Edmonton Safeway warehouse workers spend Labour Day on strike

EDMONTON - While the first day of picketing shut down work inside a major Canada Safeway distribution centre and ice-cream plant in west Edmonton, the effects of the strike and lockout were felt just a few kilometres away.

Organizers of an annual Labour Day barbecue were scrambling to buy enough oranges Monday morning to feed the city's unemployed, who lined up across Giovanni Caboto Park, near 95th Street and 109th Avenue.

"We're a little short on oranges because of the strike at the Safeway," said Tom Olenuk, president of the Edmonton and District Labour Council, which organized the barbecue for Edmonton's jobless.

"Usually we get about 4,000 oranges, but because of the strike we only got about 1,000."

Thousands of people were expected to visit the park for free hotdogs, hamburgers, drinks, bananas and a limited supply of oranges during the barbecue that has been feeding unemployed people on Labour Day for 20 years now, Olenuk said. It's an event organizers hoped would fade away eventually, he noted.

"Instead of getting smaller, it's gotten bigger."

The situation for unemployed people in this province is particularly dire because of poor coverage from Canada's employment insurance program, according to a newly released analysis from the labour council and the Alberta Federation of Labour. That analysis shows the number of unemployed people in Alberta has doubled since October 2008, to almost 154,000, the labour groups said in a news release.

The employment insurance system that should be helping unemployed workers during the recession only pays them $1,591 a month in benefits, on average, the labour groups said.

Compared with workers in the rest of Canada, Albertans have to work the longest number of hours to be eligible for the shortest periods of benefits coverage, the analysis said.

"Clearly, we need to increase the benefits," Olenuk said.

About eight kilometres up the road from the Labour Day barbecue, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 spent their Labour Day blocking traffic into and out of the Safeway distribution centre and Lucerne ice-cream plant at 14040 Yellowhead Trail. Work at the company's frozen food warehouse, at 11528 160th St., was also affected.

"They're just shunting trailers around in there," said Local 401 president, Doug O'Halloran, who joined workers on the picket line. "There's nothing going in or out of there today."

Union members also blocked several vehicles they said were carrying Canada Safeway managers trying to enter the warehouse and plant. People inside those vehicles did not want to speak to media.

Safeway workers started picketing Monday at 6 a.m., after they served strike notice and the company locked them out. The 350 workers are picketing in three shifts over each 24-hour period to keep traffic from getting to the Safeway buildings.

The workers have been without a contract since December 2008, but a deal seemed imminent after company and union negotiators reached a settlement Aug. 26.

However, more than 70 per cent of union members rejected the settlement supported by union leaders.

Several picketing workers who voted against the deal said from the picket line Monday that benefits for workers in the physically demanding jobs are still in dispute. As well, full-time workers do not want to add three hours to their current 37-hour work week, several workers said.

That's because workers suspect the company's goal in adding the hours is to announce layoffs, said Travis Ozechowski, who has worked full-time for three years in the produce section at the grocery retailer's distribution warehouse.

"I don't want to see guys lose their jobs," Ozechowski said. "I'm a shop steward, so I've got to look out for everybody."

Workers knew going into the vote that this could be a long strike, he added.

Safeway has started hiring temporary workers to keep operations going during the strike and lockout. The company has advertised the temporary warehouse jobs at $18.41 an hour.

Noor Afridi, 36, applied for one of those temporary jobs Monday. He has a job with a security company, but he hasn't been getting enough shifts to pay his bills.

Afridi said he does have concerns about crossing the picket line during a strike, "but when you have financial pressure, that can take you anywhere."

The wage the company is offering to temporary workers is a sore point for Laura, a union member on the picket line who does not want her last name printed. She was hired a week and a half ago.

"I was hired at $14.86 an hour," she said. "They're going to get $18.41 an hour to take my job."

Hourly wages for the 350 workers range from about $14 an hour for a part-time employee up to $20 an hour for full-time workers, the union has said.

Edmonton Journal, Mon Sept 7 2009
Byline: Andrea Sands

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