Pete’s Frootique workers on the picket line in front of the grocery store in Halifax.
Sobeys-owned Pete’s Frootique offered its workers a wage increase below even what will be the provincial minimum wage in April. And then refused to budge until a sure-to-be-embarrassing National Day of Protest shamed it into settling. Is this the best we should expect from one of the country’s largest grocery retailers — whose profits have increased by 78 percent over the past four years?
The good news is that Pete’s Frootique’s workers have a new contract.
The bad news is that it took 20 months of non-bargaining and a nearly seven-week strike by its 90 mostly minimum wage workers to finally wrench a first contract from one of the largest and most profitable grocery chains in the country.
It’s probably no coincidence either that the deal was only achieved on the eve of a planned National Day of Action to publicly shame Sobeys for its treatment of those employees.
The company should be ashamed. When the strike began, Sobeys offered the workers a measly, take-it-or-leave-it raise of five cents an hour. When the workers voted no, Sobeys shuttered its popular downtown Pete’s location to show them who was boss.
Let us consider that five cents an hour Sobeys was dangling.
Since most of Pete’s employees were only being paid the provincial minimum wage of $15 an hour, Sobeys’ offer amounted to a salary increase of 0.33 percent.
You may have noticed that consumer prices in Canada increased last year by 3.1 percent, close to 10 times what Sobey was offering. Food prices — the main source of Sobeys ever-increasing profits — increased by five to seven percent.
Five cents an hour?
Compare and contrast that with this:
The Centre for Future Work says grocers are expected to make more than $6 billion in 2023 — a new record and an increase of eight percent from last year. The new data from the institute found food retailers are now earning more than twice as much profit as they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here’s more company-specific cheerful news if you’re one of Sobeys’ valued investors rather than one of Pete’s under-valued employees.
Explained a cryptic but telling LinkedIn post earlier this year from Toronto-based brand consultant Iram Blajchman:
2023 profit $728mm
2019 profit $410mm
+78% over 4 years.
That, of course, is why shareholders reward the man who runs the company that runs Sobeys and Pete’s. Consider this January 1 update from wallmine, a financial website:
As the President, Chief Executive Officer, and Director of [Sobeys parent] Empire Co, the total compensation of Michael Medline at Empire Co is $13,035,700.
To put that into perspective, a Pete’s Frootique worker — if they’d accepted the company’s original offer of minimum wage plus five cents — would have had to work more than 416 hours just to earn the $6,267.16 Medline pockets in just one hour.
The good news — if you like to pretend there is such — was that the Houston government recently announced Nova Scotia’s minimum wage will increase from $15 to $15.20 on April 1.
It isn’t much at all. But in real terms it meant Sobeys would have had no choice but to pay its Pete’s Frootique employees 15 cents more an hour than what it was offering when the strike began — just to reach the bottom rung of the legally mandated provincial wage floor.
Is that why the company settled?
It will also be interesting to see just how close the actual Pete’s settlement comes to enabling its workers to earn a real living wage. (As I write this on Saturday, January 6, 2024, the details of the settlement have not been made public.) My guess is that Sobeys didn’t offer the $11.50 per hour increase that would require.
As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ most recent living wage update in September found that, in Halifax…
… the living wage rate for two adults working full-time (35 hours a week) to support two children is now $26.50. [The report] is a call for employers to take seriously the fact that if they are paying minimum wage, there is no doubt that their employees are struggling. And struggling in a major way. Not actually making ends meet in any way that would allow them to have any kind of quality of life,” [CCPA-NS director and report author Christine] Saulnier said.
Not everyone suffers equally in our capitalist economy, of course. Some people do better than others. Much better. While Pete’s workers scrambled to (hopefully) just put food on the table and a roof over their heads, the CCPA reported the latest from the executive trenches on CEO Pay in Canada:
It was another record-breaking year, with CEOs exemplifying the new gilded era that Canada’s rich seem to be in.
Canada’s top 100 CEOs were paid a whopping $14.9 million, on average, in 2022. This is an all-time high and bested the previous record of $14.3 million, which was set last year. This is more than double what CEOs were paid in 2008—$7.4 million—when the CCPA started publishing this data set.
These richest 100 CEOs in 2022 made 246 times more than the average worker—another all-time high for CEOs. This was a small increase from the previous record of 243 times that was set last year.
In 2022, the average worker in Canada got an average raise of $1,800, or three percent, from $58,800 in 2021 to $60,600 in 2022. However, prices went up a whopping 6.8 percent in 2022 (although much higher for things like food and rent), meaning that workers took a real pay cut of almost four percent since their money could buy much less than it did in 2021.
The top 100 CEOs, on the other hand, saw an average raise of $623,000, or 4.4 percent…
The average CEO collects $7,162 an hour. It takes just over eight hours in the new year for the top 100 CEOs to clock in an average of $60,600—what the average worker in Canada makes in an entire year. By 9:27 a.m. on January 2, 2024, Canada’s top CEOs would have already made $60,600 while the average Canadian worker will toil all year long to earn that amount of pay.
Here’s an even more sobering calculation. If you are a minimum wage earner in Nova Scotia — and there are currently 26,200 of them — you will have to work more than two years to earn what that CEO makes in one hour.
And my calculation includes the already announced and baked-in 20-cent-an-hour minimum wage increase that doesn’t take effect until April.
We have a long way to go to reduce income inequality in this province.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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