Union leaders say Metro workers rejected the “best agreement in decades” to begin a strike across the Greater Toronto Area because wages are not enough to keep pace with the rapidly rising cost of living.
Speaking outside a shuttered store on Danforth Avenue in Toronto, the union called out profits brought in by grocery store chains in Canada and said some staff were forced to use food banks.
Frontline grocery workers at 27 Metro stores began a strike at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, with picket lines popping up at stores from 8 a.m. onwards. The union, Unifor, said the strike includes 3,700 workers and is the largest strike in its history.
All 27 stores are set to remain closed for the duration of the strike, though pharmacies will stay open, Metro said.
“They have a lot of courage, a lot of courage, to give up their pay cheque — as small as it is — in order to stand up and say enough is enough,” Unifor national president Lana Payne said. “We need to share the money that we help Metro earn.”
Union takes aim at Metro profits
Metro reported a 10.4 per cent jump in profits on food and pharmacy sales in April. Sales in what was the company’s second quarter totalled $4.55 billion, up 6.6 per cent from $4.27 billion in the same quarter last year.
The CEOs of Canada’s largest grocery stores have defended increased prices and profits amidst soaring inflation.
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“Reasonable profitability is an important part of operating a successful business,” said Galen G. Weston, CEO of Loblaw’s parent company George Weston Ltd., previously told a federal government committee.
The union, however, said it was not entertaining the grocers’ arguments that profit margins remained small on individual items.
“Who believes this razor-thin argument? I don’t believe it, the world doesn’t believe it,” Payne said on Saturday. “They’ve been jacking up grocery prices for the past three years.”
In a statement issued Friday evening, Metro said it was “extremely disappointed” the union had opted to strike, pointing out the union’s bargaining committee had recommended members accept the deal.
“The settlement provided significant increases for employees in all four years of the agreement, as well as pension and benefits improvements for all employees, including part-time employees,” the Metro statement read.
NDP leaders weigh in
Union bosses and striking grocery workers were joined Saturday by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
Singh, who has pushed grocery store CEOs in committee hearings and regularly commented on their profits, continued to point the finger at Metro’s senior leadership.
“This company is not under any hardships,” he told reporters after briefly joining striking workers on the picket lines. “This company is making massive profits.”
His Ontario counterpart, Marit Stiles, also weighed into the conversation, offering her support to Unifor and its workers.
In a post on social media Saturday, Stiles said workers stood on the picket lines as “top executives cash in” at Metro.
“Solidarity with these @UniforTheUnion workers in the GTA & hoping for a fair offer from the employer in short order,” she wrote.
In its statement, Metro told customers they could shop at other Food Basics or Metro stores.
“We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience they may experience in the circumstances,” the statement read.
Staff worry about precarious work, low wages
Outside a shuttered east-end store in the rain, union members and leaders said the reality of working at Metro was unsustainable. Unifor said 70 per cent of jobs at the grocery store were now part-time, making it difficult for workers to make ends meet and forcing some to juggle several jobs.
“This is definitely about money,” said Gord Currie, president of Unifor Local 414 which represents the grocery workers.
“The system is broken here, we have people in our own stores who can’t even afford the groceries in our stores — they have to go to food banks. There’s a problem with the governance and it’s going all the way up… this is for grocery workers and retail people everywhere.
Samantha Henry is one example. She said she has worked as a deli clerk at the Metro on Danforth Avenue and Victoria Park for a decade, said she can’t afford to shop at her own store for groceries.
“It’s very frustrating to work in a store where you can’t buy your groceries there because you can’t afford them,” she said.
Henry, who is on the bargaining committee for Metro, said she’s fighting for better employment for herself and her coworkers.
“We’re on the picket line to fight for better wages, better pensions, better benefits — a lot of things,” she said. “We are all struggling, we’re living paycheque to paycheque.”
With her rent increasing, and bills like utilities and cell phones spiking up, the only thing that hasn’t seemed to jump is Henry’s wage.
“It can be very hard, the prices of groceries and everything continues to rise, rent, your bills, but your paycheque doesn’t rise with inflation. It can be very tough,” Henry said.
While Henry has had stable hours, her co-worker, Meriam Semon, hasn’t been able to get full-time hours despite working for a year and a half. She said that she averages around 35 hours a week, but isn’t given full-time hours that would make her eligible for benefits.
“They make a lot of money, but it’s not fair for us,” she said.
Semon is also a single mother and has some government support, but with her low wage, she said she barely gets by.
“It’s so very low, it’s minimum wage…The cost of Toronto is so high that I can barely survive with my one child,” she said.
Unifor represents more than 310,000 Canadian workers, including Global News employees.
— with files from Global News staff and The Canadian Press