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Extra foods strike in Maple Ridge enters its fourth year

(From left) Chris Peacock, Pat Kvaas and Miranda Nisely sit inside a tent outside Extra Foods, where they are into their fourth year on strike.  - Colleen Flanagan/The News
(From left) Chris Peacock, Pat Kvaas and Miranda Nisely sit inside a tent outside Extra Foods, where they are into their fourth year on strike.
— image credit: Colleen Flanagan/The News

Four Christmases.

That’s how many holiday seasons the workers at Extra Foods on Dewdney Trunk Road have spent standing on the picket line in front of their former place of work in Maple Ridge. In snow, rain, and gusting gales, they crowd under their makeshift tents, hoping for the day where they can go back to the jobs some have invested decades in.

“No one ever thought we would be out here this long,” says Laura Nicolai, who’s worked at the store since 1991. “Six months, maybe. A year, max. But no one thought we’d be here this long.”

The Extra Foods location in downtown Maple Ridge is operated by Westfair Foods, a division of Loblaw Companies Limited and is an owner-operated franchise.

The strike began in Dec. 2008, more than three years ago, after plans were announced to turn the store into a discount chain called No Frills, and roll back workers’ wages by close to half in some cases.

United Food and Commercial Workers union members had been working at the store under an expired contract since 2004, with long-time workers making in the $20-per-hour range, with benefits. Under the contract Loblaw wants them to sign, most workers would top out at $11.90, with no benefits.

“It’s not like we are asking for a raise,” says Nicolai. They just don’t want their pay cut in half.

“If anyone thinks we should just go back to work, how would they like it if their pay was cut by 50 per cent, if your benefits were cut by 50 per cent,” she said. “We’re taking a stand. This isn’t right.”

However, for the first time in years, there is a glimmer of hope that the standoff will be resolved. Negotiations started up again last month, with both sides meeting face-to-face for the first time in more than two years.

“Both positions are well-entrenched,” said UFCW staff rep Paul Meinema. “But there is a willingness to move this forward.”

However, Meinema said no substantial changes have been made to Loblaw’s offer, nor have any firm dates been set for the next round of negotiations.

Nicholai said all the workers on the picket line want to go back to work, those who are left, that is.

Of the original 70 or so employees who went on strike in 2008, roughly half remain on the picket lines today.

“We’ve given decades of service to this company and that doesn’t seem to mean anything,” she says. “This company doesn’t need to drop the wages. It’s corporate greed and companies will keep doing this unless you stand up.”

Loblaw Companies Limited is Canada’s largest food distributor, and employs close to 140,000 coast-to-coast, making it one of the largest private sector employers in the country.

Loblaw does close to $40 billion worth of business annually, and in November announced a 19.8 per cent increase in quarterly profits, with net earnings at $236 million for the third quarter of 2010, up from $197 million over the same period a year earlier.

“If the company was hurting financially, it would be a different story,” Nicolai says of the wage roll-back.

Loblaw Companies Limited declined to comment.

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