On June 11, Canada’s three largest grocery chains—Sobeys, Metro, and Loblaw—announced that they would be ending the $2 premium which they had paid employees who risked exposure to COVID-19. When they introduced the bonus in mid-March they characterized it as a “Hero Pay Program,” but it seems that just months later they have decided their workers are heroes no more, and no longer deserving of the bonus.
To any observer, the move appears to be coordinated. As a result, the executives of the three firms were called before the House of Commons to answer questions about possible illegal collusion. While categorically denying the charge, the bosses essentially admitted that their decision was coordinated. For example, Metro CEO Eric La Flèche concedes that he made several phone calls to competitors in May and June to ask about the duration of their bonus pay programs, but insists this was “in perfect compliance with The Competition Act.” La Flèche also admits he received an email from Loblaw President Sarah Davis providing him a warning that her company was rescinding their pay premium (which Davis unconvincingly characterizes as a “courtesy email” rather than collusion), but La Flèche nonetheless insists that this was only “one factor among others” contributing to Metro’s decision to claw back its workers’ bonus. This despite the fact he made the decision to cut Metro workers pay took place mere hours after receiving Davis’ email!
Despite the CEOs’ hedging and denial, to the ordinary working person there is little doubt that this is just the latest example of the grocery bosses contempt of Canadian workers. This conspiracy to short-change their own workers is all the more reprehensible when we consider that they have seen record profits during the pandemic period. All three companies saw profits over 20 per cent higher than they were in spring 2019. These profits were made off the backs of grocery workers who, at great personal risk, have literally been keeping food on people’s shelves during the pandemic. In light of such profits, the $2 an hour hero pay was clearly too little in the first place.
Even Prime Minister Trudeau—who has been anything but a friend to labour—has indicated his displeasure at the pay cut, saying that “hero” grocery store workers must be “properly” paid. Of course, Trudeau has not promised to do anything concrete to protect the affected workers. Meanwhile, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh was somewhat stronger in his language, pointing out the absurdity of Loblaw dodging taxes, accepting Liberal corporate welfare, and engaging in pandemic profiteering while refusing to properly pay their workers. Nonetheless he neglected to say what should be done to rectify the situation.
Jerry Dias, the President of Unifor (which represents thousands of grocery employees across Canada), has indicated that Canadian workers are ready to fight, saying that union members are “furious [and] feel betrayed [after] put[ting] their lives at risk to serve their communities.” He has further indicated that the pay cut “could absolutely lead to strike action” and “if Galen Weston doesn’t fix it, then I’ll fix it.” These are strong words from Dias, but they must be followed by action. In fact, there has never been a better time for a strike, with the public firmly in grocery workers’ corner and calls for a boycott already receiving wide circulation online.
The urgent need for a fightback is heightened by the justification grocery executives offered for the pay cut, with the bosses claiming that grocery workers are no longer at risk. According to Galen Weston Jr., the Executive Chairman of Loblaw, the bonus was no longer needed because workers “are operating safely and effectively in a new normal.” Perhaps things look safe and cozy from Galen’s mansion, but back in the real world two Loblaw workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the pay cut took place, just the latest of the 500 plus grocery workers who have already contracted the virus. Presumably, Galen is so focused on dodging taxes and lobbying against minimum wage increases that he has failed to notice his workers are still getting sick. But to the rest of us, it’s obvious that grocery workers are still risking their lives every day. The grocery bosses’ claim that they are no longer deserving of “hero pay” is unconscionable.
It’s clear that the real motivations for the pay cut have nothing to do with the changed circumstances of grocery workers, and everything to do with increasing the profits of the bosses. At an earlier point in the pandemic the grocery capitalists were worried about retaining their employees, but now that this threat has passed they see an opportunity to boost their record earnings to even more astronomical levels. Under capitalism, the owners of businesses will always have the incentive to maximize their profits by ratcheting up the exploitation of workers. This dynamic is playing out in an especially disgusting way in this case. The grocery bosses, who do no actual work, plan to get even richer by short-changing workers who are carrying out dangerous and essential labour. It’s time for Canada’s working-class heroes to put an end to the degenerated and parasitic social system which facilitates this type of injustice.