity. In a local of over 50,000 workers, we must not fear this unity. An attack on one of our bargaining units is an attack on all of them. We must respond accordingly. With correct tactics and a fearless leadership, nothing could stop the UFCW.
End two tier contracts!
Nationalize the grocery chains!
Brent J. MacVicar
A former UFCW Local 175 Shop Steward