Why this Toronto grocery worker is going on strike

"I cannot afford to live at the current wage"
Courtney Shea

Last month, workers at Metro grocery stores across the GTA voted in favour of a strike mandate ahead of contract negotiations. At the top of their demands is a wage increase, one that reflects the rising cost of living and inflation. Full-time floor workers currently make roughly $16 to $21 per hour, and department managers earn approximately $25 to $27 per hour. (In a statement to Maclean’s, Metro said that they are currently bargaining with Unifor, Local 414 and are committed to finding a fair and equitable resolution.)

“Metro’s profits have gone way up over the last few years, and they should compensate the people who helped them get there,” says Gabi Abdalla, a 41-year-old produce manager who started at Metro in 2010 and, when accounting for inflation, earns less than he would have 10 years ago. Now a dad and his household’s sole breadwinner, Abdalla is one of many who says that the current conditions are unsustainable. Here he talks about why fair wages—not $300 Metro gift cards—are the only way forward. 

You’re one of 3,700 Metro grocery store workers who voted to strike ahead of contract negotiations. What led you to that decision? 

Our union negotiates our contract every four years. The last agreement was in 2019, when the pay increase was about 40 cents per year—so less than two dollars total. That doesn’t even keep up with inflation, which means our wages have effectively gone down at a time when interest rates are up, rent has gone through the roof and life has generally become much more expensive. In April, there was a union meeting in downtown Toronto, and we picked a committee of 10 people to represent us in the negotiations. There was a vote on whether or not we would be willing to strike if we are not happy with what the company offers—the result was unanimous.  

That must be a powerful bargaining chip.

Definitely. It’s a lot different than if five per cent of us voted to strike. A unanimous vote sends a message that we are not going to back down. Thinking back to 2019, I didn’t even attend the union meeting before negotiations—nobody did. And we ended up with this terrible deal. 

Metro reported high profits in 2022. Does that also help your argument? 

You’d think it would, but what we hear from them is that they can’t afford to pay more. Meanwhile, the president of the company made $5 million last year, plus bonuses. Their quarterly profits are up again. What about the people on the front lines who made these profits possible? I’ve been at this company for 13 years—you’d think that kind of commitment and loyalty would be rewarded.  

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How did you end up at Metro? 

I came from Syria to Canada in 2003 when I was in my early 20s. My mom, sister and I moved into a home in Scarborough, and I started studying business at Seneca College. Back home, I was in second-year law school, but financially, that wasn’t an option in Canada. I got a part-time job at McEwan, the high-end grocer in Toronto’s Don Mills neighbourhood, to cover expenses while I was in school. I hoped to get a job in my field when I graduated, but the timing coincided with the financial meltdown. A friend of mine worked at Metro and told me it was a place where you could rise up the ranks into management. I started part time in 2010 at the Scarborough location. In 2013, they offered me a full-time position at the Yonge and Eglinton location. Back then, it was decent money. Enough to pay my mortgage, car insurance, maybe even take the odd vacation. I had just gotten married and was looking to buy a house, so I was happy to take it. 

What were your wages then versus now?

In 2012, a produce manager like me made $23.63 an hour, which is worth roughly $30 today after accounting for inflation. I’m currently paid $26.58 per hour. When you do the math, the wages have increased at approximately half the rate of inflation. I’m so thankful that I was able to buy my home before the market went crazy, but I still have to pay my mortgage, which recently went up by $200 a month. My wife is in school full time, which means I’m carrying our entire household, including our young daughter. So when I say we demand more, it’s because we deserve it, but also because I cannot afford to live at the current wage. 

My family has already made cuts: things like fresh produce or the occasional restaurant meal. It’s summer, and my daughter is hearing about Canada’s Wonderland from her friends. A few years ago, I would have taken her, but the way things are, it’s just too much money. It’s the same for everyone. In the lunchroom, people will ask about plans for the summer, but nobody can afford to do anything. I used to go visit my sisters in Montreal once a year, but not anymore. At least not for now. 

Grocery workers like yourself were hailed as heroes during the pandemic. Did you feel that love?

Yes, we were the heroes, but where is the compensation? We were on the front lines when our bosses were safe at home with their families, calling in on Zoom. A lot of part-timers stopped showing up to work, so there was a lot of pressure on full-timers. I was arriving here at 6 a.m. when line-ups of people stretched into the parking lot. I was the one practically run down by customers when the doors opened—forget social distancing. Working in the produce section, I had to remind people not to sample the grapes or cherries during a pandemic. People would actually spit out their cherry pits onto the floor like I was supposed to pick them up. 

In those early days, we had no idea how to protect ourselves or how deadly the virus would be. I would get home and go straight to the laundry room, sanitize everything in the home, sanitize my car. Our daughter was still a baby, so we were scared about what would happen if I brought the virus home. And with lockdowns, we couldn’t get help from friends or family. 

Metro did provide some extra support during COVID-19, right?

There was a two-dollar “hero pay” bump, but that only lasted for a few months. Later, they gave us $300 gift cards ($150 for part-timers), which was pretty insulting—especially when they deducted the tax off of our pay cheques. I can’t pay my mortgage with my gift card, and I can’t even afford to shop at Metro. The prices have gone up, close to 30 per cent, in some instances more. A customer asked me where baby formula was the other day, and I couldn’t believe the cost had gone up to $62. I know exactly how much it cost in 2019 because I was buying it for my daughter: $46.50. This is the sort of thing that makes my wife and I think twice about having another baby. 

Is there a number that you would be happy with? 

I am hoping for a $5-per-hour increase over four years: $2 now and then a dollar a year after that. That’s enough to make a difference in the cost of living. There was a time, not that long ago, when the annual income of someone in my position was pretty close to the average family income. Today, we are nowhere close. 

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Are you concerned about the automatization of grocery store work? 

Yes, that is one of the things we are hoping to bring to attention in negotiations. Automated checkouts are becoming more and more common as a way to save on staffing costs. But when there are fewer human employees working in a store, that has an impact on overall customer experience. It’s why you probably have a lot more trouble finding someone to help you in a store, compared with a few years ago. 

How do you address that in a contract negotiation? 

We are asking them to hire more workers, which is part of a larger problem and another big priority in our negotiations. As it stands, part-time workers have no benefits or job security, and full-time workers have no control over our schedules. Christmas, I’m there, New Year’s Eve, I’m there, long weekends during the summer too. You can’t have a life. My daughter is getting older—she turns five soon—and I worry about the time that I’m missing because my employer, who I have been so loyal to, demands total control over my schedule. 

Are you hopeful that things will go your way?

I am. I think we have leverage in our numbers and a lot of support from the public. I know that other grocery chains—Loblaws and Sobey’s—will be negotiating new contracts in 2024, and I hope we are able to set a new standard. We don’t need to be heroes. We’re not looking for a pat on the back. We’re just asking for what we deserve.