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Tammy Laporte outside the Metro grocery store at Eglinton Square Shopping Centre in Toronto on June 22.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Armed with a unanimous strike mandate, thousands of grocery workers at Metro Inc. MRU-T stores across the Greater Toronto Area will enter into collective bargaining with their employer next week, setting the stage for a showdown between workers, who say their wages have not budged in years, and grocers who have charted record profits.

It is the first major round of negotiations between the approximately 3,700 workers across 27 Metro grocery stores represented by Unifor, and the grocery giant since prior to the pandemic.

Unifor, one of the largest private-sector unions in Canada, also represents an additional 8,000 workers at chains across the country owned by Loblaw Cos. Ltd. and Empire Foods Ltd. Those workers are poised to begin their own negotiations in 2024. In late May, according to the union, more than 60 local union presidents and stewards gathered to identify common priorities and demands ahead of upcoming rounds of bargaining. Unifor will aim to renew roughly 12 collective agreements with the three grocery giants in the next two years.

“This is a particularly important negotiation because it could determine outcomes for future negotiations with the grocers,” said Lana Payne, national president of Unifor. Ms. Payne told The Globe and Mail that her union has observed “an incredible resolve” among grocery store workers to demand significantly higher wages and more full-time jobs, two of the key demands that Unifor will put to Metro when negotiations start on Monday.

This week, Metro workers voted 100 per cent in favour of striking, should both sides reach an impasse during negotiations.

“We are in a good bargaining position. There is lots of public support for grocery workers because people realize these were the people we counted on during the pandemic. And people are also aware that grocery stores have been generating record profits, and paying their CEOs very well,” said Ms. Payne.

Metro’s profit for the second quarter that ended in February grew 10.4 per cent from a year earlier as inflation generated higher revenue. In the past 2½ years, the Montreal-based company’s profits have grown by 12 per cent, to almost $900-million. The combined annual bonuses of the five top executives at Metro increased by 13.7 per cent last year, with chief executive Eric La Flèche receiving more than $5-million in total compensation.

The big three grocers – Metro, Toronto-based Loblaw and Empire of Stellarton, N.S. – have come under intense scrutiny from Ottawa, as food prices rose at their fastest pace in four decades in tandem with company profits. Last October, the Competition Bureau launched a probe into competition in the grocery industry, the results of which are expected this month.

The House of Commons committee on agriculture and agrifood, which has also been probing grocery prices, issued a report this week recommending that Ottawa slap a windfall tax on excess profits if it is found that grocers did indeed profit excessively from food inflation.

According to Unifor, the average GTA Metro worker is in the bottom 30 per cent of income earners in Ontario, and their wages have not budged since 2019.

Tammy Laporte, a produce clerk at a Metro store in the Toronto neighbourhood of Scarborough, said she earns $20.55 an hour as a full-time worker, an income that is now barely sufficient to support herself, a single mother, and her child. She has been employed by Metro for 25 years.

“I do not shop at Metro because I cannot afford it,” she told The Globe. “It was great when we got a $2-per-hour pay bump during the pandemic, and we all thought that would remain, but they took it away from us after a few months,” she added, referring to the temporary pay premium that Metro gave its workers between April and June of 2020.

Minimum wage in Ontario, currently at $15.50 an hour, is set to increase to $16.55 an hour on Oct. 1 this year. But according to labour groups like the Ontario Living Wage Network, persistent inflation over the past year has pushed the minimum income required for a Toronto-based worker to meet their basic needs to $23.15 an hour.

Ms. Payne did not disclose the specific percentage increase in wages that Unifor was planning to ask Metro for, but hinted that it would be in line with the rate of inflation over the past two years. The union also intends to push Metro to offer more full-time jobs with benefits and reduce their dependence on part-time workers.

Samantha Henry, another Metro worker at a store in Scarborough, said that roughly 70 per cent of her colleagues are part-time workers and the turnover rate is so high among this group that there is never any consistency as to the number of staff in a specific store on any given day. “A lot of the time, I’m by myself behind the deli counter, having to serve customers non-stop in addition to sorting out deli inventory.”

Metro did not immediately confirm the percentage of their work force in the GTA who are part-time compared with full-time employees.

Ms. Henry, who voted in favour of a strike mandate, said that she would like to at least see Unifor convince Metro to reinstate the $2-an-hour pay premium workers received in 2020.

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