TORONTO — Almost 1,300 workers at 17 No Frills grocery stores in Ontario could be on strike next week, as the union that represents them has set a strike deadline of 12:01 a.m. on Monday.

"Loblaw must come to the table prepared to raise wages and improve working conditions for these grocery store workers," said Unifor national president Lana Payne in a news release Thursday.

The union said contract talks are ongoing, but that workers are prepared to strike to back their demands.

No Frills is the discount grocery banner owned by Loblaw Cos. Ltd., the largest grocery company in Canada. The 17 stores include five in Toronto, as well as locations in Whitby, Etobicoke, Niagara Falls and elsewhere.

This round of bargaining is the first with a major grocery chain for Unifor since it reached a deal with Metro this summer that brought more than 3,700 workers in the Toronto area significant wage gains.

Those workers rejected the first deal their union reached with the employer, then went on strike for five weeks before a second deal was reached.

Unifor had said the Metro deal would help it set a pattern as it bargains with major grocery chains over the next couple of years.

"The Metro round of bargaining was a huge test for the union. And in the end, Unifor overcame a failed ratification vote and they delivered a much better contract," said Larry Savage, a professor in the labour studies department at Brock University.

"I think that should send a very clear signal to No Frills that the union is not going to roll over."

The Metro agreement is now an industry-leading contract, said Savage.

"You can bet that other grocery store workers will want the same or better."

In the press release Thursday, the union said No Frills workers are demanding similar gains to those the Metro workers received.

Loblaw spokeswoman Catherine Thomas said in an email that the negotiations are with No Frills franchisees, and therefore Loblaw is not involved.

However, she provided a statement attributed to Aylmer No Frills owner Ryan Barrett, who she said represents the owner bargaining committee. In the statement, Barrett said, "We are at the table with the union, and our goal is to reach an agreement."

According to Unifor, six per cent of the workers across the stores are full-time. The rest are part-time, with a quarter being students.

The average hourly wage for the full-time workers is $19.89, while the average hourly wage for the part-time workers excluding the students is $16.95, according to Unifor. The average hourly wage for the students is $15.92.

In Ontario, the minimum wage for students under the age of 18 who work less than a certain number of hours per week is $15.60, compared with the general minimum wage of $16.55.

On Wednesday, Loblaw reported a third-quarter profit of $621 million, up from $556 million during the same quarter last year. The grocer has been expanding its footprint of discount stores like No Frills as consumers trade down, looking for deals amid the rising cost of living.

“Our Maxi and No Frills stores led the way, generating double-digit growth again this quarter,” said chairman Galen Weston on a conference call with analysts Wednesday.

The grocer and its competitors have come under scrutiny for continuing to see profits rise while food inflation soared across the country. Higher interest rates have added more costs for many even as inflation has waned.

For many workers, minimum wage isn't enough to survive, said Savage: "There has to be a recognition that the cost of living crisis needs to be addressed through significant wage increases across the board."

Workers are fed up with the disparity between their pay and Loblaw's profits amid the growing cost of living, said Unifor Local 414 president Gord Currie in the release.

"You know it’s bad when workers at Canada’s largest grocery store chain are struggling to afford their own food, even at discount stores like No Frills," he said.

The striking Metro workers received a lot of public support, noted Savage, and it's likely people will show the same support for No Frills workers if they go on strike given current public perception of the grocers, especially Loblaw.

"Over the course of the pandemic, and since the pandemic, it's not exactly a company that has endeared itself to the public," he said.

"There won't be much public support for Loblaws going into a strike with workers who are looking for a wage increase in order to meet their basic needs."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2023.

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