After years of low wages and precarious work, 3,700 Metro grocery workers across twenty-seven stores in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are prepared to strike, with a 100 percent vote in favor. This will be the first in a series of contract talks across Canada’s grocery sector, after Canadian grocery companies made record profits through the pandemic.
Approximately 140,000 grocery store workers in Canada are unionized, with the majority divided among the country’s three major grocery chains: Metro, Loblaws, and Sobeys. Starting this summer, they’re up for two years of contract talks. The first company up for talks is Metro, with its 3,700 workers in the GTA. Metro has reported the largest net profit of the three major grocers this year. In 2022, Metro’s net earnings was a record $922 million, building on a 26 percent increase and a total net profit of $2.5 billion since 2018.
Metro CEO Eric La Flèche attributed these profits to the “hard work” of his workers, yet there has been no corresponding raise in wages or benefits, except for a few reportedly provided “gift cards.”
“Our teams continue to demonstrate great dedication and resilience to serve our communities,” he told Bloomberg. “I’m grateful for their hard work.”
Record Profits, Low Wages
Metro maximizes its profits by enforcing a precarious work environment, pushing workers to their limit, and demanding employees maintain an intense pace, often leading to exhaustion. According to data from Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, millions are paid out to injured workers every year. All told, the company had 1,054 injury claims in 2019, 914 in 2020, 942 in 2021, and 827 in 2022.
“At the bargaining table, we have three key priorities: fair pay for all workers; greater access to improved benefits; and more secure, stable work hours and full-time jobs,” says Gord Currie, president of Unifor Local 414.
“The 100 percent strike vote is a clear message from dedicated Metro workers of their unwavering resolve to fight for fair wages, better working conditions, and to protect good jobs,” Unifor president Lana Payne said.
Currently, the union notes, most of Metro’s workers are part-time, receive low wages, and lack benefits — all while they “are constantly being asked to do more with less as each week, hours are cut, staff recruitment and retention dwindles, and workers dive deeper into exhaustion.”
As the company enjoys record profits, slides for a 2023 presentation intended for shareholders reveal indications of plans to intensify the pace of work even more. In the face of “labor shortages and rising costs,” the company maintains the need to “highlight automation as a priority.” Since 2017, the company has continuously issued threats of job cuts throughout its stores, while simultaneously demanding longer and more intense hours from its employees. “We have higher overtime percentages than we’re used to,” La Flèche said. He further vowed to launch “a store-by-store analysis where we think it pays off and where it accelerates service” and “reduces hours for us.”
The latter phrasing is very deliberate. When Metro speaks of reducing “hours,” it does not imply a reduction in working hours for its employees. Instead, it refers to minimizing the hours required to deliver its services and, whenever feasible, rotating among its precarious workers, thereby evading the provision of benefits and job security safeguards. This is what the strike vote aims to end.
During Unifor Local 414’s round with Metro, in 2019, the local sought an end to their erratic schedules and the company’s related benefit clawbacks. As the union observed: “Our members work incredibly hard and are the driving force behind Metro’s remarkable financial success.”
That collective agreement, which expired last September, saw an increase in the hourly wages at the starting rate from $16.25 to $16.75 over the course of the three-year agreement. That’s an increase of 3.07 percent, against 1.9 percent inflation in 2019, 0.7 percent in 2020, 3.4 percent in 2021, and 6.8 percent in 2022. This sort of inflation means that any pay that doesn’t exceed the increases to the consumer price index is actually a cut to real pay. “You know it’s bad when a grocery worker can’t afford the food they’re stocking on Metro’s shelves,” Currie said.
But, for Metro, low pay for intense work is a feature, not a bug.
Metro Inc. opened its first supermarkets in 1972. The company’s long history of opposing unions is a significant factor in its status as one of Canada’s most profitable firms. In September 1984, Metro’s owners directed three hundred of its grocery stores to lock out their truck drivers and warehouse workers and replaced them with scabs. After the union backed down, Gérald Tremblay, then vice president of Metro, told the Montreal Gazette, “Now we can have efficient and flexible operations.”
In 1990, when Pierre Lessard assumed the role of CEO, his leadership signaled the initiation of new rounds of “massive” job cuts, coinciding with the company’s annual sales reaching $2.3 billion.
More recently, as Ontario looked poised to increase its minimum wage to $15 per hour, La Flèche told a conference call in 2017 that the increase would cost about 8 percent of the company’s $586 million in net earnings. Rather than accept a lower profit margin, La Flèche promised: “As a team we will strive to mitigate this impact as much as we possibly can through productivity and cost reduction initiatives, but the size and pace of these increases pose a significant challenge.” Notably, he refused to rule out additional layoffs when asked.
Between Low Wages and Rising Prices
While Metro has done all it can to minimize what it pays to its workers, it has absorbed ever-increasing profits as part of Canada’s grocery oligopoly. Last year, as more and more Canadians were made hungry by rising food prices, La Flèche told the company’s shareholders that they can expect to profit handsomely off of these same price hikes: “Whenever there’s a spike in inflation like this, promotional penetration increases. We’ve seen that before. And we see strong sales whenever we feature a key item that has experienced inflation.”
Metro isn’t alone here. Five retailers — Loblaw, Sobeys, Metro, Costco, and Walmart — control 75 percent of Canada’s food retail market. And they exert their market power to gouge ordinary workers at the point of sale. All of these firms, in turn, also do what they can to cut their own workers’ wages. Both measures leave workers poorer.
According to a report submitted to the federal Competition Bureau by economist Jim Stanford:
The big retail grocery chains — Loblaws, Empire and Metro — have gotten much of the attention for food price inflation. This attention is absolutely deserved, as all three have had higher profit margins during the pandemic. . . . At practically every step along food supply chains, there are corporations seeking the greatest possible profit.
Across industries, the report notes, a monopolization tendency is obvious. And that helps to explain why Canada’s top two hundred thirty firms, across sectors, saw a 40 percent gain in net income of $175 billion last year. Meanwhile the total wages and salaries paid to employees across Canada grew by less than 19 percent.
Firms like these, the bureau previously warned, use their “naked restraints” on competition to impose “restrictions on wages or job mobility.” Precarious work, for them, is just as key to their profit as price gouging.
“Our grocery workers, like all Canadians, know full well the steep price increases on essential food items and the corresponding record profits reported by the biggest supermarket chains,” notes Payne. “CEOs are laughing all the way to the bank while workers and their families continue to struggle.”
The fight at Metro will, if launched, wrest some power away from profiteers like La Flèche and put it in the hands of the workers who feed the country and those who depend on them.