TORONTO — No Frills workers at 17 stores in Ontario have ratified a new collective agreement that raises wages and expands the number of full-time jobs, the union representing them has confirmed.
A press release from Unifor said the deal, which covers almost 1,300 workers, will see wages rise between $3.20 and $4.50 an hour over the duration of the agreement.
The five-year contract also includes a new benefits program for part-time workers and creates 30 new full-time positions to be filled within a year.
"Our union’s fight is to improve wages and working conditions for grocery store workers. I am very proud of the work of our bargaining committee at No Frills who fought hard for this deal for their members," Unifor national president Lana Payne said in the press release.
No Frills is the discount grocery banner owned by Loblaw Cos. Ltd., the largest grocery company in Canada. The workers were negotiating with a committee representing the owners of the No Frills franchises.
"We’re pleased that the agreement has been ratified and that customers can continue to rely on us for affordable food options, particularly as we go into the holiday season," said Aylmer No Frills owner Ryan Barrett on behalf of the owners' committee in a statement provided by Loblaw.
The workers reached a tentative agreement last Sunday as a strike deadline approached.
After a five-week strike over the summer by Metro workers in the Greater Toronto Area resulted in significant gains, Unifor was seeking a similar win for the No Frills employees.
“Unifor managed to extend the pattern agreement with Metro to No Frills. And that's a major accomplishment that will likely have profound implications for the industry, in the sense that it will likely lift wages for all grocery store workers, both union and non-union,” said Larry Savage, a professor in the labour studies department at Brock University.
While the original Metro agreement already had the potential to influence other workplaces and collective agreements, successfully replicating it at another major chain will help strengthen that “domino effect,” he said.
“It sends the signal there that the Metro agreement was not some fluke, that the Metro agreement becomes the new normal,” he said.
“I think the gains in this contract signal that workers are determined to get ahead in the face of growing income inequality, and that employers understand that unions won't roll over and accept the status quo.”
The wage gains in the agreement are front-loaded, with full-time workers getting a $2-an-hour raise within the first five months and part-time employees getting $1.50.
Unifor previously said the average hourly wage for full-time workers under the No Frills agreement was $19.89, while the average hourly wage for part-time workers excluding students was $16.95. Only six per cent of workers across the stores had full-time positions.
The addition of 30 full-time jobs is also an impressive win, noted Savage.
"It opens the door to bigger improvements in the future," he said. "The toughest thing in bargaining is to kick open the door on a new issue altogether. And the fact that the union was able to negotiate new full-time positions is a major achievement at a discount grocery store chain."
With the major grocery companies continuing to report rising profits, the union has said workers deserve a bigger piece of the pie.
The loss of 'hero pay' instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic was a rallying cry for the striking Metro employees this summer, as inflation and then rising interest rates have weighed on workers across the country.
"I think it shouldn't surprise anyone that the very same grocery store workers who were held up as heroes during the pandemic aren't content to just go back to living paycheque to paycheque," said Savage.
"The pandemic really revealed the true value of their labour."
He thinks the current public pressure on major grocers also played a part, giving the union leverage in this round of bargaining.
"Public support can play an important role in the labour relations process," he said. "And the public doesn't have a very favourable view of grocery store companies these days."
Discount banners like No Frills have been driving growth for the grocers as consumers try to save money amid the rising cost of living. Loblaw, for example, has been expanding its discount footprint, and chairman Galen Weston recently told investors on a conference call that the company's Maxi and No Frills stores "led the way, generating double-digit growth" during the latest quarter.
The next big round of bargaining for grocery workers will be for the roughly 1,600 workers at Loblaw-owned Dominion stores in Newfoundland in Labrador in the new year, Unifor said.
"We’re being abundantly clear with every single employer across this country: we are fighting back and mobilizing to demand better for workers who absolutely deserve decent work and pay," said Payne.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2023.
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Rosa Saba, The Canadian Press