“Some full-timers are using food banks”: A Metro employee breaks down why GTA grocery workers are prepared to strike

“Some full-timers are using food banks”: A Metro employee breaks down why GTA grocery workers are prepared to strike

After 25 years as a produce clerk, Tammy Laporte’s wages have fallen woefully behind the rate of inflation. Now, she can’t afford to shop at her own workplace

Photograph courtesy of Unifor National

Due to the rampant inflation that’s helped food titans like Metro, Loblaws and Sobeys turn out some of their highest profits on record, the grocery industry’s contribution to the cost of living is an increasingly hot-button issue—especially for its employees. Earlier this month, 3,700 Metro grocery store workers from across the GTA held a vote to decide whether they should strike for higher wages, better benefits, more stable working hours and an increase in full-time positions. In an unprecedented turn of events, 100 per cent said yes, kicking off their two-week bargaining period, which formally began on June 26. If no consensus is reached between Metro and its employees in the coming days, 27 stores in Hamilton, Mississauga, Brampton and other parts of the GTA could see closures or reduced hours. We asked Tammy Laporte, who works at a Metro in Scarborough, how chronically low wages have affected her, why she thinks her salary hasn’t kept up with inflation and how she hopes the ongoing bargaining—and potential strike—could improve her quality of life.  

How long have you been working at Metro?
I was born and raised in Scarborough, and I started working at a Metro on Danforth, near Victoria Park, in 1998. I’m coming up on 25 years there. I was part-time for my first ten years, then full-time since 2008. I work as a produce clerk, cutting fruit for customers. I’ve always loved my job at Metro, but I’m disappointed about the current conditions.

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Your union, Unifor Local 414, is nearing the end of a two-week bargaining period with Metro, after which you plan to strike if your conditions aren’t met. What are your demands?
I can’t give specifics, but in general we’re looking for significant pay increases, more full-time jobs, plus better benefits and pensions for all employees. As a full-timer, I do have some health benefits, but many of my colleagues have none. Part-timers have to work for years before they qualify. Many of us like our jobs, but our wages are so low that we’re forced to either have a second job or live close to the poverty line. Some of my full-time colleagues use food banks—it’s ridiculous. With prices increasing across the board, we just can’t survive on what we make anymore.

Has your salary changed much since 2008?
When I started on a full-time basis, I made $16 an hour. Now I make $20.55. That’s a 20 per cent increase over 15 years, and the cost of living is up by nearly 40 per cent. It doesn’t add up. Back in the day, working full-time at Metro—or Dominion, which it bought in 2008—was a great job. People bought houses on that income alone. Now, we receive yearly raises, but we’re talking 25 to 40 cents. It doesn’t hold a candle to inflation. It’s always been a struggle. I’m a single mom, and my son was two years old in 2008. I had just enough to afford child care, but at least groceries were way cheaper. I live in Toronto community housing; I’ve never been able to afford rent anywhere in or near the city.

Has having seniority improved your working conditions at all?
No. My day off can change from week to week, and I always have to work one evening shift. Anybody hired after 2002 has to work on occasional Sundays. On top of my regular 37 hours, that brings me to a six-day workweek. It’s tough—I’d love to have a work-life balance, but it’s impossible. One day I’ll work until 10 p.m., then I’ll need to be back for 8 a.m. the next morning.

One hundred per cent of voters wanting a strike is staggering. How did that happen?
At some point, there started to be a huge discrepancy between how much we make and how much the company’s leadership makes. Workers got left behind. The executives make well over six figures—they can easily afford groceries and actually shop in their own stores. Not all employees can do that. Self-checkout may have also played a role in inciting labour action. During the pandemic, Metro put self-checkout kiosks in 90 more of its stores, raising the number of stores with digital kiosks in Canada to about 350. I’ve seen several people have their hours cut since then, though I can’t say for sure that that’s the cause.

Tammy Laporte and the other members of the Unifor Local 414 bargaining committee. Photograph courtesy of Unifor National

Many companies offered their employees raises during the pandemic. Is a wage hike at Metro long overdue?
During the pandemic, Metro did actually gave us a two dollar per hour pay increase—but it was taken away after a few months. I think a lot of us expected to keep it forever, or at least for longer than we did. Being supported for just the first small stretch of the pandemic was not enough. People say that the emotional toll of the pandemic is behind us, but that’s not true. At the beginning, customers would call us heroes just for staying open. Now, while many customers are still lovely, some don’t have that patience anymore. After years of restrictions and with grocery prices that keep increasing, there’s a lot of anger, and people unleash it on us. Recently, I’ve dealt with verbal and physical abuse. I’m called names daily.

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Have you ever considered taking on a second job?
I think I would physically tire out. But, even if I wanted one, when would I do it? The fact that we don’t have set schedules makes it challenging to plan around my shifts. I have part-time colleagues who do it, and a few of my full-time co-workers find ways to juggle it. But we shouldn’t have to—I’m a full-time employee at a $16 billion company. It’s on the company’s leaders to make this work.

Have you thought about leaving Metro for another grocery store?
Yes, but it’s hard to give up my seniority. I also love my co-workers. We have a great team. I really do like my job. I enjoy preparing food for people and making them happy. I’d rather fight for better conditions than leave. The bosses are making money off our backs, and it’s not right. We deserve to be compensated appropriately.

How do your current wages affect your lifestyle?
My budget is very tight. I have no money to spend on entertainment, and I don’t have a car. I used to do most of my grocery shopping at Metro, but not anymore. It would be convenient, but all I can afford at my own work are sale items. I’ve heard that competing stores have employee discounts, which would be nice. Lately, I’ve been studying the sale flyers and then going to three or four different grocery stores around my neighbourhood to chase discounts. It’s time consuming, but I feel like I have no other choice.

How would your life change if Metro accepted your demands?
It would be nice to know that I can easily afford groceries for myself and my son. I’d like to move out of community housing, though I can’t see them giving me enough to afford that. I’d love to help pay for my son’s university or college education. He’s 17, and he isn’t sure what he wants to study, but I warned him not to go into retail or the grocery industry. It would also be nice to have savings. I have a small pension plan but no personal contributions. And, honestly, I’d love to go out to a concert or have a fun night out instead of just working, going home and repeating it the next day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.