Fighting for Survival: Manitoba’s 1987 Westfair strike

In the summer of 1987, grocery store workers at 12 Westfair stores in Manitoba went on a bitter 125-day strike against a company push to drive down the standards established by collective bargaining, introduce a two-tier wage structure, and smash up the union itself, UFCW Local 832. spoke with Scott Price, a historian at the University of Winnipeg’s Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg, who has interviewed numerous UFCW Local 832 members about the history of the union. Scott is presenting a history of the strike at the Winnipeg Public Library on August 28. Over the summer of 1987 workers went on strike at 12 stores owned by Westfair. In a mass meeting of over 800 members – half the union’s membership – there was a 78% strike vote. What were the major issues causing the strike. What sort of issues were the workers trying to win?

Walking the line
Walking the line

Scott Price: The strike was 125 days so it lasted well into the fall. The main issues were over hours and seniority. Two years prior local 832 had tried to get hours based on seniority. Westfair then used this to argue that many students would have their hours cut. This was of course partially true as many people working part time would have their hours cut. Many students were furious with the union at the time and showed up at a meeting where, from what people have told me, a riot nearly broke out.

What local 832 had to do in the lead up to the strike and after it was to figure out a way of working out hours in stores without relying purely on seniority as it became a convenient wedge issue used by the company to split the workforce. This of course reads as being antithetical to unions in general but Westfair continued to hire more and more young workers at part time hours so at some point people were going to get their hours cut so the union had to figure out how to deal with this as it was making it impossible to organize in the stores. What local 832 did very well is organize groups of dedicated activists in the stores to work this out and those people became the basis of support during and after the strike.

adComing into 1987 Westfair wanted to introduce a position called “departmental assistants” which was essentially a way to get a two-tier wage structure. That was one of the major issues but it quickly became a fight where Westfair was trying to break the union so it became more about the union still being able to represent workers at Westfair stores. If local 832 had lost those Westfair members I’m not sure what state local 832 would be in today. During the strike local 832 had to up dues of other units to fund the strike pay and keep the strike going. Local 832 was in bad financial shape after the strike so I don’t think its too much to speculate that other employers would have really went after them and I doubt they would have survived that onslaught. I think more than anything it showed that local 832 would and could get into long strikes in retail and at least fight to a stalemate so I think it made employers think twice. I’m sure local 832 also thought twice about having another strike too soon after this was over. They’ve been close but since 1987 there hasn’t been a retail strike in Manitoba.

RF: Why was Westfair restructuring? What was happening in the industry that led to this concessionary assault by the company?

SP: You have to go back to the previous decade to understand this. Westfair had always had some presence in the grocery market but in Western Canada Safeway was the big player for years and years. Forty years ago Safeway had mostly full time staff, good wages and benefit plans. In Manitoba the wages and benefits (like a pension) where all won by local 832 having three strikes in a four year period from 1974 to 1978. What Westfair was doing was breaking with that whole model up to that point so I wouldn’t say that Westfair was restructuring per say, it was that they were trying to create the kind of business model they wanted to compete in grocery retail and become the major player in that market. This meant having low overhead costs, mostly part-time staff, little to no benefits to accommodate what would become Superstores today.This was an opening shot in the change in grocery stores from full time with benefits to part-time with no benefits.

RF: What were the demographics of the workforce on strike? How did the union local’s leadership relate to the membership? Was it a member-driven local or a leadership-driven local? What did that mean for the strike?

02-20-2013-12-03-03-312SP: I’m not sure on the specifics but the workforce definitely skewed towards younger workers and many women. At the time I would say that the local was very leadership driven. The president at the time Bernard Christophe at least projected the typical big bad union boss image. Internally, within local 832 his legacy is a bit more complicated than that but Christophe did have a lot of power and used it.

Having said all that there were a lot of great young activists who came out of this strike and most of them were women who have had a large impact on local 832 today. So as much as local 832 was leadership driven and Bernard Christophe had a reputation for being an autocrat (again not totally accurate though) it didn’t stop people from getting involved and making significant impact either.

RF: The strike involved lots of scabbing – at least a quarter of the workforce according to the union, even though the company made huge claims that 600 were working and only 400 were on picket lines. What explains the high levels of scabbing. Was a particular section of the workforce crossing picket lines?

SP: Not sure if there was a particular demographic scabbing but this isn’t that uncommon from other strikes or organizing drives in retail where a large portion go back to work or don’t support the union. As I said earlier I think there was still some mistrust and animosity between some of the workers and the union over the seniority issues two years prior. I’m sure many students decided to go back to work to take advantage of getting more hours to pay for university or whatever. There were also people that because of personal circumstances decided to cross the picket line. Interestingly there are many people who crossed during the strike who later became shop stewards in the union and dedicated union activists so it seems many people learned from that and why you don’t scab.

RF: There was a mass picket at one store result in many arrests. What happened at this picket line? And were the police actions typical of how the police treated the strikers versus the company?

WFPSP: This particular mass picket was on Kennaston and Grant in the south end of Winnipeg. The Winnipeg Labour Council and the Manitoba Federation of Labour (although my understanding is that the then president of the Labour Council was instrumental in organizing this) organized a mass picket at this store where hundreds of people showed up from other unions to support local 832. Many people were arrested on this picket line and most of them were picketers or labour leaders. As far as my reading and research on this strike goes this was pretty typical of how police acted.

RF: What sort of intimidation, legal attacks and other tactics were used by the company to limit the effectiveness of the picketing?

SP: Westfair used court injunctions on picketers saying where they could picket. At many stores lines were painted where the picketers could go. Many people were tied up for years in court cases surrounding incidents on picket lines and arrests. There was even a judge who mused about having picketers wear numbered arm bands so they could be identified on the line. That was never implemented but it gives you an idea of the climate of the time.

RF: The company also seemed really hellbent on using customers as pawns to break picket lines. What can be said about the role of customers crossing picket lines?

SP: Well it is hard to have the public on your side during a strike and even less so in a grocery or retail setting and Westfair played to that very well. At the same time Local 832’s response to this was to make going into a store very unpleasant experience. It was a perfect storm. In one case a customer walked up to a picketer and put a cigarette out on their collar bone so the level of animosity was extremely high. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say these were probably some of the most intense picket lines in Manitoba over the last 30 years.

RF: What role, if any, did the NDP government play during the strike?

08-28-2013-12-38-56-316 (1)SP: NDP MLA’s certainly supported the strike and strikers. As far as government goes the main issue was over legislation called Final Offer Selection (FOS). FOS was first introduced by then NDP government lead by Howard Pawley in a 1984 White Paper on labour reform. Final Offer Selection required that either before or after a work stoppage begins that both the union and employer submit to third party arbitration and offer their final offers to the arbiter to pick one of the two final offers. The thought was that FOS would cut down on the number of long and volatile strikes. Essentially a compromise to anti-scab which the labour movement pushed for since the late 60s.

FOS was contentious for the labour movement because it highlighted the contradictions within the labour movement at the time. On the one hand FOS would help smaller bargaining units in faster growing parts of the economy like retail and service industry get contracts and avoid lengthy strikes but, on the other hand, many larger unions, especially in the public sector, feared FOS would be used to erode the right to strike and free collective bargaining. The Westfair strike of 1987 was used by those on both sides of the debate to justify their support or opposition to the legislation. The bill died when the NDP government was defeated in 1988 by the Gary Filmon Conservatives.

RF: Who won the strike in the end, or is it more complicated?

westfairSP: In general my research has demonstrated to me that strikes are usually far more complicated than a win or loss. Local 832 won in the sense that they continued to represent Westfair workers and where able to stop some of the more harsher concessions Westfair wanted. After the strike they still had to contend with Westfair using the departmental assistant positions as a way of getting rid of senior people and a workforce that was divide but in subsequent contracts local 832 was able to get better wages and working conditions so the strike was a catalyst for that. The key part to all that was the group of dedicated activists in stores I referenced earlier.

RF: What was the significance of the strike for the workers, the union, Manitoba’s labour movement, the industry?

SP: For the workers I think if you look at today they are in good position relative to retail workers in other provinces. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but the last contract negotiations they voted like 98% in favour of a strike and then 95% in favour of the contract. Those kinds of numbers are rare but I think it shows the Westfair workers aren’t willing to let the company push them around. Admittedly Westfair has improved their HR practices in recent years but in previous years they were notorious for being totally obstructionists. Nothing creates militant union activists like horrible management.

What local 832 has done in the retail sector in Manitoba is get province-wide agreements which means when they go on strike it is the entire province so that gives them significant power. For instance Westfair recently launched their discount grocery store banner called No Frills in Manitoba. In many other provinces the stores are under individual contracts by store and workers have far less in terms of wages and benefits (mostly none) whereas they are under the province wide agreement in Manitoba so No Frills workers in Manitoba have similar wage scales and benefits as other Westfair workers which is a major victory.

I see it all the time that UFCW gets criticized by radicals in the labour movement and the left as a business union but my research into local 832 shows something far more complicated. I think it is intellectually convenient to just bemoan the “labour bureaucracy” or “business unionism” but all that does is smooth out the ways people navigate union structures and the economic context of industries where they operate for a narrative that makes sweeping claims. I come at this from a historian’s perspective so I am leery of any narrative that is overly convenient or just simply sounds right and absolves us from looking into the history and the political economy.

In terms of the Manitoban labour movement I think this is a somewhat forgotten strike, as with the other retail strikes I mentioned. These strikes are instructive to understanding the changes in the economy and workforce over the last 30 years. There are important lessons here.

In terms of the industry it is less clear. The retail sector in Western Canada has gone through some major changes in the last few years. This is all due to Sobeys buying Canada Safeway and by all accounts, totally bumbling the transition of that. For decades there were two or three major retail sector companies local 832 dealt with that were fairly stable. There was pretty much a kind of “pattern bargaining” in the retail sector with Safeway and then later Westfair leading the way and the other companies saying “me too” to whatever the contract was. Now you have Sobeys losing all kinds of money and most likely looking for major concessions from workers to foot the bill for their mess. When Sobeys bargained the last contract with what was Safeway in Manitoba they accepted basically the standard of what had been done years prior expect it was one year less. This means that Sobeys will bargain ahead of Westfair so they can set the tone and the parameters. Now, none of that is written in stone but I think people in Western Canada should really watch what is going on here because their maybe some major strikes coming.

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2 thoughts on “Fighting for Survival: Manitoba’s 1987 Westfair strike

  1. Thanks again to Rank & File for asking me to do the interview. One thing that I didn’t mention in the interview that is helpful for some context. At the time the workforce at Westfair stores in Manitoba was about 85% part time. Which means just over 1300 workers were part time at the time of the strike.

  2. I walked for 4 months and saw a lot of things that never made the papers – like when a striker was hit on purpose by a car leaving the parking lot at the store on Portage ave. The police came and actually charged the picketter – tho the charges were later dropped!

    The rank and file’s mood dropped dramatically when it was revealed that Bernie Christophe had a new swimming pool put in at his home while we were getting $25/week strike pay!

    I nearly lost my house…and vowed never to walk again.

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