What’s Good for Sobeys Should be Good for Employees

Sobeys CANNOT Justify Takeaways for Alberta Safeway Employees

We met with Sobeys over three days of bargaining this week. In this bargaining update, we fill you in on our bargaining meetings and provide an overview of what the press is saying about Sobeys’ business outlook. We also provide a summary of our bargaining vision, as we have presented it to Sobeys, as well as our union bargaining proposals.

Our meetings this week

After face-to-face meetings held in Edmonton on March 4-7, we met again with the company this week – this time, in Calgary. Next week, we’ll be bargaining again in Edmonton. We are committed to moving this process along.

We have been making some progress on issues relating to union representation, voice, and visibility in the workplace. This has been the first area the company and the union committees have agreed to discuss, and our committee would characterize the mood of our discussions as “cautious yet optimistic.” It is important that our union be in a strong position to enforce any new union contract that is negotiated.

On Tuesday, March 19, Sobeys’ Vice President of Operations, Ken Woo, attended our meeting and fielded questions from our union bargaining committee. Mr. Woo is in charge of Alberta. Our questions ranged from the planned fate of the stores to what Sobeys sees as the major problems facing their business in Western Canada. Discussions were cordial and respectful. Mr. Woo was candid and honest in his perspective throughout the four hours he spent answering our questions.

While Mr. Woo said that he did not know which stores would be affected by possible conversions to FreshCo or other banners in Alberta, he did respond to other specific concerns from an operations perspective. Our committee identified a range of problems facing the stores, from maintenance issues (i.e. not having an oven in a deli for six months) to a slow and unimaginative response to the initiatives of some of the company’s competitors, such as Loblaws’ Click and Collect. While we may not have liked Mr. Woo’s answers (and perhaps he didn’t like our questions), our committee spoke well and was heard.

Our union took a strong position: the company had problems it needed to address but none of them had anything to do with employee benefits and wages.

We’d like to share some other conclusions we were able to draw from that discussion.

Things got a little tense when Mr. Woo said that Safeway employees were “not hard done by.” We responded by pointing out that it was, in fact, the Sobeys family and corporation that is not hard done by. Further, Mr. Woo admitted that “grocery sales are up. The numbers don’t lie.” In his four-hour presentation, he did not once say that your collective agreement is costing the company too much or that the company’s proposals are required for the business to prosper.

This was further reinforced when we asked Mr. Woo to specifically name the major problems facing Sobeys’ business. He listed the top three issues as ‘out of stocks,’ communication, and customer service. None of these things provide an economic rationale for the takeaways Sobeys wants from you. None of them justify gutting the rights and conditions you currently have.

Again, he did not once mention that a major problem facing Sobeys was you’re your union contract or its related wages and benefits. Even when given the opportunity to do so, Mr. Woo did not once say that the company needed to take anything away from you in order to survive.

We, again, extend an invitation to any Safeway employees who wish to attend bargaining on their days off. We’ll be at the Chateau Lacombe in Edmonton on March 26-29. We have a policy of being completely transparent with Safeway employees.

We have also agreed to further bargaining dates with the company in May, June, July, August, and September 2019.

What the press is saying about Sobeys’ business

Sobeys is regularly in the press, and our bargaining committee is paying close attention. During the company’s in-going presentation on March 4, we heard that Sobeys had been losing ground in comparison to other grocery retailers. Analysts have related this to its “troubled acquisition” of Safeway in 2013.

But things are on the upswing. In a March 13, 2019, call with analysts, Empire CEO Michael Medline reportedly stated that, based on third-quarter financial results, “our belief is that we are gaining market share now.”

While Mr. Medline expressed that its $800 million purchase of Farm Boy has given the company a new “weapon” in Ontario, he is also reported to have told analysts that customer count and basket size numbers are up in all regions and across all banners.

A look at the Sobey family spending habits doesn’t reveal that they are “hard done by” or suffering in any way. Recently, the Sobey family empire is reported to have donated $18 million to Saint Mary’s University, reportedly the single largest gift in the school’s history. In our view, it would have been nobler for the Sobey family to bring a contract proposal to Alberta that rewards its hard-working staff for the wealth they have created for the family.

For Sobeys, things are looking better than they have in a long time. For UFCW, the food workers’ union, we believe that things should be looking better for employees than they have in a long time.

Our Vision

Our bargaining committee has developed a vision for Sobeys’ business in Alberta that will clearly differentiate Sobeys’ business from other grocery retailers in the market, giving them a unique competitive advantage. While price and product offerings are two important things that drive customer loyalty, the good treatment of employees will tap into a changing consumer culture.

Retailers face changing demographics and will need to adapt quickly. Millennials will soon outnumber baby boomers, and their emphasis on shopping locally and ethically will win their loyalty. Some forward-thinking businesses are already benefiting from that perspective, and there is growing attention being paid to corporate social responsibility and authenticity in even the more conservative business circles.

Tapping into this is what our GoodGroceries.ca campaign is all about, and we have offered it to Sobeys. We have been talking with Sobeys customers at Safeway and Sobeys stores across Alberta about what it means to be a good grocery store – that a good grocery store starts with one that is good to its staff. We’ve handed out thousands of free grocery bags in a campaign spanning nearly two years. Customers want to shop at a grocery store where staff are treated well, where it feels good to shop because of the people who work there. We’ve offered Sobeys the chance to be a good grocery store and to be that authentically.

As the numbers start to look better for Sobeys, the company really needs to be good to its staff. Unfortunately, that is not the perspective Sobeys has taken with its bargaining proposals, which we’ve shared with you and which so many of you have told us represent an insult to your hard work carrying Sobeys’ fumbling through the takeover. We hear you! We hope Sobeys will listen, too!

Your bargaining committee has spent days sending a message loud and clear to Sobeys: don’t be the slumlords of the retail industry. Be an example of something good.

Our proposals

While you would have received the company’s proposals by email earlier this month (there are also printed copies in the stores), some of you have been asking for our union bargaining proposals. Of course, we’re happy to share this with you:


We have upwards of 80 bargaining proposals covering issues as diverse as hours and scheduling, job security and business success, union recognition, voice and visibility, health and safety, and of course, wages and benefits.

Our proposals are certainly negotiable, but fairness is not a principle we are prepared to surrender. Some of our proposals have a cost to the company, while others do not. We invite you to have a look.

Thanks for all your messages of support over the last few weeks. Our bargaining committee is feeling strong, united, and supported by all of you.

In Solidarity,

Tom Hesse
Chief Union Negotiator
April Albrecht, Joe Attwood, and Michael Hughes,
Bargaining Team Leads