As this article is being written, Loblaw workers across Ontario have given the leadership of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union a 97% strike mandate, providing the leadership the option of calling a strike if they see this as necessary to move their negotiations with the company forward. This is an astounding figure.

Negotiations between Loblaw Companies Limited and UFCW locals 175, 633, 1000A, and 1977 began back on 8 Apr. 2010, though Loblaw has been unwilling to give an inch on their concessionary demands since that time. The UFCW locals involved in these collective agreement negotiations represent approximately 30,000 workers, or a quarter of Loblaw employees across Canada, at various Loblaw Companies Limited stores, including Loblaws, Zehr’s, Real Canadian Superstores, Loblaw Great Food, and Fortinos.

In any situation, a 97% strike mandate vote is extraordinarily high, though the workers at Loblaw are dealing with very exceptional conditions. Loblaw’s contract offer includes a proposed 25% cut to workers’ wages, increased waiting time for benefits eligibility, a reduction in full-time jobs, and the imposition of availability-for-work rules on part-time workers that would make it almost impossible for them to hold another job or attend school while working for Loblaw. Loblaw says that these concessions, as well as the greater “operational flexibility” resulting from the reduction in full-time jobs and the imposition of availability-for-work rules for part-time workers, are necessary for them to compete in an industry in which the majority of workers are no longer unionized. In an e-mail to the Toronto Star, Julija Hunter, Vice-President of Public Relations for Loblaw, justified the wage concessions and the greater job instability the company is asking their workers to accept by claiming that Loblaw pays “10 percent more than competitors and have 15 percent less flexibility.” She claims that this situation creates “a real competitive disadvantage” for the company and is “not sustainable.” Loblaw president Allan Leighton claims that Loblaw is at a disadvantage because most of its rivals are non-unionized, pay their employees less, and have more “flexibility.” Leighton has said, “This is a watershed period in our industry. It’s time for a change.” This shows the much broader importance of the battle currently being waged by Loblaw workers.

When we look at the actual financial situation of Loblaw Cos., a very different picture emerges than the one painted by their executives. In the first 24 weeks of 2010, Loblaw’s accumulated gross profit was over $3.5-billion, up by $210-million, or 6.4%, from last year’s gross profit during the same period (figures from Loblaw executives are continuing to use the capitalist crisis as an excuse to gain more concessions from Loblaw workers, even though the company is more profitable than it was just last year. This isn’t just limited to Loblaw as many other companies, including Ford and General Motors, continue to demand more cuts and concessions from workers because of the economic crisis, even though many have returned to profitability for quite some time.

One of the costs that Loblaw’s bosses are claiming that they have to bear (and one of the reasons they give for bargaining hard with Loblaw workers) is that they need to spend $1-billion this year to upgrade their information technology, specifically their distribution network and inventory systems. In many respects, this is very ironic because many of the problems with Loblaw’s distribution are a result of changes they made in 2005, precisely in an attempt to cut labour costs, that wrecked Loblaw’s distribution networks, centralized almost all of Loblaw’s merchandise in Ontario to one GTA warehouse, and resulted in chronic shortages at Loblaw stores. Loblaw already has closed another warehouse in Quebec earlier this year, obviously learning nothing from their experience in Ontario, all in the name of “streamlining” and cutting costs. In these contract negotiations, the workers are being made to pay for the company’s mistakes in which they had no role. Marxists are not opposed to improvements in technology and making things more efficient, especially if it makes workers’ lives easier; but, in the case of Loblaw’s “streamlining,” technological change means greater inefficiencies and fewer jobs for Loblaw workers. What we need is technological innovation for the good of people and not for the bottom line.

The 97% strike vote shows that Loblaw workers are prepared to defend their jobs and working conditions, but they should also make sure they keep their leaders accountable. Unfortunately, UFCW does not have a good reputation of bottom-up working class militancy and the union bureaucracy has capitulated to the bosses on numerous occasions. The UFCW rank-and-file need to use this fantastic strike vote as a launching pad to revitalize the union to make it genuinely democratic, active, and militant. This is the best way to ensure victory in this struggle and prevent a bureaucratic sell-out from above.

Negotiations between UFCW and Loblaw resumed on 9th August, with no news of any progress coming out of these negotiations as this article is being written. Loblaw Cos. would like nothing better than to break the power of the union. A defeat for Loblaw workers would have a downward ripple effect for all food and retail workers. All workers must stand in solidarity with Loblaw workers in their fight against the concessionary offer being pushed on them by the company. We cannot continue to bear the burden of their crisis.