Union strength grows during pandemic

Kim Novak, president UFCW Local 1518

The following is an excerpt from a Labour Day (September 6, 2021) interview with Kim Novak, president of UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) Local 1518 in BC conducted by David Beer, founding editor of The Tyee.

Kim Novak was a cashier at a Safeway supermarket when she first got active in her union as a part-time communications rep. Undiminished union activism took her 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 work in grocery stores, industrial food processing plants, home care, cannabis shops, coffee shops and retail all across B.C. and Yukon—a lot of people toiling in risky and vital ways in this era of COVID-19.


A watershed moment

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

NOVAK: 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 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.


Solidarity is the key

BEER: What is needed to protect and build upon those gains?

NOVAK: 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.

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

NOVAK: Better paid sick days legislation for all workers.


People want to work

BEER: Some people say programs like CERB 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?

NOVAK: 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.

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

NOVAK: 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.


Empowering workers

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

NOVAK: 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.

You can read the full interview here

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