Loblaw is raking in massive profits, yet doesn’t seem to have anything to spare for its workers. Rather than give the workers at their Calgary distribution centre the fair deal they were asking for, the grocery giant served layoff notices to nearly all of them right in the middle of contract negotiations. Five hundred and twenty-seven of 535 members of Teamsters Local Union 987 were given layoff notices effective Nov. 25 after union members voted a second time to reject an offer by Loblaw. The union had been in talks with Loblaw since its last agreement expired on June 6, 2022.
The intimidation tactic worked and the union accepted the deal the employer was offering with just hours to go before a lockout was set to begin. According to a union representative, now that an agreement has been reached there should be no job losses.
The workers had been fighting for higher wages and improved conditions. Many of them make below the $22.40 an hour needed to scrape together a living in Calgary. “Our members are feeling the pain of record inflation,” said John Taylor, business agent for Local 987 and spokesman for the negotiating committee, in a written statement. Talking to the Calgary Herald he added that the workers, “are kind of on the low end in comparison to Federated Co-operative and other warehouses that we represent, such as Sysco Food Service.”
The real sticking point in the dispute, though, was working conditions. Taylor said Loblaw would not change anything the union had asked for that did not involve money. The union was looking for guaranteed consecutive days off, seniority priority to scheduling, and a return of working condition language that was removed from their contract six years ago. As it stands, workers at the Calgary distribution centre don’t have control over their schedules; some are regularly scheduled for 10 hour days, and many are consistently scheduled with no consecutive days off. Such gruelling hours take a toll. After they kept grocery stores going through a pandemic—a pandemic that is not over—improved working conditions for food workers is a small request.
Speaking about the company’s offer in an interview before the deal was accepted, Taylor said, “this company, given their success, could do better.” It’s an understatement; Loblaw can afford to do much better.
On Nov. 16 Loblaw Companies Ltd. reported its third quarter profits were up a whopping 30.8 per cent compared to this time last year. Its overall Q3 revenue, meanwhile, was up over a billion, to $17.39 billion, compared to last year’s $16.05 billion.
These soaring profits are coming from squeezing the struggling working class—both those employed by Loblaws and those buying their products. Evidence suggests grocery stores—Loblaw-owned stores not least among them—are taking advantage of soaring inflation to gouge customers further. Food prices continue to climb while general inflation eases off; in October inflation was 6.9 per cent, while grocery prices rose by more than 11 per cent. Retailers blame supply chains and manufacturing costs for high prices, but economists have pointed out, “If it truly was just a question of higher supply costs, their profit margins should have shrunk, not widened.” Speaking to CBC, economist Jim Stanford also said, “Profits in food retailing are up very, very strongly compared to pre-COVD times.” And according to the BBC, Canadian grocery profit margins are higher than they were pre-pandemic: 3.5 per cent in 2022, compared to two per cent in 2018.
Food prices are so galling that the Canadian Competition Bureau has launched an investigation into the grocery industry. The bureau investigates anti-competitive practices that push up prices, such as deceptive marketing, price-fixing, and fraud.
Loblaws, of course, is no stranger to price-fixing. In 2017 it was infamously exposed for fixing the price of bread for 15 years.
The Calgary union busting is simply the most recent example of the miserliness that made Loblaw an empire and the Westons the third richest family in Canada.
The company claimed that the new contract was “a strong offer,” but did not provide any details about it, such as if the concerns over scheduling were addressed. Considering Loblaw was willing to lay-off its workforce and was actively moving inventory to different locations so that stores could continue to operate, it is safe to assume it didn’t give any ground to the union.
The offer was accepted by 66 per cent of voting members on Friday. Faced with a lockout so close to Christmas, workers accepted a deal they had previously rejected. Still, while 66 per cent is a good majority it is not an overwhelming one; if the union leadership had shown it was willing to fight for a better deal the members may have followed suit. Unfortunately the union was openly hesitant rather than bold. “[W]e haven’t taken a strike vote—we’d rather not have a strike, we don’t want to go on strike,” said Taylor in an interview on Nov. 21. “We want to negotiate a deal that gets the members back to work.”
It is true that a strike would have been difficult on the workers, but accepting low pay and poor working conditions also causes difficulties. To overcome the company relocating its inventory, the union might have reached out for the support of other Loblaws workers to win its struggle. This is an unscrupulous employer that colluded with other grocery chains to claw back “hero pay” from its workers as soon as it could. A blow against Loblaw would be a win for all workers.
Indeed, the struggle against Loblaw Companies Ltd. unites the entire Canadian working class. From its stingy treatment of workers to food inflation so bad it’s impacting health, Loblaw’s business practices affect us all. There’s no rational reason for something so important as food distribution to be left in private hands. If Loblaw were nationalized under democratic worker control and a rational plan we could guarantee good jobs and access to good food.
Loblaw is a retail giant that owns not only a range of grocery stores but also drugstores, its own store brands, and food distribution networks. It has an established history of cheating its customers and shortchanging its workers. The Weston fortune comes from the pockets of the working class. Sooner or later the working class will stand up to this giant and fight back for what it is owed.