Workers at Pete’s Frootique, a specialty, trendy grocery store in Halifax, and their supporters held a spirited and fun rally outside of Pete’s in downtown Halifax on Saturday. They were demanding Sobeys – which owns Pete’s Frootique –seriously bargain with the union for a first collective agreement.
The workers won certification for their union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU, Local 2) 18 months ago. Since then, Sobeys has been deliberately dragging its feet—likely in the hope there will be no collective agreement. If there is no collective agreement (which means no raise in pay, benefits or rights) – workers could lose interest in the union and vote to decertify it. Delaying bargaining is a typical tactic by employers who want a union-free establishment, especially in Nova Scotia.
Low wages for workers, high profits for stores
About 100 people work at this Pete’s store. They work as cashiers, cleaners, shelf-stockers. They make the prepared foods, and serve breakfast and lunch meals, snacks, and salads at the cafe counter. All the workers at the downtown location earn $15 an hour, which is Nova Scotia’s minimum wage. Some have worked at Pete’s for 10 years. The Living Wage in Halifax is $26.50 an hour, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA-NS). By comparison, Halifax’s Living Wage is $2.42 more than Vancouver’s Living Wage of $24.08. Pete’s workers are earning only 57 percent of the Living Wage.
There is no paid sick leave, virtually no health care benefits, and paid holidays are minimal. In NS, there are only six public or statutory holidays a year— which tie for the lowest number in any province.
Economist Jim Stanford at The Centre for Future Work points out that grocery chains, including Sobeys, made huge profits during Covid. The big increases in grocery prices “…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.”
At the Halifax rally, workers’ signs read – “I can’t afford to shop here” and “I got a hernia for minimum wage.”
Sobeys notoriously bad employer
Sobeys is a notoriously bad employer and a bad “corporate citizen”. Wages and benefits for most of their employees are rock bottom. Other than Pete’s, not one of their supermarkets on mainland NS is unionized.
Sobeys attitude toward its employees and human rights in general has not been good.
In 2015, Sobeys was found guilty of contravening Nova Scotia’s Human Rights Act for accusing Andrella David, a Black woman, of shoplifting at the Tantallon store. There was no evidence David had stolen anything. The Human Rights Commission (NSHRC) found Sobeys had racially profiled David thus contravening the Act. The NSHRC ordered Sobeys to pay David $21,000.
The NSHRC also ordered that Sobeys provide workshops for its staff about human rights. Sobeys refused and appealed the decision. In response, the Black community launched a campaign against Sobeys that included picketing the Tantallon store. They also threatened to mount a province-wide boycott of Sobeys. The community and supporters demanded Sobeys drop their appeal, apologize to David, pay her the money and provide anti-discrimination education to their staff.
Equity Watch, an organization that advocates for employment equity, organized a webinar featuring Pastor Lennett Anderson, of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Upper Hammonds Plains, who who helped organize the protests against Sobeys. To watch a recording of this webinar, click HERE.
Where is the support from other unions?
Getting back to the demonstration at Pete’s Frootique, it’s clear the labour movement in Nova Scotia likes to say the words but has little idea about union solidarity. Not one representative of the major unions including UNIFOR, the NSGEU, and CUPE were on hand to support the Pete’s workers. Both the president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour and the president of the Halifax and Dartmouth District Labour Council have informed the author that unforeseen circumstances prevented their intended presence at the rally.
This article first appeared on Judy Haiven’s blog.
Image Credit: SEIU, Local 2
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