Employees at several Indigo Books & Music Inc. stores across Canada are unionizing, as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has “highlighted the precarity of retail work in general and how little say workers have in rapidly changing work environments. 

Joining [United Food and Commercial Workers Canada] provided security and gave workers a voice without fear of retaliation,” said Lesley Prince, director of the organizing department at UFCW Canada Local 1006A, in a statement to Benefits Canada. “I believe the efforts of our members at Indigo has raised the floor for all retail workers. Paid sick days, improved scheduling language, access to benefits are just some of the wins [from which] unionized retail workers benefit.”

Read: Indigo offering paid leave for staff with coronavirus

However, Madeleine Löwenborg-Frick, Indigo’s director of corporate communications, said in a statement to Benefits Canada that the retail chain doesn’t see unionizing as a win for store employees. “There are no unionized store employees at Indigo who are benefitting from higher wages, vacation, paid sick time, health benefits or guaranteed hours. With the automatic deduction of union dues, unionized employees’ take-home pay is actually less. Even with a minimal tax deduction the loss of income can be substantial.”

In the last year, in addition to minimum wage adjustments, Indigo has provided enhanced pay increases to all employees ranging between 2.5 per cent to 10 per cent (based on an employee’s start date) to address compression with minimum wage, she added.

As of July 2021, the company operated 88 superstores under the banners Chapters and Indigo and 88 small format stores, under the banners Coles and Indigospirit. Of those 176 locations, fewer than 10 have unionized since the pandemic began.

Workers at two Indigo locations voted to unionize with the UFCW Local 1006A this August in a bid to secure health and dental benefits, as well as paid sick days and a minimum wage increase. The approximately 60 Indigo workers from the bookstore’s Toronto Yorkdale mall location and 30 from the Chapters store at Kennedy Commons in Scarborough, Ont., are the latest of six locations that have pushed to unionize over the last year.

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Since September 2020, employees at a store in Woodbridge, Ont., Mississauga, Ont., Montreal and Coquitlam, B.C. all voted to unionize.

“For many, the deciding factor to join our union was to address issues such as compensation, workplace safety and paid sick days,” said Joel Thelosen, the union’s senior communications representative, in a statement to Benefits Canada. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen many workers choose to unionize to have a voice to build better and safer workplaces.”

The Mississauga and Woodbridge locations’ first union contracts are already in place, said Thelosen, noting these workers will keep the same health and dental benefits available to all non-unionized store workers. Under the contract, these employees will receive guaranteed annual raises and minimum wage increase protection, two additional statutory holidays, paid sick days, limitations on store sanitation duties and the elimination of favouritism through strong seniority language.

Read: Amazon vote could ‘light a fuse’ for more union pushes

According to Löwenborg-Frick, all of Indigo’s part-time employees, following one year of service, receive access to health, dental and insured benefits, as well as a $5,000 mental-health benefit, a registered retirement savings plan and deferred profit-sharing plan matching program and a student debt savings plan to enable them to save for retirement while paying off their student loans. Additionally, all employees have access to virtual health care and an employee assistance program to access counselling, supports and resources.

In addition, all employees are provided with a bank of sick time each quarter throughout the pandemic to ensure that, if they feel unwell (even without symptoms), they didn’t have to choose between coming in to work and not being paid. “We followed this program up with a permanent sick program for part-time hourly employees of 24 hours per fiscal year. On top of this, all employees received an additional raise of two per cent this year, regardless of performance. We’ve also doubled the value of our quarterly gift card program, which provides our associates with a gift card based on store performance.”

The retailer also increased the discount that employees receive on thousands of its products and enhanced its optional bonus program “CEO 100,” which provides gift cards to employees for selecting and selling their favourite Indigo products to customers.

“When we bargain with a union, we bargain in good faith,” said Löwenborg-Frick. “We respect our employees’ right to seek third-party representation, but we prefer to have a direct relationship with them.”

Read: Majority of Amazon workers at Alabama warehouse vote not to unionize