By Alia Karim, Kevin Brice-Lall and Taylor Welsh
On June 30, over 330 e-commerce logistics workers in a Hudson’s Bay Company warehouse in Scarborough, Ontario, won their nine-day strike for wage increases, retro pay, and no concessions.
In battles they posted on Twitter, the strikers turned away trucks and scab buses trying to get into the warehouse all under the surveillance of HBC management.
Predominantly from new immigrant communities, the members of Unifor Local 40 courageously held a picket line 24 hours a day and defeated Canada’s oldest corporation.
Pandemic wage freeze
On the picket lines, workers said the key issue was fair pay. Despite working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, they didn’t receive a raise for three years.
“We didn’t miss a day,” explained one picketer. “And during that time, the only extra money that we got was what the government gave. After that, we didn’t get anything else.”
Months into the pandemic, HBC temporarily closed stores and laid off 600 of their retail workers in stores, but their online business boomed. They forced their warehouse workers to process more online orders without any additional compensation.
Another worker said that they agreed to extend the current contract without a wage increase for one year, but after that “we kept on working with no contract, no raise, no nothing. When talks broke down… we didn’t have a choice but to strike.”
Inflation and HBC expansion
After the worst of the COVID-19 crisis, the inflation rate has now climbed to a forty year high of 6.9 percent in Ontario.
“Since the pandemic hit, it’s gone from being okay to paycheck-to-paycheck,” one worker explained.
We have people who don’t know how to come into work next week if they have to buy gas. We have people going to the food bank to feed their family. It’s getting crazy.
With the dramatic increases in fuel, food, housing and utility costs, the strike was necessary to force HBC’s hand as the corporation reorganizes to expand its lucrative online shopping.
It’s so lucrative, the strikers said HBC conducted renovations in the warehouse to expand warehouse production.
“We’re seeing construction going on, we’re seeing an additional night shift that’s going to make this building open 24/7, and brand new delivery vehicles.”
One worker put it bluntly, “Your progress is on my back.”
Stopping warehouse production was the best tool to halt the profit-making and force HBC to negotiate a better offer.
HBC’s pandemic subsidies
HBC was a recipient of the federal government’s so-called Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) which covered upwards of 75 per cent of an employee’s salary up to a maximum of $847 per week. The subsidy is not a wage subsidy, but a payroll subsidy. The program ran from March 15, 2020, and October 23, 2021 and has cost at least $100 billion in public money. As Rankandfile.ca observed at the outset of CEWS, there were almost no barriers to CEWS access, including profits, dividends or executive pay.
We do not know how much HBC collected in CEWS subsidies, because the federal government will not disclose these figures. We do know that their e-commerce division generated significant revenue for the corporation throughout the pandemic.
Despite this, HBC postponed bargaining around the May 2021 contract expiry, and only offered pay increases on a “go-forward” basis and not the period after the contract expiry.
By asking to negotiate a contract with a “go-forward” offer, HBC management tried to freeze wages for the same period the corporation accepted public money through CEWS. Workers risked COVID-19 to keep operations running, postponed bargaining in good faith, and generated major profits for the corporation while receiving no share of them.
HBC management gambled on workers feeling desperate enough to take any increase — and the public not finding out about it. The workers called HBC’s bluff and demonstrated that they can push back collectively on the picket line.
Building solidarity across shifts
Workers in the warehouse are predominantly new immigrants, many of whom do not speak English as their first language. This created barriers to building up support for a strike.
Not only did they face linguistic differences, but they had to communicate across different day and night shifts.
“One of the things that we faced before was each shift was sort of against each other—like ‘We did more than you!’ and all this kind of stuff,” explained one worker. Management would try to push one shift to process more than the next shift, and use these new benchmarks to tighten each shift’s deadlines.
Talking to everyone in different shifts was difficult, so throughout bargaining they sent updates through a mobile group.
“When we saw it was leading in the direction of a strike, we started talking about it amongst ourselves…Information was going out telling them what was going on, and what we needed to do. It worked really, really well.”
The majority of Unifor Local 40 members were also first-time strikers, so building their confidence was key. With a strike mandate of 98 percent, they built tremendous unity to stand up against management. During the night shift they retained over 15 people at the line. As one picketer said, “If we let them pass, what’s the point?”
Meanwhile, the fear of retaliation by HBC management hung over them.
As one steward recalled,
“People were wondering, are they gonna get fired? Or, how am I going to get money to pay my rent or my mortgage?”
Another worker argued,
It being the first time for us on strike, we didn’t really know what to expect—how long it’s going to last. We’re already in a difficult situation…As people come out and do this, it’s a tough pill to swallow. But I think everybody’s on the same page about why we are doing this, so that’s why we have such good support.
Holding the line
Only a few days into the strike, workers showed unwavering unity with each other to stop truckloads of products entering and leaving the warehouse. They turned back busloads of scabs from a staff agency who were offered $1.25 more per hour to keep the warehouse running.
On the first day of the strike, management brought in 33 scabs in one bus and enforced a constant surveillance of security guards and police. Then they escalated even more pressure on the picket line by trying to send three buses of workers in.
“They showed up with three buses! From one bus to three buses. They thought they would have it. Management stood out there and tried to negotiate with us but we weren’t having it!” a steward proudly announced. “Move that bus!” they cheered.
Workers said these moments on the picket instantly transformed their local. As one striker reflected,
You’ll find yourself talking to people that you didn’t really talk to… When we go back to work, we’ll be closer.
There is power in a union
The situation took a dramatic turn only days before the local won a new collective agreement. On Monday, June 27, HBC management successfully obtained a judge’s strike-breaking injunction to curb the strikers’ activities in a desperate effort to get back to business.
Despite that, the picket line held strong, refusing to let trucks and buses in. Their effort paid off. Within hours of the judge’s ruling HBC management requested a return to bargaining. Only after one more day of negotiations, they reached a new tentative agreement.
- Wage increases for all members
- $1,500+ retro pay
- Total pay increase of 13.3 per cent (not including retro pay)
- Employee benefit contribution at 2017 rate
- New language to guarantee right to participate in discussions on new technology
This is a far cry from HBC management’s refusal to give a retroactive pay increase. The $1,500 at 330 members is around $450,000 in compensation. When seen in light of HBC’s lavish executive compensation model, it’s clear they could always afford it.
Against the bigger picture of high inflation, a tight labour market, and other strikes against inflation, the members of Unifor Local 40 have shown how workers can get organized, strike, and win.
Special thanks to Unifor Local 40 for the photos!