Whose Economy? Who Decides? | Workers’ Forum
Since Sobeys’ 2013 takeover of Safeway in Western Canada, it has closed over 50 stores within its empire affecting thousands of workers and those who relied on those locations for groceries and other supplies. Fifty store closures alone were announced in June 2014, that the company asserted “logically follow the acquisition of Canada Safeway.” These included Sobeys, Safeway and IGA stores in the Maritimes, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, with a majority in Western Canada.
The closures and attacks on the workers continue to the present. Take the example of Sobeys’ operations in Vancouver. Sobeys demolished the Safeway on Davie Street in Vancouver’s West End last year. The 102 workers at the Davie Street Safeway were offered employment in other stores in the city but those jobs turned out to be insecure as Sobeys announced 10 more store closures this January.
On January 23, it handed termination letters to 660 Safeway workers who are members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1518. The firings come while all 4,500 Safeway Local 1518 members throughout BC were slated to begin negotiations with Sobeys for a new collective agreement. Local 1518 President Ivan Limpright said Sobeys cancelled a meeting on January 18 that was supposed to set up the bargaining schedule. Then, five days later, the company announced the closure of ten stores and sent termination letters to 660 members of the Local. The company even had the gall to say publicly that if it receives anti-worker concessions in the new collective agreement it would consider reopening five of the closed Safeway locations under its FreshCo discount banner.
The President of Local 1518 immediately denounced the timing of the closures and layoffs as suspicious saying, “Last week, on the first day of bargaining with UFCW 832 in Manitoba, Sobeys demanded poverty concessions and then walked away from the table. Now as negotiations are set to begin in British Columbia, they announce 10 store closures? It’s a classic scare tactic. But our members won’t be fooled.”
Sobeys has decided to make 2018 the year of attacking its Western Canada employees. This is not simply a BC fight; it is a fight that Sobeys has decided to launch across the entire West, the union said.
Local 1518 immediately filed a complaint with the BC Labour Relations Board that the termination notices to its 660 members constitute an illegal lockout. President Limpright said the timing of the announcement coupled with the carrot-and-stick nature of the FreshCo news and the fact that the pharmacies at the five locations earmarked for FreshCo will remain open, provide grounds for the illegal lockout complaint.
“Look,” said Limpright, “we’re about to begin negotiations with the company. And Sobeys picks this moment to announce 10 store closures? The company’s message is clear: it will re-open at least five of those stores only if the union and our members accept a substandard agreement. That constitutes an illegal lockout. It’s a threat intended to intimidate our members, weaken the union’s position and further Sobeys’ own cause at the bargaining table.
“The BC Labour Relations Code defines an illegal lockout as closing a place of work, a suspension of work or a refusal by an employer to continue to employ a number of employees in order to compel the employees to agree to conditions of employment…. This illegal lockout is a bold and callous move to strip our members of their employment and their rights under a legally negotiated collective agreement — that’s shameful.”
Sobeys is a subsidiary of Empire Co. Ltd (ECL), which in turn controls land, housing and financial speculators Genstar Development Company (GDC) and Crombie REIT.
The GDC website reads, “[GDC has] operations in Southern California, Atlanta and throughout Canada. GDC focuses on residential land investments and equity financing…. GDC directs the acquisition and development of Canadian master planned communities.”
Crombie REIT is a Canadian Real Estate Investment Trust listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. It became a subsidiary of Sobeys Stores Limited in 1976 and subsequently part of the ECL empire. The Sobeys supermarket chain is Crombie REIT’s major insider tenant.
Sobeys’ acquisition of Safeway added to the ECL empire 213 stores, 4 distribution centres, 12 manufacturing facilities and various properties mostly in Western Canada. Those in control of ECL told the Globe and Mail at the time that the almost $6 billion in social wealth required to conclude the purchase of Safeway would come in part from “selling Safeway’s real estate and then leasing it back. Crombie Real Estate Investment Trust — which Empire spun out to handle its real estate — has the right to make first offers on the buildings, Sobeys said.”
Sobeys’ land speculation and other actions in Vancouver
The scale of the private interests the ECL empire controls extends well beyond the food sector into land and other forms of speculation. One closure clearly shows that the takeover of Safeway was just as much about speculation on land and housing as anything else. After Sobeys demolished the Safeway on Davie Street in Vancouver’s West End, it started building two residential towers. This follows the recent city rezoning of the area allowing for high rise construction. The two towers to be built on the block will join another tower under construction immediately adjacent and yet another underway across the street. Land values, condo prices and rents have soared since the rezoning, with the most infamous case being the sale of the nearby White Spot restaurant and parking lot for $245 million where units in the proposed towers will be priced in the millions. With small parcels of land fetching hundreds of millions of dollars, the speculators consider the existing commercial operations as useless no matter their shape or how needed they may be for the community.
The sheer size of ECL confronts workers with a formidable challenge. How do workers defend their rights when a colossal cartel with tens of billions of dollars of assets and annual gross income from various sources organizes a planned assault and they are made powerless, by the limitations imposed on them by labour law, to deal with it?
The situation demands serious treatment. Sobeys’ actions not only negatively affect Safeway workers directly, they have implications for food and housing security, the price of land, food and housing, the direction of the economy and the historic issue of who should control decision-making about the social wealth workers produce and how and where it should be invested and with what aim.
What decisions can workers take which respond to the situation in a manner which affirms their rights and defeats attempts to criminalize the workers for doing so? What can other workers do to defend the rights of those under direct attack?
(With files from ufcw1518.com, Wikipedia, Globe and Mail)
Workers’ Forum, February 8, 2018