After launching a monthlong strike this summer, union grocery workers in Toronto have ratified a contract that improves wages, enhances benefits, and sets a major precedent for the sector.

Workers picket outside a Metro grocery store in Toronto, Canada, July 31, 2023. (Lance McMillan / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

On August 31, Unifor — Canada’s largest private sector union — announced that the 3,700 members of Local 414 had ratified a new contract, ending a monthlong strike at twenty-seven Metro grocery stores in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

In the context of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, persistent food price inflation, and grocery sector profiteering, the Metro strike was a political and economic flash point. It has drawn keen attention from both labor and capital alike, and its outcome is currently under scrutiny and discussion from various perspectives.

Because the Metro GTA contract sets the precedent for grocery sector collective agreements negotiated across the province, its details are vitally important — a point surely not lost on the employer and its competitors.

The union prioritized three key demands throughout the strike: addressing low wages, improving access to benefits, and increasing the number of full-time jobs at Metro. In the first two areas, it seems that the union made considerable gains, based on the information publicly disclosed by Unifor regarding the settlement. To what degree the union was able to further shrink the share of part-time jobs, however, remains to be seen.

With the new deal, the strike ends in a manner similar to other recent contract battles across North America. Significant gains are secured for long-tenured union members, while other “tiers” of workers have to settle for less. In the years ahead, the union has much to build on, but it also faces the ongoing challenge of addressing persistent disparities among its members.

Raising Expectations

It was clear from the beginning that workers were heading into contract negotiations with heightened expectations and a willingness to fight. Before bargaining officially commenced, on June 20, Unifor announced that workers across GTA Metro stores had voted unanimously for strike action. The union thus entered bargaining with an unequivocally clear mandate from workers to push the company hard on wages, benefits, and job stability.

In this first round of bargaining since the pandemic, workers were also unafraid to publicly air their frustrations over substandard wages and the inflated cost of living, record corporate profits at Metro and across the grocery sector, and general disrespect from management. “Metro must address low wages that have been further reduced by inflation and give workers their fair share of record company profits,” Unifor national president, Lana Payne, said at the time, relaying workers’ feelings. “Grocery workers deserve good jobs, it’s that simple.”

The union originally set a strike deadline of July 18, as wages, benefits, and other monetary issues remained unresolved at the bargaining table. Extended negotiations produced a tentative agreement on July 19, which the union bargaining team recommended to the membership for ratification.

In its official announcement, the union characterized the tentative contract as a “milestone agreement” that would “lay the foundation for grocery workers across the country.” Payne elsewhere described the proposed settlement as the “best agreement in decades.”

Local 414 members apparently disagreed. In keeping with a trend among union members across industries in Canada this year, Metro workers rejected the tentative agreement and struck for more. Members then hit the picket lines on July 29 in what would prove to be a month’s worth of pickets and rallies, eventually spreading to the grocery giant’s distribution warehouses and temporarily halting meat and produce deliveries across the province.

To the union’s credit, leadership quickly shifted full support behind the striking workers. “We brought the tentative agreement to our members because it contained considerable gains, but our members are clear that it simply isn’t enough,” Payne said at the time.

According to some commentators, the tentative agreement can be considered groundbreaking and would likely have been deemed a substantial triumph in the pre-pandemic era. The proposed contract contained paid sick days for part-time workers, pension and benefit improvements, and a $3.75 per hour raise by 2026.

But things have changed, especially when it comes to workers’ expectations. The combined factors of an ongoing cost-of-living crisis, sustained public attention on inflated food prices and grocer super-profits, and workers emboldened by a tight labor market have fundamentally transformed the threshold of what workers will accept from their employer and what they expect from their union.

Grocery Profiteering and the Cost-of-Living Crisis

There may not be such a thing as the perfect time to strike, but the GTA Metro case is as close as it gets. A tight labor market and strong membership organizing set the stage for a confrontation with a company notoriously up to its ears in profit.

At the same time, the squeeze of post-pandemic inflation and the cost-of-living crisis shaped Metro workers’ demands as well as their picket line resolve. Moreover, public outrage over grocery sector profits underlined the moral legitimacy of striking workers’ demands and pulled public opinion to the union’s side.

The combined factors of an ongoing cost-of-living crisis, sustained public attention on inflated food prices and grocer super-profits, and workers emboldened by a tight labor market have fundamentally transformed the threshold of what workers will accept.

Metro, like other Canadian grocery retail corporations, has been rolling in cash for years. According to the union, in 2022 Metro netted Can$922 million in profit, the highest haul in the company’s history. Last year was no outlier either. The grocery giant has set a new profit record every year since 2018. Overall, the pandemic seemed to have no negative impact on Metro’s balance sheet. Between 2020 and 2022, the company amassed roughly $2.5 billion in net profit.

Last year was also a banner year for Metro’s CEO, Eric La Flèche. While not showered quite as lavishly as the infamous top dog Galen Weston at competitor Loblaws, La Flèche nevertheless took home $5.4 million in total compensation, a 6.8 increase over the previous year. To put it in perspective, this compensation works out to roughly 115 times the average hourly pay of a full-time worker at Metro and a staggering 156 times the average wage of a part-time worker.

The CEO wasn’t the only one at the top with a ballooning pay package last year. The company’s top five executives shared $13.2 million in total compensation. Their bonuses alone increased 13.7 percent from the previous year.

This year too, profits at Metro continue to boom. Earlier in August, Metro’s third-quarter earnings report showed a 26 percent increase in profits over quarter three of 2022. Over the first forty weeks of 2023, the company managed nearly $797 million in profit, 11 percent higher than the same period last year.

Clearly, paying workers a living wage was never an unattainable goal. In fact, last year Metro conceded a 23 percent raise in a contract settlement with Unifor members at its GTA warehouses — the very warehouses that grocery-store workers blockaded during this strike.

Gulfs in the Pay Landscape

Wages were a primary concern entering the strike, and they continue to be a central focus. With the new contract spread over five years instead of the four originally proposed, the sheen of impressive up-front wage gains might soon fade. Nevertheless, the pay bumps secured from the picket lines are noteworthy, if uneven.

Full-time and senior part-time staff will see $2 per hour wage increases “within months,” while all workers will receive an immediate $1.50 per hour raise. Overall, the new deal will bring $4.50 per hour in wage gains for full-time and long-tenured part-time employees, while part-timers will end up with $3.20 over five years. According to the union’s press release, the compounded wage increases for full-time grocery clerks amount to more than $33,000 over the life of the collective agreement, a considerable and precedent-setting wage improvement in this notoriously low-wage sector.

The new agreement also includes improved benefits and pensions and new provisions to help standardize working hours. Additionally, it comes with job protection measures against potential negative impacts from self-checkout machines.

Although the newly ratified agreement brings improvements, these gains are spread unevenly. Longer-tenured workers, who already earn more than their newer coworkers, will receive the largest increases. For example, a deli manager’s pay will jump to $30.88 per hour from $26.38 by the final year of the agreement. Meat cutters will see a total of $6.20 per hour in pay gains, the largest increase in the bargaining unit. On the other hand, new clerks still start at just $16 per hour, 50 cents above the Ontario minimum wage.

The compounded wage increases for full-time grocery clerks amount to more than $33,000 over the life of the collective agreement, a precedent-setting wage improvement in this notoriously low-wage sector.

Prior to the strike, the average wage of a full-time employee at Metro in the GTA was $22.60 per hour, while part-timers — a portion of whom are students earning a subminimum wage — earned only $16.62 per hour on average. The highest hourly wage in the bargaining unit was just $27.29. For context, according to the latest Labour Force Survey from Statistics Canada, the average hourly wage in Canada is $33.24.

Whether these wage gains are enough — or represent all that could have been won — is open for debate. According to the terms of the last collective agreement, 70 percent of the bargaining unit earned less than $20 per hour. The new deal will improve this situation considerably but will unfortunately leave many newer and part-time workers merely scraping by.

The Struggle Over Part-Time Work

Job stability was also a central issue for workers in this strike. Metro’s reliance on insecure, part-time work has translated into substandard wages and benefits for many workers, along with unpredictable and insufficient hours. The union has been fighting for years to rectify this situation and to increase the share of full-time jobs at Metro, but the company has stubbornly clung to a business model premised on precarious, part-time work.

Entering this round of contract negotiations, 72 percent of union members at Metro GTA stores were employed on a part-time basis. As troubling as this figure may seem, it actually reflects an improvement compared to 2015 when part-timers made up 81 percent of the citywide bargaining unit.

Although the union managed to wrestle from the company a new sick-leave program for long-tenured part-timers, thus far there is no indication that the full-time composition of the bargaining unit will be increased appreciably. Moreover, part-time workers will see far fewer of the new wage and benefit gains.

For example, drawing on the experience of the pandemic, workers demanded a permanent reintroduction of the $2-per-hour “hero pay” provided between March and June of 2020. With the new contract, full-time workers gain $1.50 per hour immediately, with an additional 50 cents in the new year. Part-timers, by contract, will receive the first $1.50, but not the January bump. Even the additional paid sick leave will only apply to part-time employees who have been with Metro for at least five years.

The tiering of pay and benefits in this way perpetuates inequality between workers and undermines solidarity in the union. The battle against involuntary part-time work and substandard benefits will have to be waged beyond this particular contract.

At one time, work in the grocery sector provided family-sustaining wages and job security, before employers engaged in a concerted battle to crush unions and consolidate corporate bargaining power.

In many respects, the new collective agreement is historic, as the union suggests. Unifor managed to secure considerable wage and other benefit improvements for striking workers. Nevertheless, there are indications that not everyone is satisfied with the outcome of the strike. Additional weeks on the picket line induced only another 75 cents and 55 cents per hour for full- and part-time workers, respectively, over the agreement members rejected in July.

At one time, work in the grocery sector provided family-sustaining wages and job security, before employers engaged in a concerted battle to crush unions and consolidate corporate bargaining power. This recent strike can begin the process of reforming the industry and undoing these damages, but only if the union organizes and sustains workers’ energy beyond this recent contract fight.

The current moment may have been propitious for a strike of this magnitude, but like all labor confrontations, immediate expectations must be reconciled with a view of the longer term. Building union power is a marathon, not a sprint.

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