Safeway closures are bad for families and communities. That’s what UFCW 1518 members told their Member of the Legislative Assembly in meetings scheduled across the province this summer and fall.
Members, leadership and union representatives met MLAs to discuss the future of Safeway, which is converting to FreshCo in many communities. The discount banner of parent company Sobeys, FreshCo is a franchise that pays lower wages, offers fewer benefits and hires almost no full time employees. “Political action is a key component of the union’s advocacy,” Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Johnson says. “In addition to representing our members in the workplace and fighting for fairness at the bargaining table, we lobby government for progressive legislative and policy changes.”
Since 2018, Sobeys has targeted 20 Safeway stores for closure across BC, 14 of which are slated to open as FreshCo, including in Kelowna, Vernon, Kamloops, 100 Mile House and Williams Lake. “This will be devastating for smaller communities where there is only one Safeway that provides not only groceries but employment, and in turn supports the local economy,” explains Johnson. “Converting to FreshCo will bring the loss of secure, full time jobs with good benefits in favour of precarious, part time employment. Our members, their families and the community will lose.”
During UFCW 1518’s second annual Lobby Day, held last May in Victoria, members were trained in the fine art of political lobbying and then put into practice their new skills, meeting with MLAs and ministers in the governing NDP. President Kim Novak and Secretary-Treasurer Johnson also met with Premier John Horgan and conveyed to him the serious repercussions of not enforcing common employer language in the BC Labour Relations Code. “Arbitrator Vince Ready imposed a collective agreement for FreshCo that clearly treats Sobeys as the common employer, despite the fact that those stores are franchises,” Secretary-Treasurer Johnson continues. “Now Sobeys thinks that each FreshCo operator will bargain individual collective agreements. That’s a union busting tactic if ever I saw one. That’s why we filed a complaint with the Labour Relations Board.”
Building on the union’s Lobby Day success, it was time to take the issue directly to MLAs in their home constituencies. In total the union met with nine MLAs, most of whom agreed to send letters to Sobeys CEO Michael Medline in support of maintaining good jobs under the FreshCo banner. Toni Caruso, a former Safeway cashier and 43-year member, met with her MLA in Quesnel. “I heard about stores closing in 100 Mile House and Williams Lake, all the way down the Okanagan, and even Powell River,” she comments. “Our Safeway in downtown Quesnel hasn’t been impacted yet, but I couldn’t wait for it to be destroyed. I worked hard for that store.”
According to President Kim Novak, the union will continue raising concerns about FreshCo conversions with local leaders and pressing for political action. “MLAs are bound to represent all constituents, and we expect them to fight on behalf of workers, regardless of political stripe or conviction.”