Big Changes at Safeway-Sobeys Warehousing Mean Tough Choices

Safeway employees across Alberta have been faced with very substantial changes in their workplaces over the last year, both in the retail stores and within the warehouses, including the Lucerne Milk and Ice Cream plants. The sale of the Lucerne plants and the operational changes in retail and warehousing have kept thousands of hardworking Safeway workers on the edge of their seats and has presented many challenges.

During this time the union has been diligent in ensuring that the needs of thousands of affected members are tended to. In the shifting landscape that often accompanies the sale of a company, this has been a challenging endeavour but a worthwhile one because we’ve been able to achieve some very positive outcomes through negotiations and ongoing discussion throughout the transition.

However, warehousing has proved to be the biggest challenge during this time. Sadly, Sobeys decided to come to their nearly 400 workers in both the Sobeys and Safeway warehouses and make some painful demands.

UFCW 401 President Doug O’Halloran demanded from the start, that consultation and input from the members in each of these warehousing operations was key to our agreement to participate in discussions about possible closures or layoffs. Sobeys was initially adamant that a deal be attempted through only company and union officials but President O’Halloran was undeterred in his insistence that a committee of affected workers be formed.

“The company had to look these people in the eye and work with them to get a deal done,” said O’Halloran. “Not involving the membership was never an option in my mind and thankfully, to the benefit of everyone, the company relented,” he continued.

The talks began very quickly and the employer insisted that a deal acceptable to them had to occur within 14 days. Time was of the essence and the parties got to work to avoid any warehouse closures.

Union officials and committee members alike all agreed it was eight of the hardest days they’ve ever experienced in their working lives. The emotional rollercoaster, however, paid off in the end and a settlement was reached. To be very clear, we all agree this is a less than ideal settlement and still has to be approved by Sobeys head office in Eastern Canada, which has proven a frustrating caveat after all the hard work the union’s committee did. We remain hopeful, however, that the employer will do the right thing and reward the long serving members by accepting the deal reached in good faith by their workers and keeping the Edmonton DC open for business.

UFCW 401 has a practice of negotiating shorter term Collective Agreements and while this wasn’t Collective Agreement negotiations (the current Collective Agreement remains in place until its expiration next year), it troubles us that Sobeys insisted on a 10-year deal to save the Edmonton warehouse operations. President O’Halloran pushed back hard and at times the committee wondered if a deal could even be reached with such an unyielding company. In the end the company backed off slightly and agree to 9 years.

“Sobeys was very serious about a closure if we didn’t meet their terms,” O’Halloran mused. “Pushing back on key issues, though dangerous, was necessary and I’m proud of the committee and the hard work they did to ensure the company make certain critical changes to their original position.” Negotiating with a proverbial gun to your head is not ideal to say the very least, and having an employer threaten to pull up stakes and leave Edmonton if the workers don’t agree to their terms, leaving approximately 180 distribution centre workers out of work, is an unthinkable hardship for any worker.

The picture looked bleak when Sobeys revealed they wanted to build a new automated warehouse at the Edmonton Sobeys location, the Retail Support Centre, and close the entire Safeway Distribution Centre and move only some of the current DC workers over, leaving many without a job.

Pitting one group of workers against the other, they also wanted to take all the Sobeys grocery workers to do only produce/perishable and at the end of the 2-year transition period said there’d be no job loss for Sobeys employees.

Through arduous and intense negotiations, the committee made up of both Safeway and Sobeys workers, along with negotiators Al Olinek, Zig Zigart, and President O’Halloran, were able to save more than half of the Safeway warehousing jobs.

Managing to avoid several concessions proposed by the company, a deal was reached in the final hours of the employer-imposed deadline.

As if the process wasn’t already difficult enough, and to add insult to injury, the company threatened to move the grocery warehouse to Calgary unless both warehouses accepted their offer. In other words, even if one warehouse voted it down, the whole settlement was dead and the Edmonton DC operations, they said, would move to Calgary if everyone voting didn’t accept the conditions by a majority vote.

“It was very difficult for everyone involved,” O’Halloran admitted, “but the voting members understood the direness of the situation, and to their credit they made the difficult decision to vote in favour of the offer in order to limit job loss,” he concluded.

The company offer for the new terms was accepted by 88% for Sobeys employees and 80% for Safeway employees.