ustin Coyle says he is the highest-paid unionized worker at Metro’s busy store at the Yonge and Eglinton mall. As a meat manager, Coyle sometimes spends seven days a week running the department. 

“I lift 60 to 70 pound pieces of meat on a daily basis, covered in head to toe with blood, with a bandsaw,” the 30-year-old explained while at a picket line outside of the Yonge and Eglinton store on Wednesday. “It’s a hard job.” 

It still doesn’t get him anywhere close to a recent minimum liveable wage calculation made by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – $34 an hour for a Torontonian looking for a one-bedroom apartment in the city, or $40 for a two-bedroom. Coyle’s rate is just above $25 an hour. Today, he lives near Birchmount and St. Clair, in Scarborough, and says his two-bedroom apartment is now unaffordable to him. 

Austin Coyle, a meat department manager at Metro, stands at a picket line outside Metro's Yonge and Eglinton location. Photo by Brennan Doherty.

For roughly five weeks, 3,700 grocery store workers across the Greater Toronto Area represented by Unifor picketed outside their stores, demanding higher wages, benefits, and job security.  Striking workers rejected an earlier tentative agreement, which would have bumped their pay by a total of $3.75 an hour for full time and senior part-time workers over a four-year period. 

On August 31, workers ratified a second tentative agreement. According to Unifor, it’ll offer raises of $1.50 an hour to all workers immediately, and around $2 an hour to senior part-time and full-time workers within the next few months. However, workers and experts who spoke to The Hoser before the ratification vote don’t think these gains will make life in Toronto that much easier. 

Maureen Strang, a 65-year-old deli worker and picket captain at Yonge and Eglinton, was one of them. She knew Toronto residents need to make a minimum of $25 an hour to afford living there. “I don’t make that now,” she said on Wednesday, the day before the strike ended. 

According to a statement from Unifor released after The Hoser spoke with Strang, the new collective agreement will see full-time grocery clerks make $25.05 an hour and what it calls “significantly higher wages” for part-time clerks. The statement did not specify this new hourly rate. 

While grocery work today is notorious for being low-wage and precarious, the industry used to pay decent wages. The Toronto Star’s archives show that meat cutters employed by Dominion in 1972 earned $156 a week. (Metro bought Dominion in 2008). When converted to 2023 dollars, that comes out to $1,121.07 a week – or $28 an hour. In other words, a rank-and-file meat cutter in 1972 earned more per hour in real wages than Coyle does as a meat department manager today. 

“This was a unionized sector that produced very strong collective agreements,” said Stephanie Ross, an associate professor of labour studies at McMaster University, of the grocery industry at the time. “People had stable, lifetime employment.” 

Today, that isn’t the case. The vast majority of grocery workers, regardless of employer, work in part-time and poorly paid positions. At Metro, according to Unifor, over 2,500 members earn less than $20 an hour. Some, like Michael Yan, a 61-year-old grocery clerk and picket captain, don’t buy groceries at Metro. “I usually get it from Food Basics,” he said. Food Basics generally has lower prices than Metro. 

Michael Yan, a grocery clerk and picket captain, stands outside Metro's location near Spadina Avenue and Bloor Street. Photo by Brennan Doherty.

The biggest cost faced by nearly all workers in Toronto is housing – and rent isn’t getting cheaper. In August, the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto was $2,592 a month, roughly 13 per cent higher than it was at the same time last year, according to data from Rentals.ca. A two-bedroom like Coyle’s goes, on average, for roughly $3,370 a month. 

Steven Tufts, an associate professor at York University who studies the geography of work, said Toronto Metro workers will need a lot more to survive and thrive. “Workers are going to have to make $70,000 to $80,000 a year to get there,” he told The Hoser. The workers’ rejection of the first tentative agreement offered to them, he says, shows just how desperate workers have become to see wage gains during today’s cost-of-living crisis.  

“We’re seeing a period of labour militancy and heightened expectations, largely because of inflation and people wanting to catch up with wage demands,” Tufts said. 

However, according to Ross, collective bargaining on its own might not be enough to address affordability concerns. She pointed to organizing efforts in Connecticut, a very expensive U.S. state, where unions found that even significant wins at the bargaining table – say, a 20 per cent wage raise – wasn’t enough to make housing in cities like Hartford more affordable. Toronto, she said, isn’t that different. 

“They needed to be able to affect the environment in which workers lived,” Ross said of the Connecticut situation. “Not just the workplace, but the situation that was not delivering on affordable housing – and that’s a public policy issue. That’s an issue that requires unions to intervene in government decision-making.” 

While Unifor championed its striking workers for their perseverance and “unwavering solidarity”, Strang pointed out that they didn’t  really want to be out on the picket line. But she said, shortly before the strike ended, it was necessary to show Metro just how serious they were about getting a good deal.  

“We’re so far behind,” she said. “Our wages have not been keeping up with the cost of living. So we needed more.” 

Sep 6, 2023
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