On Wednesday, February 9, hundreds of UFCW 401 Safeway-Sobeys 401 members from across the province took part in a telephone town hall meeting (TTH) to address uncertainty around Sobeys’ plans to revamp some of their newly acquired Safeway stores.
During the final stages of the 2013 acquisition, Sobeys decided to launch the “Champions of the Affordable Better Food Movement” (CABFM) brand in an effort to capture a chunk of the high-end grocery market in the form of “Sobeys Extra” or “Safeway Extra” stores.
The company approached the union about launching this new business model in Alberta at two existing Calgary Safeway stores. President O’Halloran, understanding the significance of this proposed experiment, decided it was best to allow Calgary and area Safeway-Sobeys members to make the decision for themselves.
For such an important decision, President O’Halloran knew the affected members would need as much information as possible. Information meetings and a vote were arranged for February 22. Preparations were also quickly made to reach a broader audience using a TTH meeting for the entire province.
A huge success, the TTH meeting provided a platform for a lot of information to be delivered, and the participating membership to ask some great questions. Leading the discussions were President Doug O’Halloran and Tom Hesse, Local 401’s Executive Director of Labour Relations.
While O’Halloran and Hesse gave some context and input to many unanswered questions, they also explored the possibility of a fresh new product for Sobeys to offer Alberta consumers. Hesse warned of the pickle Safeway got into back in the early 90s when Loblaw (then Westfair Foods) came into Alberta. Safeway suffered a huge market loss because they were not prepared to adapt to the changing consumer demands.
O’Halloran noted that when he said no to the experiment unless it was with new stores in order to lessen the impact on current Safeway-Sobeys workers, the company said they would then refuse to make much needed investment into Alberta Safeway stores. The company promptly went to Manitoba and began experimenting with the new business model. It became clear that we needed to see what was possible with this new experiment.
O’Halloran’s commitment, stated many times throughout the call, was that it was something UFCW 401 members must decide on.
“We are a democratic union,” O’Halloran said. “And we will not make this decision lightly or without direction from those who are affected.”
O’Halloran and Hesse also tackled the question of “upsides and downsides” to this newly proposed model. On the upside, if the members decide to endorse the experiment we would be in a better position to negotiate key issues affecting the revamped stores. We could also then negotiate important clauses around things like transfer rights.
“Conceivably, any current unforeseen issues that arise out of these new CABFM stores could be dealt with at the negotiating table next year,” said Hesse. “And we would be in a far better place to be able to fix problems soon after they arise.”
During the course of the TTH meeting several poll questions were conducted, which served as a great way to find out what members were thinking on key issues. For example, 90% of respondents said they wanted to see innovation and fresh new ideas in Safeway stores. 87% of respondents also said they believed the union was doing the right thing by taking Sobeys’ request to negotiate the potential opening of two CABFM stores to a membership vote.
With all the information that was given, 401 members once again showed their savvy and grasp of the issues via the questions and statements they offered during the course of the 70 minute call.
“We were so impressed with the calibre of questions and comments that the members offered up,” said O’Halloran. Indeed there were many tough questions. Some touched on the possibility of concessions; others were voiced over care and concern for the members within the two stores.
While some callers were prepared to discuss the possibility of this type of experiment with a couple of stores, no one suggested that willingness meant they felt they could trust Sobeys. A heavy does of caution seemed to permeate the call and many members demonstrated very clearly that they were prepared to send a strong message to their employer in upcoming 2017 negotiations. When asked if they were prepared to vote “yes” for a strike if necessary, 75% of members on the call said YES!
Responding to the overwhelming support for a strike vote if necessary, President O’Halloran noted, “We need to be more prepared and more militant than ever. Everything will be on the table in 2017.”
As the call went on, it became clear to all who participated that if we are going to bargain, it must be from a position of strength. Callers understood very clearly that this could turn out to be a real test of solidarity and strength and that they must stick together.
The final caller of the night summed it up best when he said, in part, “…it’s really important that we all stand together at this time and do what we feel is right.”
Summary Of Current Landscape & What Sobeys is Proposing
The Members Will Decide & Importance Of Voting
Benefits & Risks Of Sobeys’ Proposed Newly Branded Stores
How Will This Affect Stores Outside Of Calgary?
Why Are We Voting This?
How Does All This Impact 2017 Negotiations For Alberta?
Differences Between Union & Non-Union Stores
Posted on: February 18,2016