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Zehrs workers asked to reopen contract

Guelph Mercury
Local news, Thursday, January 27, 2005, p. A3

GUELPH - Loblaws will know shortly if unionized employees at its Zehrs stores will agree to early negotiations on a new contract, as the supermarket company considers converting a Zehrs outlet in Strathroy to a No Frills grocery store.

According to the union, Loblaw Companies Ltd., which owns the Zehrs chain, is worried about competition in Strathroy from rival retail chains such as Wal-Mart and Sobeys.

The company, Canada's largest grocer, operates Loblaws, No Frills, Fortinos, Zehrs, Provigo and Real Canadian Superstores.

Zehrs employees in Guelph represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union have already endorsed early contract talks, union local 1977 president Brian Williamson said recently.

Scott Penner, secretary-treasurer of the union local, said "our membership voted 67.5 per cent in favour of going into early negotiations. Now we have to see what other locals want to do."

Those other locals are 1000A, 175 and 633, representing staff at Zehrs, Loblaws and Fortinos stores.

Those secret-ballot votes are expected to be concluded by mid-February, Williamson said.

If all vote in favour, early talks will involve all the union locals at once.

"It'll be all the locals together at one table with one employer," Penner said of Loblaws, which owns the other chains.

"If any of the other locals say no, it's no for everybody," Penner said.

That means hearings at the Ontario Labor Relations Board, which are currently on hold, will resume.

The union filed a complaint with the board last year after Loblaws demanded early talks on a new contract. The current contract with union members expires in June 2006.

The dispute began last fall when when Loblaws announced it planned to close a Zehrs supermarket in Strathroy in the new year and reopen it as a No Frills store, the union noted.

The 34 full-time and 141 part-time staff in the Strathroy store had the option of bumping employees elsewhere in the supermarket chain or applying for jobs at the No Frills operation.

Originally, the union reported, Zehrs intended to expand the Strathroy store and turn it into a Real Canadian Superstore to compete with larger rivals. Both sides signed an appendix to the contract to allow this.

Now, the union contends, Zehrs wants to amend that appendix to allow conversion to a No Frills store.

Zehrs has not returned repeated phone calls made by the Mercury.

The union appealed to the Ontario Labour Relations Board for succession rights that occur when a business name changes but the company continues with the same type of operation.

If granted, such rights would allow the union to continue to represent employees at the new store.

The current secret-ballot vote is part of mediation efforts by the labour-relations board to try to settle the dispute.

If that's unsuccessful, current contracts remain in force until June of next year and the labour-board hearing resumes, the union noted.

Penner said the union isn't happy with the turn of events at Strathroy, calling Zehrs' actions "unfair labour practices."

"Their actions in Strathroy are breaking that agreement," he said of the appendix dispute.

If the company can successfully amend the appendix, it raises union concerns about the firm's intentions with other stores in the years ahead, as supermarket competition heats up, Penner said.

"It could be a much bigger problem," he said.


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