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Rights + Justice
Labour + Industry

‘These Workers Have Proven Their Worth Time and Again’

UFCW leader Kim Novak on frontline sacrifice, anti-vaxxers, labour’s resurgence and more. A Tyee interview.

David Beers 6 Sep 2021 |

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

Kim Novak was a Safeway cashier ringing up groceries and life experiences about work, fairness and power relations before taking a job with her union, United Food and Commercial Workers 1518. There she steadily rose from part-time communications rep to unanimous election as president by the executive board in 2019. Novak also is vice-president of UFCW International. She says her motivation all along has been to help create a more just society.

The over 26,000 members of UFCW 1518 across B.C. and the Yukon work in grocery stores, industrial food processing plants, home care, cannabis shops, coffee shops and retail — a lot of people, in other words, toiling in risky and vital ways in this era of COVID-19. The Tyee conversed with Novak via email late last week.

The Tyee: Help us, this Labour Day, put into perspective the contributions that frontline workers have made on all our behalves during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kim Novak: It’s no exaggeration to say that to the degree that Canadians had any normalcy during the last 18 months, it was thanks to frontline workers. These workers kept their communities fed throughout this crisis, whether it was in grocery stores, industrial food plants, in retail stores and in coffee shops. Our members in home care took care of the elderly and most vulnerable, keeping them safe and comfortable at home. Our members in newly organized cannabis shops also contributed and were deemed an essential service early in the pandemic.

These workers showed up for their communities, but they took a personal risk to do so. They not only dealt with an increased risk of COVID exposure, they dealt with angry customers, anti-maskers and now anti-vaxxers. They never signed up for that, and it’s completely unacceptable that they should have to deal with that kind of behaviour when they are doing such vital work.

Has the pandemic been the watershed moment for labour rights many expected it could be?

Definitely. While these workers have dealt with a lot over the last year and a half, they have also proven their worth time and again. That’s why we have seen such a large growth in union organizing in the retail and service sector — these workers know they deserve better and that solidarity and organizing is the best way to get it.

We’ve also negotiated industry-changing collective agreements through the pandemic, like the new contract at Save-On-Foods. This new contract brought life-changing wage increases and shows the power of essential frontline workers. And workers are standing up for these contracts and demanding better. During this pandemic we had the highest turnout of voters in any contract vote we have ever had in our history — nearly 7,000 members turned out to vote for one contract! We know the process of worker empowerment is ongoing. We’re looking forward to negotiating similar contracts for our other big units over the next two years, like Safeway and our health-care units.

While the union movement itself has grown and we’ve made gains at the bargaining table, there are a lot of other wins on different fronts that we fought for during the pandemic. Right off the bat, we fought for the safety measures in stores that are still in effect today: crowd control measures, plexiglass, masks and so on. We demanded that frontline workers get early access to the vaccines and then pulled out all the stops in a major vaccination effort that saw thousands of members get their jabs. We also fought for paid sick days for all workers, because no one should ever have to choose between going to work sick or getting paid.

We measure these gains in terms of the specific legislation that gets passed, the public health orders issued that protect workers, the monetary and other gains we make at the bargaining table, but also growth in the movement. We have way more members attending our union education than ever before and we’re interacting with more members through social media every day.

What is needed to protect and build upon those gains?

Put simply: worker solidarity throughout the labour movement and putting the issues and voices of workers at the forefront of what we do. Unions are fighting for change at every level of government and in every unit of our local. When workers stand together with one voice there’s nothing we can’t accomplish. Electing politicians that stand with workers and will fight hard for the legislation that matters to them — legislated paid sick days, the recognition that gig workers are employees and other strong worker protections — will also go a long way.

What's the most important action you want within the first six months from the new federal government?

Better paid sick days legislation for all workers.

Some people say programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the prospect of a basic income would harm people’s desire to work — and make it hard to fill some of the jobs your members do. What do you say to that?

We’ve seen membership in our union grow during the pandemic. That’s because people do want to work, but they want to do so when they make a decent wage in a safe environment with job protections.

What two or three changes could reverse the long decline in private-sector unionization rates?

Recognition of gig workers’ employment status. And card check. (Editor: Card check allows a union to be automatically certified if a majority of workers sign union membership cards, rather than requiring a secret ballot vote. In B.C., unlike some other provinces, a vote is required. If at least 45 per cent of employees have signed union cards, the labour board can arrange a vote to be held within five days.)

When a worker signs a union card, they do so because they want to join a union. The way the current legislation works gives employers a huge advantage and subjects workers to long periods of intimidation and misinformation. A simple majority of workers signing union cards should be enough to certify their union — the workers deserve to have their voices heard.

This pandemic has also proven how critical gig workers are to our economy. Working from home and social distancing were made possible because an army of delivery workers brought people the things they need. Gig and app workers are workers, and they deserve the same access to basic employment standards as the rest of us, especially a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and paid sick days.

How is the union movement adapting to a world of gig and precarious work, with power generally shifting to employers?

It comes down to empowering workers to fight for fairness whether they are UFCW 1518 members or not. We have been partnering with gig workers to fight for better conditions and for issues that matter most to them. A strong labour movement flows from workers knowing their worth and speaking out together, and a strong labour movement is good for all workers. We would be thrilled to represent gig and app workers formally, and the legislation recognizing their status needs to be in place for that to happen, but in the meantime we stand with these workers and advocate for better conditions.

People keep talking about a ‘just transition’ to a green economy. What does that mean to you and your members?

UFCW 1518 members care deeply about the climate crisis because it directly impacts them. Nearly half of our members are under the age of 35. That means that they will experience the devastating effects of climate change throughout their lifetime, as will their children.

But our members have also said they want to work for organizations and companies that prioritize the climate. They want to see accountability and be a part of the change. They see the crisis our planet is in — and as their union, it is our responsibility to advocate for changes that make for a green economy, while preserving jobs.

A lot of your members face discrimination for one reason or another on their jobs. Can you speak to that?

Our members are deeply engaged in human rights, anti-racism and LGBTQ2SIA+ activism. They bring this into every aspect of their lives, including their workplaces and in the community. These workers inspire us every day to put equality at the heart of everything we do as a union.

One thing people might not be aware of is that on Sept. 30, federal government employees will receive the day off in recognition of Truth and Reconciliation Day. Our members at Save-On-Foods and Safeway will not. Many of these members are Indigenous, and many have experiences of the residential school system. That’s just unfair, and we’re calling on these employers to grant their workers the day off.

Anything to add?

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. UFCW 1518 members continue to do their part to get us through this crisis, so do your part to protect them. You must wear a mask while shopping and maintain physical distance from workers. Our members have reported dealing with pretty challenging customers at times who put their health and safety at risk. Harassing workers is just beyond unacceptable. Wear a mask, keep your distance and be kind!  [Tyee]

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