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Report on Business MEC’s flagship workers enter collective bargaining amid tense atmosphere

Workers at Mountain Equipment Co-op’s Vancouver flagship have entered collective bargaining – a first for any of the retailer‘s 22 locations – as they seek higher wages, improved scheduling and better working conditions.

The negotiations come after staff at the Vancouver location unionized in a drive they say faced pushback from management at the Canadian outdoor-goods seller.

They also take place amid the departure of MEC’s long-time chief executive officer, stagnating sales figures and what some say is a turning point for a brand that is no longer viewed as a co-operative.

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“A lot of it comes back to some of the values of folks that work there, and values of working at a co-operative – building a community, representing workers … and seeing a co-op that runs like a corporation,” said Patrick Johnson, who’s leading negotiations for the MEC staff on behalf of United Food and Commercial Workers Canada (UFCW).

Mr. Johnson said management at the store and head-office levels “ran a strong anti-union campaign” that included directing employees to what he called an anti-union website called LabourWatch.

The Vancouver store, which employs roughly 200 people, is the only unionized retail location. (MEC’s distribution centres are unionized.)

Some employees at the Vancouver store told The Globe and Mail that the presence of head-office staff increased at their location while the unionization effort got under way last year.

The MEC employees were granted anonymity by The Globe because of fears of career repercussions.

UFCW filed a complaint alleging unfair labour practices with the provincial labour board during the drive in late March. UFCW also filed a bad-faith bargaining complaint over a wait in getting to the table following the April certification. The two sides met for the first time on June 3, and the complaints were withdrawn as talks began. The next round of bargaining is scheduled for this week.

In an e-mailed statement, the company said: “During the union drive, MEC fully complied with B.C. labour law in its communication with the Vancouver store staff.”

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It added: “MEC is dedicated to fostering a healthy and respectful workplace.”

In April, days before store employees were set to vote on unionization, departing CEO David Labistour posted a letter on the company’s private intranet in which he detailed declining sales and rising costs at the Vancouver location.

“The Vancouver store has, since 2016, seen a marked decline in sales,” he wrote, according to a copy of the note provided by a store employee. “At the same time, the cost of running the store has seen a continuous increase in wages and operating cost. You understand that this is not sustainable in the long term. MEC must reverse this trend.”

Mr. Labistour also wrote: “I have great empathy for service staff trying to make ends meet in what is one of the most unaffordable cities in the world, but the issue of affordability is a federal and provincial government responsibility that even they cannot solve. This is not something MEC can resolve while we try to remain competitive with the other retailers, both brick and mortar and online.”

The unionization drive came as MEC saw sales figures remain relatively flat for the third straight fiscal year, at $462-million in 2018-19, compared with $455-million in 2017-18 and $465-million in 2016-17.

David Kincaid, the managing partner and founder of brand consultancy Level5 Strategy Group, said MEC is at a critical juncture, an "interesting crossroads that any branded business model eventually gets to when it becomes a national brand like MEC has become, because I don’t believe the market views them as a co-operative any longer.”

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Affinity for the brand, Mr. Kincaid said, has shifted to one where the business is perceived as a retailer that provides high-quality outdoor goods. “It would be irresponsible for management not to call into question the current operating model.”

Bargaining talks also come in the wake of a number of recent controversies.

In October of 2018, Mr. Labistour wrote an open letter apologizing for a lack of diversity in MEC’s advertising campaigns and signed a pledge to correct the gap. In March of last year, after an online petition, it dropped CamelBak and other brands owned by a U.S. company that also sells guns. More recently, MEC’s new Toronto store drew criticism for its big-box design in a heritage neighbourhood.

Mr. Labistour is departing at the end of June after 11 years at the helm. Former Best Buy Canada executive Philippe Arrata will take over as CEO.

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