By Jack Grey
On June 7, workers at Wine Rack set up picket lines outside select stores of the Ontario alcohol retailer. The workers, members of the Services Employees International Union Local 2, voted to strike by an overwhelming majority on May 11 after the parent company, Arterra Wines, refused to meet the union’s demands. These included fair scheduling based on seniority and a livable wage.
Arterra is owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP). Before the strike began, Wine Rack workers began to call on OTPP to take immediate action, and they have received support from Ontario teachers.
Secondary school teacher and Hamilton and District Labour Council President Anthony Marco told SEIU Local 2 members, “If we own the OTPP, and the OTPP owns Arterra, and Arterra owns Wine Rack, then as one of the hundreds of thousands of Wine Rack’s owners, I’m telling management to deal fairly with your workers.”
Marco is also Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) Vice President for Ontario Region Labour Councils. On June 18, the CLC passed an emergency resolution calling on its 3-million household strong membership to boycott Arterra Wines products for the duration of the Wine Rack strike.
Arterra brands under boycott include Jackson-Triggs, Inniskillin, Sandbanks, Bodacious and Woodbridge wines, as well as Growers cider.
The union’s demands were to be promoted through worker-designed posters, which Arterra refused to allow to be posted on union bulletin boards in the workplace. Preventing the union from accessing its own bulletin board is bad enough, but the employer’s unethical practices don’t end there. Wine Rack is operated in a decentralized manner by individual managers who control wages and scheduling, which leaves room for discrimination and abuse. SEIU recently filed a human rights complaint against Arterra on behalf of a worker who suffered wage discrimination based on disability. The employee said they are forced to work through chronic pain and take on extra tasks in order to “offset” their disability, which the store manager explicitly cited as the reason for poor performance reviews and lack of wage increases. This is indicative of a larger issue within Arterra companies.
Arterra has countered the union’s bargaining position by claiming that since its workforce is mainly young and part-time workers, demanding a livable wage is inflammatory. The company has a tendency to force their employees into submission, and this is just one of many instances where they have tried. However, the union members’ determination and solidarity are strong, despite Wine Rack executives’ “invitation” a day before the strike for workers to cross the picket line.
Arterra generates $1.19 billion USD in sales, all while paying the average Wine Rack worker only $14.15 an hour. For reference, the most recent calculations show that a livable wage in Toronto is $22.08. Picketing workers have noted that Wine Rack’s Director of Operations made enough money during the COVID-19 pandemic to renovate his house. Home ownership is something Wine Rack employees cannot even dream of with their current wages.
Prior to the strike and throughout, the workers have indicated their willingness to return to the bargaining table. Arterra, however, is hiring scabs to secure its bottom line, while telling news media that their offers are fair and reasonable.
As of press time, the strike continues.