By Hanna Wallace and Billy May
Similar to the community care movement that has sprung up during the COVID-19 pandemic, the workers at Lifestyle Markets decided to organize a union drive out of a sense of care and respect for our fellow workers.
Lifestyle Markets has three locations on Vancouver Island. The first and largest opened in 1995 and is best described as grocery store featuring organic items with a vast nutritional supplements and vitamins section, a body care department, and finally, a deli.
In the fall of 2019, following the submission of complaints regarding bullying and harassment from a department manager, the entire deli department at Lifestyle Markets quit. This was in response not only to the bullying and harassment these workers experienced at work, but also to management’s utter lack of action to address these concerns.
For those of us who remained, we had a decision to make: continue with ‘business as usual,’ or organize the fight to protect our fellow workers. After the deli resignations, it became next to impossible to continue as before, pretending that management cared about us or respected us and valued us as employees. Invigorated and emboldened by the Me Too movement, three women at Lifestyle Markets began the months-long campaign to organize a union and take our power back.
Campaign Challenges and Lessons
As with most organizing campaigns, the foundation of our campaign was built with one-on-one conversations between workers. Organizing workers who are precariously employed presents some challenges. Many workers at Lifestyle are used to their labour being taken for granted, and see their labour as disposable. In turn, many had a fear of being fired and a sense of powerlessness regarding the ability to make change, believing that management may just replace the workers they deemed a “problem.” Staff at Lifestyle Markets also have full lives with childcare responsibilities, school commitments, and often second jobs in an attempt to make ends meet, and had little time to contribute to an organizing campaign.
A few factors helped to address these challenges. First, a number of the organizers had a relative level of privilege to leverage, as some had alternate income streams and so were less at risk of losing their livelihoods if they were terminated.
Second, in working with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), an established union, we were able to draw on their resources to support any workers who experienced wrongful dismissal. These resources turned out to be indispensable in our situation, as one employee was wrongfully dismissed via text message during the union drive.
Third, and most significantly, the issue that drove us to organize—ongoing bullying and sexual harassment—was bigger than any one person. With the safety of our fellow coworkers at risk, many were inspired to look beyond their individual circumstances to protect not only those currently employed at Lifestyle, but to protect all others yet to be employed. We collectively knew that we had to disrupt the status quo of disrespect and abuse that was harming our fellow workers and leading to waves of turnover. While many workers viewed their jobs as temporary and had little interest in organizing for their own benefit, it was the desire to benefit and protect others that was the glue that held together our campaign.
From union drive to pandemic
The workers of Lifestyle Markets voted to unionize with UFCW Local 1518 in a landslide victory on February 11th, 2020. After a months-long campaign, little did we know that this was the beginning of much more work to come.
Not long after certifying our union, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, presenting new challenges and changing the conditions of our labour. While we were previously seen as ‘unskilled workers,’ it became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic that we are in fact essential service workers and form the very backbone of our community.
For many workers, the discrepancy between this title of essential service workers, and the paltry wages we are paid, illuminated the level of exploitation we have been facing all along. On top of that, unlike many grocery stores (including Walmart), our employers did not and still have not issued hazard pay to acknowledge that we are risking our lives by showing up for work.
As our employer continued to miss deadlines, the bargaining process slowed to an interminable pace. As overworked, frustrated, and frightened workers, we needed some sort of reassurance we were valued. The general manager (GM) had made some comments in casual conversation implying some sort of undefined ‘thank you’ ”was on its way.” After a few repetitions of this message and no timeline it was time to act.
We began a hazard pay campaign with the help of the Retail Action Network (RAN), a local worker’s rights non-profit.
Community Support in the Push for Hazard Pay
After virtual meetings between staff, the union rep and RAN, a team of workers coalesced to enable democratic decision-making on the shopfloor. Information on the appetite for action and ideas for these actions moved quickly. First, a letter signed by 41 workers was delivered to the GM with a request for a written response in a reasonable timeframe. Clear that a single action might not be enough, and following a lack of response from management, an escalating ‘week of action’ was planned, with a different action occurring each day starting April 16.
Working with RAN showed us how to reach the community around us and greatly increase the impact of this campaign. During the week of action, RAN created an online petition (now with 312 signatures) for community members to sign, and organized daily actions for community members to take, including calling, faxing and emailing the GM; commenting on the store’s social media pages; and leaving Google reviews, all in support of Lifestyle Markets workers receiving hazard pay.
This week of action turned into two weeks, and culminated with a socially-distanced flash mob in the store on April 16th, with over 20 community members participating in a “noise demo” by banging pots and pans and chanting in support of workers receiving hazard pay.
The flash mob was an inspiring show of solidarity, with many workers touched by the very visible support of our community. Not only that, but Management finally began paying attention.
Where we are now
We haven’t yet secured our hazard pay, and our campaign continues, largely at the (virtual) bargaining table.
Despite us not having yet ‘won,’ our campaign has irrevocably connected us to our fellow workers on the floor and with our larger labour community.
Our sense of value as people and workers has been bolstered in a way that would not have been possible were we doing this alone.
We will continue to grow these connections and to move forward, continue to learn from our community and our fellow workers, and continue the fight for the respectful working conditions we all deserve.
To follow our campaign for hazard pay, follow Retail Action Network on Facebook or @retailactionbc on Instagram, or #HazardPay4Lifestyle.