Canada’s largest grocery retailer is instructing its managers to monitor its stores and employees for labour relations “risks” and potential union organizing activities.

In its most recent annual report, Loblaw Companies Ltd. describes how it uses a risk management system to “monitor key risks” in order to help bolster its “financial performance.” 

In addition to cyberthreats, natural disasters, and food-borne illness outbreaks, it cites potential strikes and union organizing drives as a key risk.

“The identification of its own unionized workforce as a ‘risk’ is certainly eyebrow-raising,” said Brock University Labour Studies Professor Larry Savage.

While human resources matters are often touched on in company’s risk management systems, Savage notes they are not typically dedicated explicitly to managing the “risks” of union drives.

Loblaw Companies is one of Canada’s largest private sector employers, with 2,400 stores across the country and around 200,000 full- and part-time workers.

“Most companies regard employees as their most valuable asset,” Savage said. “The union may interpret this particular section of the Loblaw filing as a sign that the company is gearing up to wage war in collective bargaining, ramp up efforts at union avoidance, or attempt to decertify the union.”

In its 2019 filing, the corporation noted about half its workers were unionized, largely split between the United Food and Commercial Workers and Unifor.  

Loblaw says it conducts annual risk management assessments, which involve interviews, workshops, surveys, and internal audits. 

When appropriate, the report indicates, “risk mitigation strategies” are put in place.

Savage says these risk management assessments are often shared with lower level managers to give them a better idea of the “bigger picture” at the company. 

In late 2020, the company’s refusal to maintain a $2 pandemic bonus pay led 1,400 workers at Dominion stores in Newfoundland to strike for 12 weeks

The company’s move to scrap its pandemic premium pay for frontline workers came as it spent $350 million on share buybacks and reported $392 million in profit, according to the Financial Post

Profits were up more than 12 percent from the previous year, on the basis of $11.9 billion in sales at its grocery stores and pharmacies.

“This expression of risk built into Loblaw’s strategy is indicative of how deep-seated management opposition is to unions in Canada, despite freedom of association as a protected charter right,” a spokesperson for Unifor, which represents Dominion workers in Newfoundland, told The Breach.

While Loblaw attests to employing its risk management framework in previous years, the Unifor spokesperson noted that “the more explicit emphasis on the ‘risks’ associated with unionization and labour rates appears to have surfaced in the [system] within the past decade.”

Specifically, the union said, the company’s board began explicitly dedicating itself to managing unionization “risks” around 2013 — just ahead of its $12.4 billion acquisition of the largely non-unionized Shoppers Drug Mart.

Soon after the deal, the Globe and Mail reported, Loblaw campaigned against an effort to automatically certify Shoppers Drug Mart stores in Manitoba along with its existing unionized grocery stores.

Loblaw’s 2020 annual filing warns that “if non-unionized colleagues become unionized, the terms of the resulting collective agreements would have implications for the affected operations, such as higher labour costs.”

In an emailed statement, a Loblaw spokesperson said that as a publicly traded company they “are obligated to identify and discuss potential and real risks to our business,” adding that “one area of risk is the labour negotiations.”

“We are proud of the constructive relationship we have with our colleagues and unions,” the spokesperson said.

The company did not address the section regarding prospective union drives.

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