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Unifor is set to bargain on behalf of more than 2,800 grocery store workers at Loblaw-owned stores in Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador, testing whether the union can bring the gains it made for Metro workers in Toronto to other grocery chains.

Replicating a pattern with the same employer is much easier than trying to replicate it with a different employer, Unifor national president Lana Payne said, and Loblaw L-T has a reputation for being “notoriously tough at the bargaining table.”

“This will be the first big round of bargaining with a major chain outside of Metro since our summertime strike,” she said.

More than 3,700 Metro MRU-T workers in Greater Toronto walked off the job this summer after rejecting their first tentative deal. They accepted an agreement with significant wage gains more than a month later that the union called historic.

Unifor has made it clear it intends to try and repeat those gains for other grocery workers it represents.

The union recently replicated the pattern in another agreement representing four Metro-owned stores in Ontario and hopes to do the same with another small Ontario Metro unit that’s currently in talks, Payne said.

On Oct. 21, a collective agreement covering around 1,200 workers at multiple Ontario No Frills stores expired. On Oct. 28, an agreement covering about 1,650 workers at multiple Dominion stores in Newfoundland and Labrador expires. Both chains are owned by Loblaw.

In 2020, the Dominion workers went on strike for 12 weeks, not long after their pandemic “hero pay” was taken away. That strike was accompanied by “unheard-of” public support, said Payne.

York University associate professor of labour geography Steven Tufts said it can be difficult to establish a bargaining pattern in the grocery sector, which is fragmented and includes many different chains ranging from discount to high end.

Despite the challenges, he thinks Unifor is well positioned to make gains. Workers are likely not going to settle for what seems like less than what others have secured, said Tufts: “If anything, they might ask for more.”

Over the past year, workers in general have increasingly rejected deals. When the Metro workers rejected their first tentative deal, Tufts noted it came as a surprise.

Experts have said inflation, rising interest rates and a tight labour market have combined to empower grocery workers to ask for more at the bargaining table.

Their employers, meanwhile, have seen profits rise, and are now under political pressure to stabilize retail prices.

Unifor plans to bargain the No Frills contract first this fall, followed by Dominion, said Payne.

The No Frills contract, which covers 17 stores, will be an important one, said Payne. Workers tend to be paid less in discount stores, and yet amid inflation and rising interest rates, more customers are flocking to them, she said.

“They’re adding more discount stores to their business … that tells us that this is a very profitable line of the Loblaws business right now.”

But a recent deal for Real Canadian Superstore workers in Manitoba could hint at what’s to come for Unifor.

Over the weekend, around 3,500 Real Canadian Superstore workers across that province voted to accept a deal that United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Local 832 said includes “the highest wage increase percentages that the union has negotiated in a retail contract in 25 years.”

Workers get a 5.6 per cent raise immediately, and another 3.3 per cent in six months, front-loading gains for a contract that will see total gains of almost 16 per cent over five years, said Jeff Traeger, Local 832 president. They also got boosts to benefits, more full-time jobs and more opportunities for part-time workers.

UFCW, which represents more than 140,000 workers in grocery retail across the country, has already reached similar deals with Loblaw-owned stores in Western Canada, said Traeger.

Traeger, who has bargained with Loblaw for almost two decades and agreed they have historically been tough, said things felt a little different this time. The employer came offering more than usual, he said.

“I think they knew that they couldn’t come in and try to play the cheap-out game at bargaining or our members wouldn’t accept it.”

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