Talks between UFCW 1518 and Sobeys in the midterm reopener faltered last week as the company stated that the parties were too far apart. The union represents about 4500 members who work at 60 Safeway stores across the province. Sobeys purchased Canada Safeway in 2014, in what many industry experts call a botched acquisition.
The negotiating committees for both sides met on March 14 and 15, during which the company continued to focus exclusively on the concessions they presented on the first day of bargaining. “Sobeys hasn’t moved on their initial concessionary demands,” said President Ivan Limpright. “They’re coming after our members’ fairly bargained wages and benefits. It’s not right.”
According to Limpright, Sobeys wants to eliminate accumulated time off (ATO), decrease wages and require co-pay for benefits. He added: “Some Safeway locations have over 100 percent turnover – in large part because employees don’t make a living wage. These concessions won’t help Sobeys turn things around. They’ll only make the problem worse.”
Despite meeting 10 times over the past two months, Sobeys failed to respond any union proposals. “One of Sobeys’ key objectives is to lower labour costs,” explained Limpright. “We presented them with a proven method to achieve this in a way that wouldn’t impact our members’ wages and benefits. They offered no response. We presented cost-neutral proposals to help Sobeys achieve their stated goal of returning to profitability. They didn’t respond. They didn’t even bother to deal with housekeeping items.” Instead, Sobeys requested the union attend two days of non-binding mediation at the Labour Relations Board of BC. If that failed, the company said they would apply immediately to move to final offer selection interest arbitration.
“Sobeys just isn’t interested in bargaining,” Limpright affirmed. “That’s why I’ve written the Minister of Labour, Harry Bains, for his assistance. He can appoint a special officer with broad powers to help move bargaining along.” Section 106 of the BC Labour Code allows the minister “in the interest of industrial peace” to appoint a special officer to try to resolve the dispute through investigation, mediation and arbitration. The powers of the special officer are broader than a traditional arbitration panel, and are binding.
“It’s an extraordinary step, but I believe this is the best way to commence meaningful dialogue, which has so far been absent in these negotiations,” said Limpright. “This is really serious. People’s livelihoods – their lives – are on the line.”