June 8, 2020

Grocery Workers Talk Poverty Wages and Pandemic Profits

By Michelle Paquette and Doug Yearwood, YCL-LJC members in Ottawa

This article was originally published in Rank and File

After large private sector grocery retailers introduced pay increases for frontline workers, Herb & Spice—a locally owned and operated grocery store in Ottawa— announced that its employees would receive a $1.50/hour hazard pay increase. Unlike other grocery stores who have committed to maintaining the pay increase until the pandemic subsides, this employer is only delivering hazard pay for a single pay period.

The one-time pay bump came after UFCW Local 175 & 633—which represent Herb & Spice workers—called on other employers to follow the lead of the big corporate grocers.

“This premium is well deserved for these current frontline employees. It’s an important recognition for the essential work of our grocery and pharmacy workers during this crisis,” said UFCW Local 175 President Shawn Haggerty.

Unionized and precarious

Herb & Spice workers joined UFCW Local 175 in April 2015, in part because of “legitimate health and safety concerns.” In January 2016, Herb & Spice workers ratified their first collective agreement, which included a $0.25/hour wage increase, paid sick leave, and a safety boot allowance. According to the collective agreement signed in December 2018, new hires start at the minimum wage of $14/h.

Speaking to RankandFile.ca, Herb & Spice workers acknowledged that, even while they appreciate being unionized, low pay and other difficulties remain.

“The reality is that we make less than $15 an hour, our work conditions are pretty terrible in a lot of ways, and I feel stressed all the time as a worker living paycheque-to-paycheque,” said Danielle Fearnely, a newly-elected shop steward for Herb & Spice.

“Before the pandemic, working at a grocery store was an incredibly demanding job that required a lot of focus and patience,” said another worker, who chose to remain anonymous. “Often, I would feel pulled from all ends, with demands from not only customers but also management being hurled at me at all times.”

Working in the pandemic

Speaking to these workers, it is obvious that stress has only increased, and concerns around health and safety have amplified.

“The first week was terrible, and our management didn’t respond well. I remember running around sanitizing surfaces while doing various other tasks at the same time, which stretched me too thin and stressed me out completely. It felt bad that our management didn’t seem to care and put us in harm’s way due to lack of preparedness,” said the anonymous Herb & Spice worker.

It’s not all gloom and doom, however. Fearnley pointed out that, despite the increased stress, solidarity among co-workers has not only provided personal support, but motivated her to try and fix problems at the workplace.

“The pandemic has made my job 100 times more stressful and has made relationships with my co-workers more strained, but also much stronger in a lot of ways,” Says Fearnley, “Speaking with coworkers about our dangerous conditions and low wages has really helped me feel less alone.”

Fearnley notes that rather than feeling disempowered and helpless, this crisis has motivated her to organize and build a stronger union.

Hero pay, poverty wages

Despite the incredibly dangerous environment these front-line workers are currently facing, the fact remains that they’re not receiving a living wage, even with a temporary hazard pay increase. For example, researcher David MacDonald of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has concluded $26/h is the Ottawa wage required to afford a two bedroom apartment and pay less than 30 percent of their income in rent.

“I’m happy to see my coworkers working together to demand fairer treatment. However, it [hazard pay] is of course insufficient. It’s clearly just a few crumbs thrown our way to keep us satisfied and complacent—and punching in every day,” Fearnley argues.

“Our employers are profiting substantially from this crisis, and we know we won’t ever see anywhere near what we are entitled to for the essential work we are doing in creating those profits.”

Profiting in a pandemic

Fearnley’s claim that employers are doing especially well during the pandemic is backed up by the available evidence. Statistics Canada data indicates that, during the second week of March, when the government announced its response plan to COVID-19, grocery sales in Canada rose by 38%. Likewise, Sobeys parent company, Empire Company Ltd., said that in a four week period that began on March 8, sales surged by 37%.

When speaking with RankandFile.ca, workers reported Herb & Spice is definitely busier than normal.

Fearnley’s critique also echoes part of what Steven Tufts, a York University labour researcher, said in a Globe and Mail interview in late March. Like Fearnley, Tufts argued that the voluntary pay increase from employers keeps staff coming into work, but may also be a political substitute for “steeper, more prolonged wage increases” that could be brought about by government legislation.

Grocery store owners also receive good press from mainstream media for taking action on “hero pay,” which is obviously important in courting public opinion and keeping wages suppressed. This is good public relations for an industry which loudly opposed $15 minimum wage campaigns only a few years ago.

While the Trudeau and Ford regimes have intervened decisively to prop up businesses with direct subsidies, loans and a huge wage subsidy program, government support for front line workers has been very thin.

“We want to be paid a living wage. We shouldn’t have to struggle paycheque-to-paycheque just to survive,” Fearnley argues. “If we’re so essential to the functioning of this country, why are we being sacrificed by our own government?”

“The government needs to step up and give workers more,” said the anonymous co-worker. “Workers want more recognition for the work they are putting in.”

Building solidarity

The growth of the service economy since the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-2009 has been exponential. But the coronashock has changed this. According to the International Labour Organization, more than one billion people around the world—predominantly in the retail, hotel, and restaurant industries— are at high risk of a pay cut or losing their job. In Canada alone, over 8 million people have applied for COVID-19 emergency relief in the past month.

Like many other struggles facing our society, such as unaffordable housing, the pandemic has crystallized the challenges of young, low-wage workers and the importance of organized labour. As stated by the anonymous Herb & Spice worker:

“COVID-19 has shown that because we are unionized, workers are the Herb & Spice have more power to shape their surroundings than we would have thought otherwise; that if we act collectively, changes to issues that come up can be rectified and not just thrown in the bin in the name of keeping discussions ‘civil’ within the workplace.”

Though private sector unionization rates have fallen over the past three decades, a unionized workplace with an active, organized membership remains fundamentally important to protecting workers, especially at times of crises like today’s pandemic.

“I think I can speak on behalf of most of my coworkers when I say that the pandemic has absolutely renewed our resolve and our commitment to building solidarity,” says Fearnley, noting that $1.50/h raise will not deliver her or her co-workers from precarity.

“A government that is not structured to promote my interests as a worker is not going to deliver me the radical changes that I want to see. We, the workers, have the power to resist, to demand and to free ourselves from exploitation. Concessions are beneficial, but our desire for change shouldn’t end there and that change will not come from above.”

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