On February 22, hundreds of Safeway members attended information sessions about Sobeys proposal to turn two Calgary Safeway stores into higher-end Safeway “Extra” stores. Doing so would mean opening up and renegotiating the contracts for the members at the affected stores.
When the company came to UFCW 401 President Douglas O’Halloran about trying the experiment in Alberta he said, “We are a democratic union. We’re going to let the affected members make the decision.”
So in addition to the information sessions, Safeway members cast ballots to let their union know whether they were interested in entering into discussions with Sobeys on these two stores.
The results were overwhelming.
Safeway Retail members voted 73% in opposition to the company’s proposal. Meat and Deli members voted 89% in opposition to the proposal.
“Look, this was an incredibly messy process and it didn’t need to be,” said President O’Halloran. “Sobeys has demonstrated from the start that they aren’t willing to be upfront with anyone on this proposal. They reneged on promises and forced us to go through the process without knowing which two stores will be affected. I can’t very well blame the membership for not trusting them.”
The results demonstrate that Safeway members are not going to be pushed around and are prepared to stand up for their rights.
Sobeys’ approach to trying the Safeway “Extra” experiment has been to rely primarily on bullying and intimidation, threatening to pull resources out of Alberta and franchising the Banff Safeway store two days before Christmas when President O’Halloran didn’t immediately acquiesce to their demands.
“We know that Sobeys is going to come to negotiations in 2017 seeking the same concessions they did before, plus a whole lot more,” said Secretary Treasurer Theresa McLaren. “They might think they can bulldoze their way through the process, but Safeway members have sent the company a strong message: they’re prepared to stand their ground and fight if necessary.”
It’s very common from time to time to feel that “the union” isn’t doing enough for us. The reason for the quotations around “the union” is to highlight the main problem with this idea itself.
In fact, it may be true that “the union” is not doing enough, or is losing more battles and cases for its members than it’s winning. The question though is: why is that the case? Why does this perception exist?
Well, the answer lies within the statement itself. The idea that “the union” is a third party, that we remove ourselves from it, is exactly why we might find that our union is not working as well as it could.
The problems unions and members face are all connected to one major area of confusion – union structure.
Many of us think of our union the same way we think of an insurance company. We bring a sort of, “be there when I need you, but leave me alone when I don’t,” mentality to our union. When we do use our insurance we may have to fill out some papers, but for the most part the company does the work for us. The case is, in fact, the very opposite for unions.
Unions only work when the members are involved in the structure, processes, and are educated about their union rights. Without this, our union is weak.
If we were to think of our union as a boat, it would be like a rowboat. Sure, there is someone planning the timing and turns (your Union Representative), but the boat only moves when there is more than one person rowing.
And the more people rowing, the faster the boat moves.
This is exactly how your union works. The more members rowing, the more wins you will have in your workplace and with your rights as a worker generally.
Here is an example of how you can “row with your union”: read your Union Contract and think of what is important to you.
Is it wages, schedules, job security, or benefits? Have you read the articles relating to those topics in your Union Contract or discussed these with your Shop Steward or Union Representative? This is one way you can show the strength of your union to your employer. By simply becoming more familiar with your Union Contract you can have more power at work!
For some of us, the concept of rowing with your union might be challenging. We might struggle with it a bit. That is understandable because unions are a hybrid of sorts.
You do pay your dues like you make payments for your insurance. And yet, ultimately, the structure of a union more closely resembles that of a non-profit whose mandate you might support than that of an insurance company.
The SPCA is one example. People donate to this non-profit; however, the best SPCA’s are the branches where they have a lot of volunteers and animal activists working in the local community to further the organization’s collective interests and rights.
The actual definition of Union or Labour Union is:
So you see, all of these definitions have a common theme of uniting, joining, and acting together. If we are going to win, we need to start working together.
When members are reading their union boards, engaging in conversations about rights at work, reading their Union Contracts, and attending Union General Membership Meetings, we will see a revitalized labour movement in Alberta where workers are winning more and growing together.
Let’s talk, OUR union. Let’s walk, OUR UNION. Let’s be, STRONGER TOGETHER.
Momentum started to build quickly after the Lunch and Learn programs were launched at Safeway store locations where I represent members as a UFCW Local 401 Union Representative. When news of the success of these programs came to the attention of my Director (from members themselves and many others), my thoughts went to members at Real Canadian Superstore.
The question I asked myself was, “How could this successful program be replicated in the two Superstore locations (1549 & 1570) where I represent nearly 650 employees at each store?” The question became even more daunting when the key Shop Steward at Superstore 1570, the late Suzanne Rose, challenged me to recreate the same Lunch and Learn program at the store where she worked.
After careful thought, I felt that the answer to such a large challenge might lie in organizing Communities of Practice (references below) for Shop Stewards in Superstores 1549 and 1570 in order to set the stage before officially launching the program. Spearheading this effort in their workplace were Shop Stewards Deborah Gill of Superstore 1549 and the late Suzanne Rose of Superstore 1570.
Between September and December of 2015, I started holding monthly meetings with the majority of the Shop Stewards present in each store with the hopes of strengthening connections between members. On the surface, these meetings looked like social get-togethers. But it soon became obvious that these informal sessions were providing a platform where members could share their knowledge, tools, and experiences with their fellow union members.
Within the first two months alone, communication in the stores was greatly enhanced as members and Shop Stewards started talking to each other about workplace trends and began sharing with each other how to better engage their colleagues and management.
These sessions gave me the opportunity to facilitate discussions with members on matters of membership engagement, workplace investigations, as well as a collaborative approach to service delivery, amongst other ideas. This experience has been a great one and I give full credit for this success to the Shop Stewards in both Superstores.
When I walk into one of these Superstores today, I see in the Shop Stewards a deep sense of pride and belonging! Since the death of Suzanne Rose on December 26, 2015, three members from Superstore 1570 have signed on to train to become Shop Stewards and two have signed on from Superstore 1549. This growth is due largely to the efforts and dedication of Shop Stewards Suzanne and Deborah who worked hard to build a sense of community in their stores.
Having built a strong foundation of community connection within these stores, the time is now ripe to discuss the launch of the Lunch and Learn programs at Superstores 1549 and 1570. The challenge will be huge, and I trust the Shop Stewards and Member Leaders will continue to move forward in the right direction as we grow together.
I tip my hat in respect to these Shop Stewards! They deserve all the praise and honour from their union for the success of the Lunch and Learn programs. KEEP IT UP, FOLKS!
If you are interested in learning more about Communities of Practice, check out the further reading section below:
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
As you may have heard, a by-election has been called in Calgary-Greenway to replace the late MLA Manmeet Bhullar. The Alberta NDP candidate, Roop Rai, is off to a strong start and is running a very competitive campaign.
I am hoping that UFCW 401 members can help her to build a winning campaign so that we can pick up another seat in Calgary.
UFCW 401 members made the difference in campaigns across the province last May. I have spoken to many people who rolled up their sleeves and helped get MLAs elected in that historic election. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that UFCW 401 members were instrumental in forming the first NDP government in our province’s history.
I know we can make the difference again in Calgary-Greenway.
If you have some time to volunteer for Roop Rai in Calgary-Greenway, I would encourage you to get in touch with her campaign by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 587-351-0316.