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The UFCW's Erin Mills Meltdown

Written by Wanda Pasz Saturday, 31 March 2007

The impending closure of Loblaw's Erin Mills distribution center and the loss of 850 jobs there is another stinking chapter in the United Food and Commercial Workers Union's legacy of corporate cheerleading.

Eight hundred and fifty workers at Loblaws Erin Mills distribution center in Mississauga Ontario are reeling from the news that the floundering Canadian grocery industry giant intends to close the Mississauga warehouse and transfer work to a new facility in Ajax (about 40 miles away, on the other side of the Greater Toronto Area). The workers will not have the opportunity to follow their work to Ajax as the new warehouse will be operated by a "third party" (different) company.

The closure, reported in the Toronto Star earlier this month, has sparked an outpouring of anger by the workers towards their union, UFCW Local 1000a.

This is another one of those UFCW-manufactured travesties that has been long in the making and should surprise no one who has been following the action at this, and other UFCW-represented warehouses in Canada over the past few years.

Workers at the Erin Mills distribution center and a couple of other Loblaws warehouses west of Toronto have been regular contributors to the uncharted.ca and Members for Democracy forums over the past few years. From their comments and those of UFCW insiders a galling history has emerged.

Up to the late 1990's, workers at Loblaws warehouses in the GTA and other cities in southwestern Ontario were represented by a number of different unions. UFCW Locals 1000a and 175 had some, the Teamsters had at least one, the USWA had another. Over a period of a couple of years it seems that most, if not all, of Loblaws warehouse workers eventually came under the control of Local 1000a. These threads, from workers at the Maplegrove warehouse in Cambridge Ontario provide a window into the turbulence that followed.


Maplegrove Warehouse Workers

In 2000, a number of warehouses with unions other than the UFCW were closed and the work moved to the Local 1000a-represented Maplegrove warehouse in Cambridge Ontario. Around the same time, a warehouse serving Loblaw's Fortinos chain was transferred from UFCW Local 175 to Local 1000a.

UFCW insiders have told us that warehouses scattered around the western GTA and beyond (know by names like Erin Mills, Maplegrove, Freemont, Pinebush, Surveyor's Road) were highly sought-after property by UFCW local presidents in the 1990's. Local 1000a's president Kevin Corporon, a consummate Loblaws cheerleader, spoke glowingly of "his" warehouses - where guys could earn $60,000 and life couldn't be finer. Corporon's control over the warehouses was apparently orchestrated with the help of none other than long-time UFCW man-god Cliff Evans. A confidential source has told us that in the 1990's the great pension guru himself stepped in to settle a fued between Corporon and Wayne Hanley (then president of Local 175) over some of the warehouses. Corporon won - a strange thing considering that the Hanley clan was much closer to Evans than Corporon ever was. The word on the street is that Loblaws wanted Local 1000a in its warehouses and Evans' god-like powers were needed to make it so.

While Corporon blew his horn about what a good gig the warehouses were, members complained about poor enforcement of their contract, secret side deals and mysterious letters of understanding that seemed to give the company the right to do as it pleased. Part-time drivers and so-called independent brokers who had little protection and few benefits were introduced.

Attempts to decertify the UFCW (in favour of the CAW or another union) were made at both Erin Mills and Maplegrove but were unsuccessful. In one case, the UFCW blocked the union-change effort with technicalities, in another they were able to win a representation vote by scaremongering (promoting the idea that without the UFCW, Loblaws would be free to do as it pleased, wages and benefits would sink to rock-bottom, no other union knew Loblaws like the UFCW, yadda yadda).

In 2005, the Erin Mills contract came up for renewal. These 2005 MFD forum threads, Loblaws to go 3rd party DC's? and Loblaws Warehousing Contract shed a lot of light on how Local 1000a greased the skids for the elimination of the Erin Mills workers' jobs.

Loblaws entered the negotiations seeking concessions. It floated a thinly-veiled threat that if it didn't get its way, the warehouse would close and the work would move to a new facility in the town of Ajax Ontario (about 40 miles away on the other side of the GTA). If the workers didn't accept the crappy deal that Loblaws wanted, the Ajax facility would open non-union or maybe 3rd party and they would lose the chance to transfer there once their jobs disappeared.

From the threads posted above, it seems that Local 1000a promoted this doomsday scenario and urged the workers to accept the raw deal as a means of protecting their jobs. In the end, a miserable multi-year deal (8 years?), with a two tier wage scale was ratified by a narrow margin of 57%. Wages of existing workers were frozen for the duration of the deal in favour of annual lump sum payments which, as a number of members have rightly pointed out, wouldn't amount to much after the government took its cut. It does not appear that anything guaranteeing the workers jobs at the new Ajax facility was nailed down in writing. Brian Reid, the snivelling Local 1000a business agent is quoted by some members as having said that he was "99.9% sure" that the company would do this but of course we know that this kind of commitment is worth the paper it's not written on. There was also some mention of a 2 year guarantee of employment for the existing members and some provision that would allow the union to reopen negotiations in the event of "changed circumstances".

Well, here we are two years later. Loblaws has announced that it's closing the Erin Mills warehouse and going 3rd party at Ajax. The workers are shit-outta-luck. The snivelling Brian Reid is whining to the local press about the workers "always blaming the union in these situations" and blabbering about voiding the current contract and taking the workers out on strike. It's hard to imagine a more ridiculous move. Tearing up the current contract would deprive the workers of their severance pay entitlements (currently three weeks per year of service) and leave them with nothing but the legal minimum (1 week per year of service) to fall back on. Reid seems blissfully ignorant of the fact that, with the warehouse slated to close anyway, his union's leverage with the company is dropping like a stone. Workers at the Maplegrove warehouse in nearby Cambridge have reported that their managers are hiring on extra staff like there's no tomorrow, a move that suggests the company plans to move work from Erin Mills to Maplegrove if Erin Mills workers do go out on strike before the Ajax facility is ready to handle their work.

Meanwhile information about severance for part-timers or the timing of the closure is hard to come by. Neither the Local 1000a or the UFCW Canada make any mention of the Erin Mills meltdown and UFCW blowhards are maintaining a studied silence about the whole messy business.

There are no media releases denouncing the closure, no protests, no leafletting in front of Loblaw's many supermarkets, no legal challenges (it's intriguing that the UFCW beat a quick path to the Quebec Labour Board when Wal-Mart closed its newly certified store in Jonquiere but the Erin Mills workers don't seem to warrant a similar vigourous defence), nothing. The reason for this is that UFCW leaders intend to do nothing. So a bunch of guys lose their jobs? Big deal. Local 1000a has had a good run at this warehouse and now it's time to blame Wal-mart and move on to another union dues feeding ground. Look for 1000a to turn up in the line-up of union bidders for voluntary recognition at the new Ajax facility. If that doesn't pan out, there will be another voluntary wreck out there somewhere.

Were UFCW leaders just a bunch of well-meaning dupes who got taken for a ride by the Loblaws labour relations crew? Hardly. This kind of sell-out has played itself out before. In 2002, a group of UFCW members in BC were similarly betrayed and abandoned by the Local 1518 in Vancouver. The workers, who were employed at Overwaitea Food Group's Loman warehouse in Langley BC, fought both their employer and their union in a bid to save their jobs and expose the UFCW's hypocrisy. They failed at the former but succeeded at the latter.

Throughout 2002-2003 a series of articles, many of them authored by the workers themselves, appeared on the MFD web site. Their campaign was one of the most intense and most public (relying extensively on the Internet to generate awareness and publicity).

Their experiences provide much insight into what workers at the Erin Mills and other Loblaw's warehouses can expect both from their employer and their union. They also may serve to inspire activists in the Loblaw's warehouses who aren't inclined to walk quietly off to the EI office. The circumstances are somewhat different for you than they were for the Local 1518 members in 2002. There are many more of you, Loblaws is a high profile company (much more so than OFG) and the media is already interested in what's going on. If you want to fight, you are better equipped to push back than a lot of workers in similar circumstances were five years ago. If you feel like fighting, now's the time.

In one of the articles linked below, a member from the Loman's warehouse had this advice for co-workers who were on the fence about quitting or fighting:

MFD: What message would you like to give to your co-workers?

Tom: To all the people at the warehouse I'd like to thank the ones who have been out trying to fight for their jobs. Hats off to them they're great people. And to the people who are too embarrassed, well we'll see how embarrassed you are when you're collecting welfare, and if you don't want to fight for your job then quit because 150 guys will get a deal a lot easier than 250 will and we don't need the dead weight. All you guys have done for years is sell, sell, sell. It's time to fight, fight, fight! Get off your butt and do it.

The Loman's Warehouse Workers' Archive

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History of Company Warehouses: A Study in Broken Promises and Broken Lives
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Open Letter to CLC President From a Worker
Dear Brothers, It Seems That We Might Be Tested
MFD May Day Special: Worker Goes To Bar for Laid Off Brothers
Warehouse Dispute From the Inside
Interest? And a Brief History
Ivan You're Our Brother, Help Us Man
Their Crisis, Not Ours
DIY Banner Brigade
Protest Pics
Interview with an Tom Smith
Lame Duck Local Can't Swim
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