In late August, multiple corporate media outlets circulated pictures supplied to them by the RCMP of two women wanted by police for stealing food items from a Real Canadian Superstore in Nanaimo, BC. Police claim the women stole less than $300 worth of items, but the case was a high priority for them anyway. Never mind that Superstore, owned by the Weston family billionaires, is one of the most profitable corporations in Canada.
This case of police profit recovery for capital is not unique. One can readily find dozens of articles pushing the moral panic of shoplifting from grocery stores, over the last few months alone. And the panic media goes back years ramping up since the reopening after COVID shutdowns. It constitutes what The Atlantic magazine in the US calls The Great Shoplifting Freak-Out.
To fuel the panic even more, while making another push for tougher, law and order, policies, police have fabricated the term “violent shoplifters,” with media uncritically repeating the term and amplifying it. Yet another example of charge boosting by cops. Using imprecise, but ominous, language that tells little but raises anxieties and elicits an emotional response—one pliable to police calls for tougher laws and bail conditions. An online search suggests that if they did not originate the term, the Vancouver Police Department has played a big part in promoting it.
Yet there has been no such freak out, and certainly no calls for criminalization, over the much greater thefts being perpetrated by grocery companies. What they are doing is not even viewed as crime.
All of this shoplifting panic, complete with images of poor women in grocery stores, gives off a feeling summed up succinctly in the 17th Century folk poem, that goes:
“The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.”
The poem speaks directly to the fact that capitalist law has always existed to protect capitalist enclosers and exploiters and to punish working class people simply trying to survive. The real violence is capitalist hoarding of necessities of life for interests of value and profit. A violence protected and sustained by the same state forces chasing after working class people who need food.
The greater villain loose
The real grocery store theft is being perpetrated by grocery companies. It takes the form of exploitation of their workers, price gouging of customers, and in some cases outright criminality.
A glance at the grocery industry in Canada shows the extent of the swindle—and how much is taken by a few prolific offenders. Canada’s three largest grocery chains—Loblaws, Sobeys, and Metro—collectively reported more than $100 billion in sales and took more than $3.6 billion in profits in 2022 alone.
The numbers are striking for Loblaws, the company that owns the Superstore, where the Nanaimo police campaign originated.
In their reported financial results for the second quarter ended June 17, 2023, Loblaws showed still another quarter of massive financial gains marked by increased sales. Net earnings were up 31.3 percent. Revenue was $13,738 million, an increase of $891 million, or 6.9 percent. Retail segment sales were $13,471 million, an increase of $848 million, or 6.7 percent. The Food Retail section (Loblaw) same-stores sales increased by 6.1 percent.
And make no mistake, this is an industry that is highly monopolized in Canada. Five retailers—Loblaws, Sobeys, Metro, Costco and Walmart—control fully 75 percent of the food retail market in Canada. Remember too that they also dominate processing, where the Canadian market is even more concentrated in some sectors. Only two corporations control 80 percent of the bread-making market and one of those was owned by the parent company of Loblaws, George Weston Limited, until very recently.
These are perfect conditions for price gouging and benefiting through inflationary pricing. In June, StatCan’s latest Consumer Price Index report showed that prices for food bought at grocery stores continued to rise at a rate of 9.1 percent year over year. RBC has concluded that even if inflation slows, they do not expect food prices to return to pre-pandemic levels. So, who is robbing who?
Do not forget either that these are explicitly criminal enterprises (though we oppose capital on principle whether legal or not). Working class shoppers were victimized by a bread price-fixing scheme that inflated the price of bread by at least $1.50 over a period as long as 16-years. Low and behold, which was one of the main companies involved in the criminal endeavor? None other than George Weston Limited, owners of the Nanaimo Superstore that has cops chasing two women over under $300. Senior officers of Canada Bread and Weston Foods (sibling company to Loblaws under parent George Weston Limited) colluded to boost bread prices and even leaned on retailers to increase their prices. Canada Bread eventually received a fine, but no company owners or executives faced the jail time that some shoplifters face.
Yet these outfits are benefiting from policing campaigns, carried compliantly by copaganda media sources, to protect their profits against extremely poor people. And those same media still run promo pieces lauding Loblaws’ owner Galen Weston.
Automation + security = profit for Capital, death for poor people
Many businesses took the opportunity of the COVID shutdowns (and government aid money during it) to restructure their stores. Part of this was increased automation and the introduction or expansion of automated check outs that get customers to do work for free. Part of this seems to be taking some of the savings and putting it into hiring more, low paid, private security, rendering working class shoppers as suspects simply for shopping.
And this poses additional, serious threats to working class people, especially poor, racialized, and Indigenous people. In 2021, video circulated of a FreshCo security guard, Cameron McMillan, beating and detaining an Indigenous woman, Annette Custer, over the perceived shoplifting of a single beef roast. The person who took the video began recording after McMillan threw Custer to the ground “with her arms still behind her back so she couldn’t brace herself for the fall.”
While the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations called for McMillan to be charged immediately following the assault, Custer was the only one ever taken to court. The mercenaries who protect the ones who steal the common from under the goose are also protected by colonial injustice systems.
This violence is not new—Indigenous and Black shoppers are too familiar with it. It is another expression of colonial violence, surveillance, and racial profiling that mark capitalist spatial control.
This violence is, more often than is acknowledged, lethal. In 2020 alone at least three people were killed by security guards, two in Metro Vancouver. In 2016, Edmonton security guard Sheldon Russell Bentley kicked a fifty-one-year-old Edmonton man, Donald Doucette, to death and then robbed him of $20, leaving his body in an alley next to the Lucky 97 grocery store. Bentley was eventually charged with manslaughter and robbery, an outcome that is rare when it comes to formal police who kill.
Private security is largely unregulated in Canada and security guards have great leeway to act in unaccountable and largely unreported ways. They act in public space as well even though they have no special mandate to do so. Their actions should be observed and challenged. Some community members have taken to Cop Watch-like counter-patrols of security guards and private security.
Unions and legal defenses
So how might we respond to the shoplifting panics and targeting of especially poor working-class people, while also building collective strength and challenging grocery capital?
One way is, of course, supporting grocery store workers who are organizing unions and/or striking against their bosses. Spring has recently covered one such effort, the strike by 3,700 workers at Metro Grocery Stores that shut down 27 stores across the Greater Toronto Area. The workers are unionized with Unifor Local 414. Strikes show most forcefully how workers can contest the greatest grocery store theft—the theft of the value produced by workers, surplus value, in the form of profit.
Grocery capital wants people to believe that inflation, and inflationary process increases, are caused by workers’ wages and use that to oppose their own workers’ wage demands. Former Unifor economist Jim Stanford dispels capital’s claims:
“There’s something about supermarkets that gets Canadians angry, I guess because we have to go there every week [but] at least we’re now talking in the right direction about what is causing inflation. It was not caused by workers having too many jobs and making too much money. It’s been caused by profit taking — not just by supermarkets, but by powerful companies at every step of the supply chain.”
Did you like this article? Help us produce more like it by donating $1, $2, or $5. Donate