November 17 – 19, UFCW activists from across Canada gathered in Ottawa for UFCW Canada’s 2nd Annual Political Action Conference. The focus of the Conference was on preparing for the 2015 federal election and discussing what role UFCW locals and their members could play in ensuring the Harper Conservatives are voted out and Canada elects its first NDP federal government with Thomas Mulcair as Prime Minister.
One thing became clear very quickly: UFCW activists are busily preparing to ensure our members have a major impact on the election from Victoria to Saint Jonn’s.
Over the course of the Conference, activists heard from an array of fantastic speakers, including a run down on progressive Canadian organizing by Rick Smith from the Broadbent Institute, the (Un)Fair Elections Act from UFCW Canada Director Bob Linton, the political action of the union to date from National Representative Andrew McKenzie, strategies used to mobilize progressive voters in the US from Obama 2012 field organizer and founder of 270 Strategies Jeremy Bird, and crafting a compelling and motivating message for Canadians voters from former Communications Director to Jack Layrton Kathleen Monk.
Additionally, Leader of the Official Opposition Tom Mulcair and NDP National Director Anne McGrath stopped by the Conference to talk about the important issues that Canada’s New Democrats are championing in Ottawa like implementing a national system of childcare, setting an example for fair compensation by implementing a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, taking real action on climate change, and creating a strong and diverse Canadian economy.
Activists also broke out into regional groups to discuss what the UFCW Canada 2015 election strategy should look like and what initiatives local unions are engaging in on the ground to make a difference in individual ridings. In particular, activists discussed ways to get UFCW members more involved in the election, both in campaigns and at the ballot box.
Overall, the Conference was an exciting opportunity for UFCW activists to share ideas and plans and express excitement at the prospect of working to elect Canada’s first NDP federal government. Members who are interested in getting involved with UFCW Local 401’s Political Action Committee can contact Scott Payne or Trevor Zimmerman.
A little while ago, it happened that a part-time Pharmacy Assistant in Edmonton called her UFCW Local 401 Union Representative to raise a concern over how she and her Safeway coworkers were being scheduled. While she didn’t know the impact it would have then, the result of this one little phone call was a four-year investigation by UFCW Local 401 into the scheduling practices of Safeway ending in the company paying out roughly $400,000 in damages.
When the Union first heard how the company was scheduling assistants on a weekly basis in this store it raised concerns. The Union Representative went to the store and got copies of past schedules and noticed that the concerns seemed to be valid at this location and wondered if this was a bigger problem in the company experienced by others than just in that local pharmacy. The Union Rep went to all the Safeway stores that he serviced and pulled schedules from those to see if this was a wider problem. Upon review of these schedules the union noticed that there was a pattern of abuse and filed a province wide grievance claiming among other violations that Safeway was scheduling part-time pharmacy assistants in a manner that avoided creating full-time jobs.
Of course the company initially denied that were doing anything wrong! They believed that scheduling multiple employees 39.5 hours a week for weeks and weeks in a row was their right! For over 2 years, the union fought to get new full-time positions created in pharmacies where the employer was blatantly violating the Collective Agreement. The employer finally created those full-time positions and had to pay out over $90,000 in monetary damages to make the newly created full-time employees whole. This resolve has increased the number of full-time pharmacy positions by over 400%. In addition to the full-time jobs created as a result of this grievance, the company has been more diligent in filling full-time positions on a regular basis.
But this was not the end of the original grievance, UFCW Local 401 continued to argue that the company was scheduling pharmacy members improperly and was also not compensating them for correct rates of overtime. The employer ultimately agreed to pay out $30,000 to correct these violations. Local 401 was also successful in getting Safeway to start using a proper scheduling format that would comply with the Collective Agreement rather than the mess that certain Pharmacy Managers were using –such as writing schedules without names, no start times, in calendar books and other unorganized behaviours.
Through the course of the investigation, the union also discovered that Safeway wasn’t paying statutory holiday as required per the Collective Agreement and so filed another province wide grievance on that issue where Safeway was ordered to produce payroll records for inspection by Local 401. Recently, Local 401 and Safeway came to a resolve to pay out over 12,000 hours to current Safeway employees who were not paid the correct amount of pay from September of 2005 to 2008. A substantial amount will go to former employees of Safeway who also were not paid correctly. The statutory holiday component is over a quarter of a million dollars!
This one little phone call has now cost Safeway almost $400,000 and more issues and grievances continue to be raised, and all because one worker picked up her phone and called her union.
Over the past few years, Superstore has been cutting the hours available to its employees. Our members have been struggling to make ends meet due to the low number of hours they have been scheduled. Superstore management has deemed that if you are available anytime, you may only receive a maximum of 28 hours in any given week; your union disagrees.
We believe that Superstore has been ignoring a very important seniority article in the Collective Agreement and has failed to properly address the issue of “most available hours”. They are treating the minimum guarantee of hours as a cap or maximum number of hours that an employee may be scheduled. Employees continue to be hired at a lower rate of pay to keep labour costs down and meanwhile, there are an abundance of senior employees who would happily work far more hours than what the guarantee of hours provides and what they are allowed.
Superstore had been put on notice in 2012 that we are not in agreement with how they have been administering the minimum guarantees. As well, during negotiations in 2013, the company was advised by the union that the language relating to the most available hours would remain in the Collective Agreement and we asserted that the company strictly comply with that language. The company had an opportunity during bargaining to address the current language but chose not to do so.
The intention behind the current language in Article 30.7- Edmonton and Calgary and Article 30.8- Provincial was to provide higher minimums for senior employees. The language provides that not only should the amount of hours that are available to our members be increased but also more full-time, long term meaningful positions should be created as a result. Employees have been locked into part-time work with false caps on hours while newly hired unrestricted employees continue to be scheduled hours that senior unrestricted employees should instead be scheduled. The long term dedication and commitment of senior employees has gone unrecognized in the manner in which employees are being scheduled.
Your union has repeatedly reminded the company that they must comply with the important principle that the most available hours be scheduled on the basis of seniority. Grievances have been filed in 2013 and 2014 against the company to support the union’s position on this matter. We will continue to grieve against this unfair and unjust assignment of hours on the schedule until our members are provided the hours of work to which they are entitled.
I grew up in Nova Scotia where my father is also from. He grew up in an old coal-mining town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Although he was not a miner, or the son of a miner, he was greatly influenced by the people who dug the dirty black gold from the bowels of the earth. The neighbours, his schoolmates and their families: the whole town depended on the mine for economic survival.
The value of the Union as a driver of change to level the playing field for the workingman was a common thread in the Cape Breton psyche. No matter who you are, or what you did to put bread on the table, the dominance of the Union was historically ingrained in your way of thinking. After all, Unionism was such a dominant force in the workingman’s life as far back as the late 1800s and early twentieth century in the Cape Breton coalfields.
At first, British Lords had ownership of the coal as a monopoly; later on huge multi-National Corporations like BESCO, DEVCO and SYSCO took over control of our resource. Some have called this control as the last example of Feudalism in North America as these people and companies in control held complete control when it came to whether a man born in a coal town went to work or not.
Back then in Nova Scotia, in towns like Baddeck and Glace Bay the companies who held the mining rights also owned the house a miner lived in, the store he bought his food and clothing from, and the water and electrical plants that supplied his electricity and the electricity of the entire town. A miner was at the complete mercy of the company, and these companies were not in the business of being benevolent to their workers.
It was capitalism run amuck.
Before Unions began to gain some strength during WWI, if you were branded a union sympathizer you could be politically blacklisted by the company and never work in a coal mine again. It wasn’t until labour shortages during the War forced companies to hire whoever they could find, which included known Union sympathizers. At this time, the Unions began to exert some upward pressure to try to make a difference in the life of the worker.
The large coal companies that controlled North American coal in the 1920s acted much like bullies, forcing men to work for as little as they could get away with paying them. As a result, families went hungry while the father, and breadwinner of the family, worked himself half to death in the company mine to afford the food at the company store he was most likely indebted to.
Working conditions in the mines were horrible. Safety took a backseat to getting coal out of the ground as quickly as possible. Miners worked long hours with no days off and many families who lost their husband/father in a mining accident had to send boys as young as 10-12 years old into the mine to help support the family. There was no life insurance. Boys too young to walk down a street at night without holding their mothers hand weren’t afraid to go into the mine for a twelve-hour workday.
When miners went on strike in New Waterford in 1925, their company BESCO, cut off sale of coal, electricity and water to the entire town as a punishment to the strikers. The grocery stores were shut down to miners who normally depended upon credit at these stores to feed their families between paycheques. Miners who lived in company owned houses were tossed to the street with their families. These were winter months and many people perished due to cold and starvation, children and the elderly were most vulnerable.
The entire community rallied behind the miners- fisherman and farmers all assisted each other against the arrogant company that demanded wage concessions from already starving people. In the end, these men and their families fought for and received better wages, shorter working hours, increased safety conditions and a voice for working men and women in the coalfields. Their sacrifices created a foundation for Unions to build on.
The battles these miners fought in the early twentieth century set the stage for more peaceful negotiations between Unions and companies in all industries for decades to come across Canada. The publicity surrounding the deplorable conditions in Cape Breton and the brutal way the companies acted when miners went on strike horrified the world. Some of these battles were fought over ninety years ago, and the deplorable conditions that people endured don’t seem possible to us today.
In the grand scheme of things, these events didn’t happen very long ago and the battles we fight today aren’t much different. Companies will still act as much the bully as they can get away with, they will try to take away hard fought rights and privileges in the pursuit of profit. They try to do it daily and they will never give up that attack. We see this behaviour almost every single time we enter negotiations with the companies we negotiate with today.
Unions such as UFCW Local 401 push back, level the playing field and advocate for the rights of workers daily. 401 holds dearly the history and the sacrifices that people have made to make the lives of workers better today. We cherish the foundation that has been created for us so that we may build upon it and create a great future for our members. Every single member of Local 401 is a warrior in a noble battle on behalf of all workers.