Labour strife is mounting in several high-profile companies owned by the billionaire Weston family in what could be a concerted effort to keep unions from extending their footholds into new corners of the empire, observers say.
Despite a long history of unions in Weston-owned Loblaw Cos. Ltd. supermarkets, recent organizing efforts at two of the non-union companies within the prominent Toronto family’s portfolio have encountered stiff employer opposition.
On Monday, a dispute between union organizers and employers at the Loblaw-owned T&T Supermarket prompted the Ontario Labour Relations Board to put on hold a landmark organizing drive. About 100 workers at a Scarborough, Ont., warehouse want to become the Asian grocer’s first unionized employees in an effort to address scheduling issues and tie wages more closely to seniority.
During the final days of the organizing drive, the employer held so-called “captive audience” meetings, where workers heard impassioned testimony from upper management about the dangers of unionization, said Kevin Shimmin, national representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).
“They were quite aggressive in their message that they want to stay union-free. It was a very intimidating, emotional environment in the build-up,” he said.
“The union was frankly quite surprised. We expect those kind of practices from a company that we have no relationship with whatsoever, but we anticipated that, because T&T is owned by Loblaw ... the larger company would try and ensure that these unfair practices were not going to happen,” Shimmin said.
Results of the July 23 certification vote are in limbo after the labour board sealed the ballot box amid union allegations that a number of ineligible employees cast ballots in order to tip the outcome in favour of the company.
In an email on Tuesday, T&T CEO Cindy Lee said the labour board told the company “that upon review the union may not have had enough support from employees to file this application.”
Shimmin countered that the labour board would not have approved the vote had there not been enough support. The union wants the ballot box opened and organizers may consider filing unfair labour practice charges depending on the outcome, he said.
The UFCW represents tens of thousands of workers in Loblaw-owned stores across Canada but none in T&T's supermarkets or warehouses. George Weston Limited has a controlling interest in Loblaw, which acquired the highly profitable Asian chain in 2009 for $225 million. T&T opened its 21st store this year and has locations in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. According to the UFCW, T&T warehouse workers start at minimum wage, which is $10.25 an hour in Ontario, about half of what the average full-time unionized Loblaws warehouse worker is paid.
Loblaw spokeswoman Julija Hunter said there is “no basis” for the assertion that Canada’s largest grocer has toughened its approach to labour relations.
“Loblaw Companies respects the right and decisions of employees to decide whether or not they want a union to represent them,” she said.
But Michael Lynk, a labour law expert at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business, said the battle underway at T&T could signal a shift in Loblaw’s attitude toward unions in the face of difficult market conditions.
“It may show that they’re turning the corner either in their perceived need or willingness to get more assertive in trying to protect whatever their cost margins are,” he said.
Loblaw reported a 19 per cent drop in net quarterly earnings on Wednesday, compared to the same period in 2011, due to large capital costs for new information technology and Canada’s intensely competitive grocery market. Retail sales increased by 1.1 per cent, and revenue hit $7.37 billion, up 1.3 per cent over the previous year. (The company employs 138,000 full- and part-time workers in more than 1,000 stores across Canada under banners like Great Canadian Super Store, Provigo, No Frills and Atlantic Superstore.)
In June, employees at another Weston family-owned retail outlet — Holt Renfrew & Co. — came up short in their bid to join the UFCW. The certification vote followed what the union described at the time as “an aggressive campaign to deny workers the right to come together and have a say in their compensation and working conditions."
In interviews with The Huffington Post in advance of the vote, workers said the corporate response was “very emotional,” noting that Holt’s had wallpapered staff areas with posters warning about the drawbacks of unionization, and held twice-daily staff meetings to plead the retailer’s case.
Following the “no” vote, Alix Box, senior vice-president of sales and marketing at Holt Renfrew, dismissed charges of unfair labour practices.
"We are comfortable that the union allegations are without merit, and that we have conducted ourselves in an appropriate manner and entirely within the law,” she said.
The union has since filed unfair labour practice charges with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, says Jonathan Lobo, organizing coordinator for UFCW Local 1000A.
Captive audience meetings are not illegal under Ontario labour law, and employers are allowed to express their views about unions as long as they do not use coercion, intimidation, threats, promises or undue influence.
Holt Renfrew is a private company that was acquired by the Weston family in the mid-1980s. The luxury retail chain has 11 stores across the country, none of which are unionized. The unionization drive at Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre location was primarily in response to reductions in commission payouts to workers even as the company enjoys strong sales, organizers said.
Listed as the second-wealthiest person in Canada, Galen Weston, executive chairman of George Weston Ltd., is the chairman of Holt Renfrew & Co., and the former chairman of Loblaw Cos., a title now held by his son, Galen Weston Jr. The elder Galen Weston and his wife Hilary, the former Lt.-Gov of Ontario, are well-known philanthropists and friends of royalty.
The Weston family did not respond to a request for comment for this story. According to Geoffrey Wilson, spokesman for George Weston Ltd., the approach toward unions at T&T, Holt and Loblaw’s supermarkets is “non-related.”
But Maurice Mazerolle, a labour relations expert at Ryerson University, said the apparent resistance to organizing drives at Holt’s and T&T suggests “a line in the sand” may have been drawn between more mature Weston-owned companies and the newer acquisitions.
“Any areas of the [Weston portfolio] that are non-union now, I think they’d want to keep it that way,” he said. “They’re not just going to invite the union in unopposed.”
In 2010, a provincial mediator was required to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement for 30,000 unionized Loblaws, Zehrs and Fortinos employees in Ontario. Contract talks broke down over the company’s attempt to alter union work rules and employee compensation packages amid a significant restructuring effort, triggering a strike mandate. In the end, the union praised the five-year deal that was reached as one that “protects the economic security” of workers.
Pearl Sawyer, president of UFCW Local 1000A, which represents 15,000 workers across various Loblaw-owned banners in Ontario, said increasing competition from non-unionized retailers has made it more difficult to negotiate with employers across the sector.
“Given the industry in general, there’s no doubt that bargaining has been more challenging, but that just leads you to find more creative solutions,” she said.
When it comes to the decision to buy brands like T&T, Mazerolle suspects these purchases were motivated, at least in part, by a desire “to lower price or get some sort of advantage in the marketplace that they don’t have under existing collective agreements” — an advantage he said is now required to compete in the retail space.
“If I were the employer, I’d be saying to the UFCW, ‘Why don’t you go after Wal-Mart. Your future rests not with organizing us, but with organizing our competitors. The one employer you’ve got a contract with is the one employer you’re putting at risk,’” he said.
With a file from The Canadian Press