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Alberta Safeway workers mulling strike over stalemate union talks

Sobeys has struggled to integrate Safeway supermarkets into its business, the grocer said.
The union representing Safeway workers in Alberta said it is preparing for a potential strike. Credit/GETTY IMAGES

The union representing Canada Safeway workers in Alberta says it is consulting with its members about a possible strike vote.

The contract between Sobeys, which owns the grocery store chain, and its 8,000 workers at 75 Safeway stores in the province expired in 2017. A union official says little progress has been made in talks despite the addition of a government-appointed mediator in February.

Michael Hughes, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, says the stalemate is hard to take, since the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a financial boom for grocery stores where workers have been designated as essential.

“The grocery industry has been doing very, very well through the crisis. Their employees have been expected to come to work … and we’re hearing poverty at the table,” Hughes said.

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“One week they’re heroes; the next week they’re zeroes.”

The parent company of Sobeys, Empire Company Ltd., is headquartered in Stellarton, N.S., and bought more than 200 Safeway stores in Western Canada in 2013. The company also has more than 50 non-unionized Sobeys stores in Alberta.

READ MORE: From curbside pickup to home delivery: COVID-19 is shifting how Canadians get groceries

Hughes said Sobeys sent out a newsletter to shareholders saying it had recorded a 37 per cent jump in same store sales in the first four weeks of the pandemic lockdown.

Yet, he said, Sobeys is asking for concessions from workers and is converting some stores to the FreshCo brand, which he called a discount retailer with “a discount contract.”

The union has set up a page on its website entitled “Preparing for a Strike at Safeway in Alberta” and is doing an online survey of its members about a possible strike vote.

“There’s a feeling of real mistrust,” he said.

“We’re at the bargaining table trying to get a deal and we’re still looking at these concessions. People are furious. We’re in mediation right now and … we may be in a situation in the next few weeks to have to take a strike vote.”

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The future of grocery shopping in the COVID-19 pandemic
The future of grocery shopping in the COVID-19 pandemic

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Sobeys declined an interview but issued an email statement.

“We are committed to our teams in Alberta and are focused on achieving a fair agreement through the collective bargaining process — an agreement that will allow us to build a strong future in Alberta,”  wrote spokeswoman Zakiah Lalani.

“Our goal is to reach an agreement that allows us to invest in the future of Safeway and introduce our discount grocery brand, FreshCo, to Albertans.”