The prominent Galen Weston family, which owns or controls a range of retailers including grocery giant Loblaw Cos. Ltd., is running into mounting unionization pressures amid rising competition.
Employees at its T&T Supermarket Inc., which caters to Asian tastes, will vote on Monday about forming a union at one of the chain's distribution centres. If it passes, it would be the first time T&T staff would be unionized. The workers are seeking better pay, benefits and scheduling, among other issues.
The move comes just a few weeks after employees at one of the family's upscale Holt Renfrew fashion stores tried to form a union, although it was ultimately voted down.
In a shaky economy, employees feel the heat to seek pay gains and job security while unions, for their part, are racing to sign up new members as a growing number of non-union retail players – many of them foreign-owned – are expanding in Canada. In some cases, they are squeezing out unionized, or partly unionized, chains.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which faltered in its attempt to represent Holt Renfrew employees and is now vying to represent T&T workers, has had some success. It has organized employees at two H&M discount fashion stores as well as at a Future Shop store. But it is losing members at Zellers as the retailer begins to close stores that are being converted to non-union Target outlets after the U.S. chain bought most of the chain's store leases.
The UFCW has been thwarted in its efforts over the years to organize employees at discount titan Wal-Mart Canada Corp.
"Retail is essentially the last bastion," said Paul Jacobson, a retail labour specialist at Jacobson Consulting. "There are more retail employees than manufacturing employees now. The big difference is that the workplaces are much smaller so they're harder to organize. The competition is much more brutal."
Retailers also employ a significant number of part-time employees – about 35 per cent of the work force was part-time in 2011, compared with 31 per cent in 1988 – adding to the union challenges, Mr. Jacobson said.
Key issues for both employees and retailers often focus on scheduling, as retailers stay open longer hours to respond to shopper demands. In the T&T case, one of the union's biggest issues is its complaint about 39 hours of short shifts spread over six days a week, said Kevin Shimmin, a UFCW representative.
Cindy Lee, chief executive at T&T, said in an e-mail: "T&T competes in an extremely competitive retail landscape made up of many family-owned, non-unionized Asian grocery stores and within this context we know we offer fair and competitive compensation packages. Our non-union workplace has afforded us the essential flexibility required to grow and to ensure we remain competitive."
Mr. Shimmin said that the workers start at minimum hourly wage of $10.25 and are eligible for a 5-cent an hour increase after one year, 10 cents after two years and 15 cents after three years, but that the raises are not applied evenly.