Michelle Charles says she has worked six days a week at the Metro grocery store in Brantford, Ont. for the last 19 years.
Earlier this year, while Metro made record profits, Charles said, to make ends meet, she had to sell her home, where she lived for 27 years.
“I can’t afford to shop at Metro,” she said. “It’s ridiculous that I had to sell the house…honestly, I needed about $200 or more a week, and I probably could have kept the house.”
In 2022, Metro’s net earnings were $922 million, the highest profits the company has ever recorded in its history.
Charles, a single mom of two children in their twenties, said when she lost financial support from their father earlier this year, she sold their home in June and found a more affordable place.
“I was paying less with my mortgage payments than they do for rent. It was challenging. I did find a place and I’m trying to make it home” but “it’s difficult,” she says.
When she drives by her old house, she still makes the turn in out of habit.
“That’s where my kids grew up, so it’s hard on everybody.”
Charles is one of more than 3,000 workers at 27 Metro locations in the Greater Toronto on strike amid growing concerns over wages. The workers, members of the union Unifor, rejected a deal last week.
Metro workers are struggling to pay their bills, expert says
Rejecting a tentative collective agreement like this one is rare, said Larry Savage, a labour studies professor at Brock University.
“I think that that’s an indication that these workers have increased expectations about what their labour is worth, and [what] it looks like. Now they’re demanding more from their employer.”
Savage said the union likely rejected the deal because of the profit numbers of the Metro franchise.
“Meanwhile, you know you have thousands of Metro employees who are struggling to pay their bills,” said Savage.
Metro said, in an emailed statement, that they remain committed to the bargaining process and “worked constructively with the union and the employees’ bargaining committee and we reached a mutually satisfactory agreement that they unanimously recommended to employees.”
“It provided significant increases for our employees over the 4 years of the collective agreement in addition to improved pension and benefits, building on working conditions that are already among the highest in the industry which were negotiated with this union.”
Savage said that the contract was one of the best in the sector and, pre-pandemic, it would have been considered a very good deal, but a lot has changed since then.
“The spike in inflation meant that union contracts couldn’t keep up in most sectors. And then you add in that cost of living crisis and the low unemployment rate, and that’s a recipe for strike action,” he said.
“Having the best contract in the sector means nothing if you’re a worker who can’t pay your rent, or your utility bills or afford food from the very store you work.”
Krystal Barr, a meat manager for Metro, has been with the store for 19 years and hopes the strike can not only increase wages but also benefits.
“I just personally think we need more money, benefits as well, especially when we keep hearing that the big guys are getting all these profits,” Barr said.
Public sympathy for strikers could put pressure on Metro
Savage said public support for workers “puts incredible pressure on Metro to increase wages and settle the contract. “
Metro and Unifor are both prepared for a long, drawn out dispute, Savage says.
“Strike action can be contagious,” Savage said. “If it’s a successful strike by Metro workers, I think it will definitely have a ripple effect in the rest of the sector.”
Charles said she’s willing to give up her pay to be on the picket line for now, but she hopes for a quick resolution.
“We want to go back to work. This isn’t just something we’re enjoying doing. We want to come back to work but we need them to come back to the table.”
She says “We need a piece of that pie that everybody else is getting.”