Dozens of workers from the Halifax location of Pete’s Frootique will rally outside the downtown store on Saturday demanding better wages and paid sick days from their employer, Sobeys.

About 92 staff from the Halifax location of the grocery store voted in March to join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2, which represents 20,000 workers across Canada, including in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Alberta.

In a tweet on March 7, SEIU called the win a “landslide victory” for the workers.

Those workers are now in talks for better wages and paid sick days. All the workers at the store, including supervisors and those with more than 10 years of service, make minimum wage.

From a SEIU press release:

Workers voted overwhelmingly to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2 in May 2022. They were forced to wait for close to a year for the results of the vote as Sobey’s, owners of Pete’s Frootique, challenged the rights of several workers to be part of the Union at the Labour Board. In March 2023 Sobey’s finally dropped their challenge recognizing the rights of those workers. A year and a half after the vote to join SEIU and more than six months after the ballots were finally counted, workers continue to wait for a fair offer with decent wages.

Saturday’s rally will take place two days before talks between the workers and Sobeys resume on Monday.

Sobeys purchased the Halifax and Bedford locations of Pete’s Frootique in 2015. Former owner, Pete Luckett, started the business 40 years ago. The staff at the Bedford location of Pete’s are not in a union.

‘We were called heroes’

Emily MacKinlay and Nick Piovesan are two of the workers from Pete’s who will be at the rally. MacKinlay, who is a cash supervisor and works at the juice bar, has been at the job for about a year and half. She previously worked for the company when it was owned by Luckett. Piovesan has been with Pete’s for nine years and works as a produce clerk. 

In a Zoom interview with MacKinlay and Piovesan Friday morning, Piovesan told the Examiner the COVID-19 pandemic was the catalyst for workers to organize. He said workers did receive a top up on their pay, but that was only two dollars per hour, and they only received that money if they worked more than 20 hours in a week.

“We kept working while most other people stayed home, and we were called heroes and the hero pay [Pete’s] offered us was less than what people were getting to stay home,” Piovesan said.

“And they yanked it away the second they could.” 

Piovesan said many of the workers, including himself, were struggling with their mental health in late 2020 as the pandemic raged on.  

“I ended up going on stress leave for a few months,” Piovesan said. “Complete exhaustion. I felt like I was losing it, and I just wasn’t able to be at work every day anymore. I was struggling myself and I was surrounded by other people who were also struggling, and it started to take a toll.” 

‘We’re down to the wire now’

He said at the beginning of 2021, a few workers got together and said, “enough is enough,” adding the workers decided to “try to do something to make things better, for all of us.”

MacKinlay said it was hearing stories from her coworkers, including many who work a second or third job, who “are just grinding their bodies down to survive,” which inspired her to fight for better pay. 

“I’m in my 30s, I’m married. I have two jobs, and we have to live with my parents because we can’t afford to live in Halifax on our own,” MacKinlay said.  

“We feel like we can’t even consider the idea of starting a family because we can’t even support ourselves.” 

Piovesan also struggles with the cost of living, saying he lives in “an old, cold punk house” in Halifax with four roommates.

A sign in a store that says Pete’s At Home Gourmet Takeout.
An in-store sign at the Bedford Highway Pete’s location. Employees there aren’t unionizing. Credit: Yvette d’Entremont

Piovesan said besides the “hero pay” he received during the early months of the pandemic, there hasn’t been a wage increase in the past couple of years, only increases with the minimum wage. 

“I was making a dollar above minimum wage until minimum wage went up a dollar and everybody sort of got bumped to minimum wage,” he said. 

MacKinlay said when she started at Pete’s the first time, when she was 16 years old, the stores were still owned by Luckett, and workers started above minimum wage. She said there were incremental wage increases built into the contracts. 

“Things did start to change before Sobeys took over,” MacKinlay said. 

The workers held a surprise rally on Tuesday where MacKinlay and Piovesan said there was a good turnout. He said they’re hoping for a huge turnout for Saturday’s rally, too.

“We’re down to the wire now and we just need people to call on Sobeys to do right,” Piovesan said. 

‘We need everybody to speak up’

MacKinlay said she feels hopeful about the rally, and appreciates the support the workers have been getting.

“It’s been really hopeful work to be connecting with my coworkers and seeing the community support has meant so much,” MacKinlay said. 

“It’s really been a long journey, and at this stage everyone’s just feeling really energized. We’re all standing together and feeling like this is a really good opportunity to improve things.” 

Piovesan added: “If we want to put a stop to corporate greed, we need everybody to speak up.”

The rally will start at rally will be 11am outside of the Pete’s location at 1515 Dresden Row in Halifax.

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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