Alberta Safeway workers vote in favour of strike after company ends COVID-19 ‘hero pay’

Safeway workers in Alberta could take to the picket lines after a majority voted in favour of strike action, according to their union.

During a vote last week, 79 per cent of Safeway employees represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 401 voted for strike action, the union said Monday.

“This is an environment where employees are facing a lot of anxiety,” UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse told CBC News.

Hesse said he’s not sure the strike vote means workers are looking for a fight — but he said they are looking for a fair deal. Legally, employees can strike with 72 hours notice. 

CBC News has reached out to Sobeys for comment.

Contract negotiations

The contract between Sobeys, which owns the grocery store chain, and its 8,000 workers at 75 Safeway stores in the province expired in 2017.

A mediator was appointed by the government in February, but after months of negotiations the two parties have not come to an agreement. 

In March, the grocery chain implemented a $2 per hour pay increase — what Safeway called its “hero pay” program — to support employees facing hazardous work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That pay bump was scrapped in mid-June, shortly before parent company Empire Company Ltd. announced its profits have grown during the pandemic.

“An extra $2 an hour, it’s not a lot of money, but it’s a recognition. There’s really no morality in that, you’ve kind of gone from heroes to zeroes very quickly,” Hesse said. “And while the pandemic might not still be at a crisis level, there’s still a threat, there’s still a risk, and everybody knows it.”

Ten Safeway stores and one Safeway gas bar have had COVID-19 alerts and diagnoses in the province, Hesse said. 

Profit was up by 43 per cent, up to $181 million, in the company’s fourth quarter which ended in May.

Employee concerns

Hesse said money isn’t the only issue on the table.

He said workers need a new health and safety process at work and for their benefits to be secure.

Recent studies have also shown handling thermal paper receipts could put cashiers at a higher risk of cancer, something workers are concerned about.

UFCW Local 401 executive director, Chris O’Halloran said the turnout for the strike vote was one of the highest he’s seen in recent years. 

“It is a testament not only to employee and public distaste for the kind of greed we’ve seen from major Canadian grocers, but also to our union’s massive member engagement and transparency initiatives,” he said in a statement posted to the union’s website.

The union said it will ask Sobeys to return to the bargaining table as soon as possible to negotiate a deal.

Hesse said while employees are angry, he wouldn’t say they’re eager to strike. 

“I think they really voted with their hearts. I think they wanted to say to Sobeys, hey, bargain fairly,” he said.

“No one wants to go on strike, and we’re hopeful we won’t have to. We’ve just told Sobeys that we are strong, and we will fight if we are pushed,” the statement posted to the union’s website read.