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Lessons from the Metro Grocery Workers’ Strike
by Susan Rosenthal - In late July, 3,700 workers organized in Unifor Local 414 struck Metro grocery stores across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) for five weeks. Did they win or lose?
Unifor’s press release crowed, “Metro grocery workers ratify historic new collective agreement.” It goes on to praise an “unparalleled contract that sets a precedent for further bargaining” in 13 more grocery contracts.
The Financial Post drew a different conclusion, quoting one grocery worker, “We just spent five weeks on the picket line for that? Oh my God. I feel like crying. It’s the biggest insult.”
The company’s original wage offer before the strike was a total increase of $3.75 per hour over four years (94 cents per hour per year) for full-time and senior part-time workers. The new contract offers a total increase of $4.50 per hour over 5 years. That’s 90 cents per hour per year, or 4 cents per hour less than Metro’s original offer.
For part-timers, the company’s original offer was $2.65 per hour over four years (66 cents per hour per year). The new contract includes a total pay hike of $3.20 per hour over five years or 64 cents per hour per year. That’s 2 cents per hour less than the original offer.
In other words, the new contract gives Metro workers less money than if they had taken the company’s original offer and avoided a 5-week strike. The wage gap between full-time and part-time workers is larger than before, giving Metro more incentive to convert full-time jobs to part time. And the 5-year contract blocks workers from demanding more for half a decade.
Why would union leaders praise a contract that is worse than the original offer and well below the rate of inflation?
The average wage of full-time Metro workers in the GTA is $22.60 per hour, while the average wage of part-time workers is just $16.62 per hour. (The Ontario minimum wage is $15.50 per hour, rising next month to $16.55 per hour.) These poverty wages are too low for workers to afford the food they stock on Metro shelves. They are also below the minimum wage required to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto.
Clearly this is a defeat. Grocery workers failed to get the living wage they fought for, despite a 5-week strike and substantial public support. To win the next battle, we need to examine why we lost this one.
Metro is a mega-corporation with 975 food stores and 645 drugstores across Ontario and Quebec. The company employs more than 95,000 people with sales topping $19 billion a year. Metro claims it cannot afford to provide decent pay and working conditions, yet it made a record billion dollars in profit last year, and is on track to make even more this year.
Along with other grocery corporations, Metro is making record profits by fixing prices and replacing higher-paid, full-time jobs with lower-paid, part-time ones. Currently, 72 per cent of Metro grocery workers are in part-time jobs.
Unions both unite and divide workers. Workers in 27 Metro stores are organized with Unifor Local 414, while workers in 57 other Metro stores have a separate contract with the United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).
For maximum strike impact, all workers employed by the same company should be in the same union. The fact that Metro workers with UFCW remained on the job reduced the impact of Unifor’s strike on the company’s bottom line.
Management further divides workers by paying part-timers less than full-timers for doing the exact same work. This naturally creates resentment and undermines union solidarity.
Until the 1980s, many companies paid full-time and part-time workers the same hourly wage or close to it. Since then, the wage gap between full and part-time wages has grown substantially, making it profitable for companies to replace full-time jobs with part-time ones. Currently, 72 per cent of Metro grocery staff work part-time.
These structural problems could have been overcome with an effective strike strategy. However, Unifor’s strategy proved ineffective.
On June 20, 100 percent of delegates from Unifor’s Metro stores voted to strike if their demands were not met. Shortly after, the bargaining committee unanimously recommended a 4-year contract that Unifor’s president praised as “the best offer in decades.” Union members disagreed and rejected the contract.
On July 29, 3,700 grocery workers struck 27 Metro stores in the GTA. Management retaliated by closing those stores, leaving workers to picket empty buildings.
With billions of dollars of profit, Metro could afford to wait out a strike by workers struggling to manage on $300-a-week strike pay.
On August 23rd, Unifor escalated by mounting 24-hour secondary pickets at two Metro distribution centers in Toronto. This proved so effective that Metro stores across the province began to suffer shortages.
Metro retaliated by seeking a legal injunction against the pickets. Within the week, an Ontario judge complied, forbidding workers from imposing more than a 5-minute delay on trucks and personnel entering the warehouse.
At that point, Unifor had a choice: to escalate further or surrender. Unifor is Canada’s largest private-sector union, representing 315,000 workers in every major section of the economy. Unifor could have called on all its members to physically block access to the distribution centers.
Unwilling to challenge the law, Unifor surrendered. It withdrew all action at the distribution centres as a “gesture of good faith.” Within days, it asked workers to vote on the new 5-year contract. Unifor has not revealed the portion of workers voting for and against this contract, possibly because it would be embarrassing to acknowledge a substantial NO vote.
Every day, the business class wage war against the working class, extracting profit from their labor and denying them life’s essentials. A strike is workers retaliating against these assaults.
An effective strike disrupts the flow of profit – the lifeblood of capitalism. To protect their profit-driven system, the laws, the courts, and the government move to block any action that interferes with the flow of profit or threatens to do so. When governments pass back-to-work legislation or impose a contract, it is always on the employers’ terms and never on the workers’ terms.
The State also counts on union bureaucrats to surrender when threatened with heavy fines or imprisonment for breaking the law. Yet laws can be overturned. Last year, Ontario premier Doug Ford repealed Bill 28 after being threatened with a province-wide general strike. This proves there are no illegal strikes, only ineffective ones.
In a bureaucratic union, the members’ goals are not the same as those of union executives. This was evident when Unifor officials praised a contract that was actually another pay cut.
The 6-figure incomes of top union leaders do not depend on the contracts they negotiate for their members; they depend on maintaining good relations with management. In contrast, workers can only advance by challenging their relations with management, and their only reliable allies are other workers in the same boat.
The Boycott Strategy
Employers depend on workers to produce. They also depend on the public to consume. Strikes target production, and boycotts target consumption by asking people not to buy the company’s products or services. The most effective boycotts accompany effective strikes, a prime example being the 1960s California grape strike.
The boycott is considered a weapon of last resort for unions that are unable or unwilling to strike, or whose strikes are failing. Asking consumers to boycott a company’s goods or services makes union leaders appear militant without seriously challenging management. Today’s corporations have such massive profits, they can weather a consumer boycott. They rightly calculate that a temporary hit to their bottom line will cost less than raising wages.
The Public Relations Campaign
Boycotts have a limited use. Reduced sales can cause a company to lay off workers in order to stay profitable. And boycotts don’t work in public-sector strikes. We can’t expect people to boycott hospitals.
To avoid such problems, unions mount public relations campaigns to promote the righteousness of workers’ demands. During the Metro strike, a union-backed campaign appealed to the public to urge Metro executives and government officials to meet grocery workers’ just demands.
Corporations and governments have deep pockets and privileged access to the media, enabling them to mount their own public-relations campaigns that pit consumers against workers. When low-paid education workers voted to strike last year, the Ontario Minister for Education condemned the possibility of a strike as “not fair on families.”
Corporate public-relations campaigns also promote the lie that raising wages will only increase prices. Yet, there would be no need to raise prices if corporations shared their profits with the workers whose labor made those profits possible.
Since the 1980s, unions have increasingly relied on boycotts and public relations campaigns instead of mobilizing workers at the point of production. This has proved to be a losing strategy marked by a significant drop in the number of strikes, a decades-long decline in the portion of unionized workers, rising social inequality, and falling living standards for the majority.
Most Consumers Are Workers
Union reliance on public-relations campaigns promotes the mistaken belief that workers lack the power to change things, so the only option is to rouse “the public” to convince authorities to give workers a fair deal. In essence, workers are falsely cast as victims in need of rescue by a caring public.
It’s true that workers are victimized by the business class and by the capitalist system as a whole, but workers are not victims! Their collective labor power can stop the for-profit economy and redirect it to meet human needs. The business class are well aware of the power of the working class and invest heavily in repressing it.
There is no “public.” There are bosses and workers, and the people in between. The majority of people and the majority of consumers are workers. Their power as workers to affect conditions on the job and in society, is far greater than any moral pressure they can exert on those who profit by not listening.
There is a world of difference between calling on the public to exert moral pressure on the business class, who are not on our side, and calling on the working class to swell picket lines and mount secondary strikes that are massive enough to bring the company to its knees and make anti-strike laws unenforceable.
Rousing the entire working class to defeat the corporations and their State is the last thing union executives want. They rightly fear losing control to front-line workers who, once mobilized, could demand far more than the capitalist system is willing to accommodate.
We Can Win!
We can begin to win if we treat every strike as a class battle, where victory for one side requires defeat for the other side. Bosses and workers have opposite interests, so there can be no win-win. As long as union officials operate on the assumption that both sides can win, workers will lose.
To win, workers must take democratic control of their unions. That does not mean replacing established bureaucrats with newer ones.
Unions originally formed under the direct collective control of their members, before they grew into bureaucratic systems that partner with management to keep workers down. We need to revive the tradition of a union being the solidarity of workers on the job, collectively confronting management with their grievances, and walking out together when management refuses to budge.
You don’t need to join a union in order to become a union. Consider the solidarity of autoworkers after winning their 1936-37 strike against General Motors.
The foremen were tip-toeing around, being very careful. Every time something came up that couldn’t be settled, or the workers got a tough foreman who told them, “Go to hell,” they’d shut down the line. The men were so cocky, they’d say to the foremen, “You don’t like it?” They’d push the button and shut down the line. It was very pleasurable to think that these men were not afraid of the boss anymore.
To win, we need to build worker-to-worker solidarity, based on a clear understanding of the conservative nature of the union establishment and its willingness to compromise workers’ interests. Building member-to-member solidarity will enable workers to broaden and deepen strike action when union executives get cold feet.
To win, workers must counter every escalation by the employer or the State with an even stronger escalation, until it hurts the company more to continue the strike than to settle.
Standing up for each other on the job is the first step to building powerful worker-led unions that can challenge the bosses and win.
The report first published on susanrosenthal.com.
Photo: Striking Metro grocery store workers of Unifor Local 414 hold picket lines outside the Shoppers World store at Danforth Ave. and Victoria Park Ave. in Toronto on Aug. 1, 2023. PHOTO BY JACK BOLAND /Postmedia News (Source)