TORONTO - The new national director of the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Canada vowed to continue the work of his predecessor while steeling labor in anticipation of Wal-Mart's impending move into the grocery business in Canada.
"In changing markets, changing times and changing environments, you have to be able to look after the welfare of the workers," Wayne Hanley, named this month to lead the 230,000-member labor union, told SN. Hanley, 48, was elected to succeed Michael Fraser, who is retiring.
"We've seen the entire food industry change considerably through technology and automation. But as far as I'm concerned the union is still a member-driven organization," Hanley said. "It's up to the union to listen to its members as it's faced with changes, address them with our employers, so that our members are provided with the best job security and best wages possible."
Like Fraser, who was named national director in 1999, Hanley ascended to lead the national organization after serving as president of UFCW Canada Local 175, known as North America's largest union local with more than 50,000 members. Hanley also serves as executive vice president for UFCW International. He said he began his career as a grocery clerk in a London, Ontario, store in 1976 and stayed in the grocery business through college.
He was hired as an organizer by Local 175 in 1984, and was elected secretary-treasurer in 1992 and president in 1999 when Fraser became national director.
"Michael did an outstanding job leading our organization, and will be missed," Hanley said. "He's a great leader and a personal friend. I look forward to continuing a lot of the programs that he initiated."
Among the organization's accomplishments during Fraser's tenure was an aggressive organizing campaign at Wal-Mart, which led to two stores in Quebec gaining union certification. One of those stores, in Jonquierre, was closed by the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer shortly after contract negotiations began. A second store, in St. Hyacinthe, is scheduled to begin contract arbitration later this summer, after Wal-Mart's appeal of a certification vote was denied, Hanley said.
"We will get a collective agreement for Wal-Mart for the St. Hyacinthe store," Hanley said. "If it can't be freely bargained, then the labor commission will impose [a contract]."
Wal-Mart, in the meantime, has plans to move its grocery- and general merchandise-focused supercenters to Canada for the first time this year. Hanley said the UFCW has worked well with traditional supermarket operators as they prepared for the invasion.
"The Canadian operators have been working over the last number of years to be ready for the day when Wal-Mart enters the Canadian food business in a big way, and I think they've done a pretty good job of it," he said. "Loblaw has their own superstore format to take them on head to head, and I think they've positioned themselves well. Other operators - the A&Ps, Metros and Sobeys - have positioned themselves in the discount market with banners they operate under, as well as gearing up for a more service-oriented supermarket to carve out the niche that Wal-Mart certainly won't be able to attract."
He said his goals as director are to continue organizing activity and maintaining or growing membership. Unlike its U.S. counterpart, the UFCW in Canada has not lost membership over the years, he said. He also vowed to be active in the areas of promoting the benefits of union-operated retailers in areas like food handling, and accelerating an ongoing effort to win rights for migrant agricultural workers.
"We have to continue to educate our members in all areas and provide them with more than the traditional union offerings of a collective agreement - not just wages and benefits," he said.
Hanley said issues that have affected U.S. unions recently - namely philosophical differences with the AFL-CIO leading to the breakaway Change to Win federation and a losing battle against escalating health care increases - are less severe in Canada but warrant attention.
"We have challenges around health and welfare that are addressed in a different way than in the U.S. due to our national health care system. But there are still rising costs from drugs and hospitalization that we have to address," he said. "The increasing competition of non-union operators is the same level of importance to our members as in the U.S."