“We had a great day on the picket line here for Labor Day with about 100 people on the line at each of the 11 Dominion grocery stores on strike,” Carolyn Wrice, president of Unifor Local 597, told the Militant by phone Sept. 8. The 1,400 workers, more than 80% of whom are classified as part time, are now into their fourth week on strike fighting for higher wages and more full-time jobs.
The strike is the most important labor battle in North America today.
At one of the picket lines in St. John’s, Devon Mercer, whose job is classified as part time but who works full-time hours, told CBC News, “It was kind of a smack in the face.” When the coronavirus hit, he said, “they needed us so much, that they gave us all these hours, they hired all these people, they gave us an [extra] $2 an hour.” Then “they just took it away.” So right now, people will be “hard-pressed” to “go back in without that trust earned back.”
Local 597 members at the Dominion stores across Newfoundland went on strike Aug. 22, fighting for a contract with higher wages and reinstatement of 60 full-time jobs eliminated in 2019. Part-time workers, who have limited access to benefits, haven’t received a raise since 2018.
Workers began calling for a strike in June after Loblaw Companies Limited — which owns the Dominion chain — ended a 2 Canadian dollar-an-hour wage increase ($1.52) granted to “essential workers” during the coronavirus pandemic. The company’s proposed contract, which would restore only half of that CA$2 over the entire three-year contract, was overwhelmingly rejected.
“Workers here are so determined,” Wrice told the Militant, because “they have been used and disrespected for 20 to 25 years now and they’ve had enough.” The workers “want decent wages, full-time jobs and good benefits.”
There is a long history of struggle between Local 597 and Dominion bosses. This is the third strike by Dominion workers in Newfoundland since 1997. On Nov. 16, 2003, Dominion stores locked out 1,600 union members at all 15 of its stores in the province, as workers began rotating strikes against a wage freeze. After three weeks on the picket line, the workers voted by two-thirds to ratify a three-year contract with a $1 wage increase for all workers.
“It is awesome the support we are getting. Everyone is watching because we are the first to negotiate with Loblaw,” said Wrice. People keep coming “to the line with food and cash donations.”
Loblaw and Dominion are owned by Galen Weston, the third richest person in Canada.
The workers are also fighting for paid sick days for all the workers at Dominion stores. Since the pandemic, this question of sickness benefits has been taken up more broadly in the labor movement.
In Halifax, a contingent of more than 100 workers, supporters of “$15 and Fairness,” union leaders and others marched on Labor Day calling for 10 paid sick days for all.
Three days after the Dominion workers set up picket lines, another strike broke out in the maritime province. Ferry captains, represented by the Canadian Merchant Service Guild, walked off the job Aug. 25 after eight years of negotiations with the provincial government that failed to win a wage increase or new agreement.
The ferry captains missed out on a pay raise that all other workers on the ferries, represented by another union, got under their contracts.
The strike is having a big impact on area islands. Cottel Island now only gets emergency service of one round trip a day. Because of the reduced ferry runs, delivery of crab and cod to the Beothic Fish processing plant in Newfoundland is suspended, which could affect the 350 union jobs there that are dependent on it.
“The ferry captains are very mindful of not wanting to cause the public undue harm, but at this point, after this long saga, feel they have no choice,” said lawyer Andrew Nielsen.
Messages of support and donations to the Dominion workers strike should be sent to Unifor Local 597 at 301-55 Bond St., P.O. Box 922 Station C, St. John’s, NL A1C 5L7 and firstname.lastname@example.org.