On June 12, Fightback organizers joined striking Wine Rack workers for a solidarity rally outside a Wine Rack in downtown Toronto on Wellesley Street East. Dozens of workers held down the picket lines, supported by a crowd that included representatives of labour and socialist organizations. Energy was palpable among the workers, who displayed their determination to fight back against low wages, unfair scheduling and union busting.
Numerous speakers from SEIU Local 2, which represents Wine Rack workers in the GTA, gave voice to the grievances of the workers. One spoke about health problems she and other Wine Rack workers had suffered: “Everyone I work with got back problems from all of the lifting we do on the job … We aren’t even allowed to sit on our shift!” Another detailed how Wine Rack required a pregnant worker to get a note before they would give her permission to sit down during her shift.
Workers described difficulties covering rent and other basic necessities on the low wages Wine Rack pays them, as well as the lack of reliable scheduling, the refusal of Wine Rack to prioritize the health and safety of employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the company’s attempts to break the union. A key element of Wine Rack’s union busting has been the “manager-in-training” program, which replaces unionized employees with non-union managerial positions. SEIU 2 has called for a boycott of Wine Rack products for the duration of the strike.
Two Labour Fightback activists, Jahan Niroomand and Jennie Ernewein, also spoke at the rally. They connected the Wine Rack strike and the need to support SEIU 2 to the broader struggle of essential workers under capitalism. Jahan put the strike in the context of a Canada-wide effort by bosses to attack workers, break unions and take away democratic rights, including the right to strike.
Jennie, who is a member of Workers United Canada Council Local 154, shared her own union’s success in reinstating one to two days of remote work per week for WoodGreen Housing and Homelessness workers. She described the systemic nature of the bosses’ attacks against workers during the pandemic and the struggle of essential workers for health, safety and a living wage. “The system is failing us,” Jennie said. “The system has to change. That system is capitalism.”
Fightback spoke to two union members on the picket lines, SEIU 2 political action coordinator Diego Mendez and Wine Rack merchant Sacha Kingston-Wayne. They noted that some workers had crossed picket lines and continued working despite the strike, but blamed the company for encouraging scabbing through its low wages. However, they described high spirits among the striking Wine Rack workers, a resolve to fight, and a feeling of encouragement from widespread public support.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Diego Mendez, SEIU 2 political action coordinator
Fightback: Can you tell me about what the situation is with scabs right now?
Diego Mendez: There are still, no question, a number of bargaining unit members who are working. We believe there are two reasons for that. First of all, the employer had been, before the strike, actively pursuing young low-wage workers to cross the picket lines. They were basically building a scab operation.
But on top of that, it’s very, very difficult for workers who work at Wine Rack to have any savings. Just being able to afford to go on strike is literally impossible for a bunch of people. I’m not saying it’s easy, because it’s not, for the people who are on the picket lines. They’re making that sacrifice, but there’s some people who just have not been able to do it.
What I would remind people is that we received an 86 per cent vote in support for the strike. So there’s no question there are people who support what we’re doing and just for one reason or another can’t come out to the lines. Having said that, though, we hope that they will be able to join us.
FB: What do you hope the labour movement can do to help bolster the strike?
DM: Of course any support from the broader labour is important. I think the easiest thing to do is obviously boycott Wine Rack until they offer a fair deal for the workers there.
But the other situation is, Wine Rack is owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, and words are not enough. They need to take action to make sure that their asset, one, is not damaged by what’s happening, so that they protect the teachers’ pension plan. But also, they’re supposed to be investing ethically, and what this company is doing is far from that.
FB: I believe there are some teachers out here at the rally today. How can teachers help support the wine rack strike?
DM: The easiest thing to do—and hundreds of teachers have done this already—is sign a petition on TeachersForJustice.ca to the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. But frankly, what would also be helpful is for them to talk to their leadership and make sure it trickles all the way to the top—to put pressure on the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan to again, protect their asset and to make sure that workers’ rights are respected.
FB: How are workers holding up on the picket lines?
DM: This was a hard week. It was hot, hot, hot. We had very little shade. But the workers have been fantastic. As you can see, even in today’s rally, there’s a lot of energy. We hope we can stop because there’s going to be a fair deal offered. But if we need to keep on going, we’re going to keep on going.
FB: Have you heard any updates from the employer in terms of responses to the workers’ grievances, such as scheduling, seniority, wages?
DM: No, as far as I know, they made their final offer Friday of the previous week. That final offer did not address the concerns that workers had, and nothing has changed since that.
FB: Anything else you’d like to add?
DM: One of the things that workers have found incredibly inspirational is the general support they’re getting from the public. Lots and lots of people are walking away from the Wine Rack store—when they’re about to go in, they find out the workers are on strike and why they’re on strike. So it’s been really encouraging to get so much support from the public.
Sacha Kingston-Wayne, Wine Rack merchant
Fightback: What’s your position at Wine Rack?
SK-W: I’m a merchant at the Keele and Bloor store. I’m also the steward for the union for that store.
FB: How long have you been working there?
SK-W: Since August last year.
FB: What’s been your own experience working for Wine Rack during the pandemic?
SK-W: Obviously I never received COVID pay the whole time I’ve worked there. So that sucks. We’re being put in danger. We have customers who refuse to wear masks, who don’t treat workers with respect, and management doesn’t respect us in turn. For a long time, I wasn’t able to get EI or CERB, and just living off the 10 to 15 hours a week I get minimum wage at Wine Rack, or just above minimum wage.
FB: Some of your fellow workers have mentioned how they gave you pandemic pay and took it away right before the worst part of the pandemic.
SK-W: Yeah, they actually took it away before I started working there. So I never got it.
FB: One Wine Rack worker spoke today about dealing with belligerent customers. What has management done about any of that?
SK-W: Nothing. They say that, because they put Plexiglas in, because they give us masks, because they give us these basic supplies, they think they’re doing more than enough to protect us.
FB: Regarding the issue of wages, Toronto is one of the most expensive cities in North America to live in. How difficult do you find your current living situation in light of the wage that Wine Rack pays you?
SK-W: It’s definitely insulting. They don’t give us enough to pay most rent prices in Toronto. They don’t give enough for me to pay my rent, for sure.
FB: Do you have any personal experience with this arbitrary scheduling and lack of dependable work hours, or do you know anyone who is more senior and has had problems getting reliable hours?
SK-W: One of my co-workers became a manager-in-training, and I don’t blame her. She needed permanent residency (PR) and she needed hours, and becoming a manager-in-training might help you get PR. Supposedly it’ll help you get 30-plus hours a week, which is why people do it, even though you’re still getting paid minimum wage to do a manager’s responsibilities. Me and all of my co-workers, our hours got cut when this person became a manager-in-training. Our hours are not protected in this case.
FB: What’s the general mood on the picket lines since the strike started on June 7?
SK-W: I think it’s been generally positive. I’d say people seem pretty stoked to be speaking our minds and not just taking it from this company anymore.
FB: I’ve heard there’s been some scabbing going on and people crossing picket lines. What are you and your fellow workers feeling about that situation?
SK-W: One of the other stewards said something today like, the enemy isn’t scabbing workers. The enemy isn’t people crossing the picket line to buy wine, even though that sucks. The enemy is the company. They put people in a position where they’re spreading anti-union propaganda, they’re giving people poverty wages, so obviously they’re living paycheque to paycheque and a lot of them can’t afford to strike.
FB: What can the community do to help support your strike?
SK-W: You can show up to rallies like the one happening today. You can not shop at Wine Rack. You can tell your friends and family not to shop at a Wine Rack while we’re on strike.
FB: Anything else you’d like to add?
SK-W: Just show solidarity with striking workers, please. It’s not that hard.