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A PetSmart in Toronto has become the first of almost 1,700 stores across North America to successfully unionize, after workers say they spent months coping with chronic understaffing issues and working longer hours for no extra pay amid the Omicron surge.

On Thursday, 17 out of 24 part-time and full-time workers of the retail store – located in the North York area of Toronto – voted to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers, one of the largest private sector unions in the country.

Employees began discussing the idea of starting a union drive in January because of a progressive deterioration in working conditions over the pandemic, according to Burak Reisyan, a part-time worker at the store and a key organizer of the union drive. “People were expressing their concerns for months, but they were falling on deaf ears,” he told The Globe and Mail.

In particular, employees were struggling to cope with a perpetual understaffing problem, which resulted in them having to skip breaks or work beyond their designated shifts. The employees’ key demands to PetSmart are that they hire more staff so that existing employees do not have to work extra shifts with “skeleton crews for no extra pay.” They are also asking for health benefits and paid sick leave for part-time staff, and a clear pay scale based on seniority and role.

In a statement to The Globe, PetSmart Inc., which is headquartered in Phoenix, said that while it did not believe unionization was in the best interest of the workers, it respects the choice to unionize. “We intend to meet with local union leaders and bargain in good faith to achieve an agreement that is equitable to our team and to PetSmart Canada.”

Mr. Reisyan alleges that throughout the union drive, PetSmart managers attempted to persuade staff not to vote in favour of unionizing, even hinting at a store closure if the drive did succeed. A letter sent by a manager at the store to staff earlier this week – and viewed by The Globe – appeared to warn employees that they would end up paying “hundreds of dollars each year” in union dues and receive similar wages and benefits that PetSmart already provides. “I realize many of you want higher wages. But just because the union asks for more money, does not mean it will happen,” the letter stated.

PetSmart did not respond directly to a query about whether managers told staff the store would close if workers unionized. The company also did not respond to a question on understaffing at the North York location and whether it plans to hire more workers.

PetSmart’s union drive is the latest in a series of attempts by retail workers in Canada to unionize; earlier this week, workers at a Staples store in Oakville, Ont., lost a vote to unionize with UFCW by a slim margin. They too, were motivated to form a union because of severe understaffing issues that started in October and an overall decrease in the number of full-time workers in the store.

“It reached a point in December where staff just could not take breaks, because there would just be one person manning an entire section. You’re not going to take a break if there are 15 customers waiting and they all look angry,” said Rahim Piracha, a part-time worker at the Oakville Staples and an organizer of the union drive.

Lesley Prince, director of organizing at UFCW 1006A – the union local that PetSmart workers are now part of – believes that the recent spate of organizing was catalyzed by successful unionization efforts on the part of employees at Indigo bookstores across the country. Between September 2020 and August 2021, six Indigo and Chapters locations unionized. Their demands were similar: concern about safety during the pandemic, the lack of paid sick days, understaffing, and wages not increasing in tandem with the cost of living.

Whether there has been an actual trend towards unionizing during the pandemic is debatable.

Statistics Canada data shows that union density – the number of unionized workers in the labour force – increased by just 0.9 per cent in the past three years. But that could be attributed to the number of people without union protection who lost jobs when health restrictions were imposed, said Jim Stanford, an economist and director of the Vancouver-based Centre of Future Work.

“During the pandemic, there was an initial surge in union density. Union coverage went from just over 30 per cent in January to a peak of 33.7 per cent by April 2020,” he said. “That’s a bad news story, but it does demonstrate the value of union protection. Union members have stronger job security provisions; they can’t just be let go without notice or severance.”

Union coverage in January 2022 however, according to Statistics Canada, data, was 31 per cent, higher than the 30.4-per-cent figure from two years prior. Mr. Stanford’s own analysis of the data suggests that union membership has grown in absolute numbers, reaching 5.2 million workers in December 2021 – the highest in Canadian history.

“In my judgment, more Canadian workers are interested in being represented by a union than ever before, in part because of the unique pressures they have faced during the pandemic,” Mr. Stanford said. “However, translating that desire for unionization into actual certifications and collective agreements is a long and challenging process.”

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