Safeway’s banning of union buttons that read ‘Greed-Flation Hurts!’ and ‘I can’t afford to shop here’ did not breach labour code: Board

A basket full of items in a grocery store. Photo: Nodar Chernishev/Getty Images/Canva

The Alberta Labour Relations Board has dismissed two complaints against grocery giant Sobeys Capital related to controversial buttons that the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) distributed to staff at Safeway and a commercial it produced.

The dispute revolved around a wage reopener clause in the collective agreements, set to be activated six months prior to August 6, 2023. The Union sought to expand the wage negotiations beyond top-rated and over-scale employees to include all employees.

In the lead-up to these negotiations, the Union distributed buttons with messages expressing employees’ concerns about workplace issues and wages. The first set of button had a slogan that read “I Am Still ESSENTIAL.”

Sobeys had no issue with that button, but objected to the second set of buttons UFCW distributed — which included messages like “GREED-FLATION HURTS!” and “I CAN’T AFFORD TO SHOP HERE.”

Consequently, the Employer prohibited the wearing of these buttons at work, leading to the Union filing grievances and the first complaint.

Additionally, the UFCW produced a 30-second commercial featuring Safeway employees, criticizing the employer’s treatment of staff and highlighting wage issues. The commercial, aired on television and social media, led to the suspension and subsequent reinstatement of the employees involved. The Employer responded with a cease and desist letter and a grievance against the union, while the union filed another complaint following the suspensions.

The Board, in its decision, referenced substantial arbitral case law on the wearing of union buttons, balancing employees’ free speech rights with employers’ commercial interests. It found that the Employer’s actions of banning certain buttons and investigating employees did not breach specific sections of the Labour Relations Code, as claimed by the Union.

The Board noted that such actions did not disrupt or intimidate either the Union or the employees in this mature labour relations environment.

The Union’s efforts to frame these actions as violations of the Code were not supported by the Board. It emphasized that neither the current period of inflation nor the ongoing wage negotiations warranted a different interpretation of the Code.

As the Board put it, the current inflation is not unprecedented and does not modify the Code’s interpretation, especially since the wage negotiations have proceeded to interest arbitration.

For more information, see United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Union, Local No. 401 v Sobeys Capital Incorporated, 2024 CanLII 472 (AB LRB).

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