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CAA workers bring strike action to Hespeler Road

Contract negotiations broke down between Canadian Automobile Association and workers in South Central Ontario division last month
Striking workers from CAA's South Central Ontario retail locations picket in front of the Cambridge location on Hespeler Road.

Striking employees from the Canadian Automobile Association's (CAA) South Central Ontario (SCO) offices gathered at the Hespeler Road location Thursday, pickets in hand, as passing vehicles honked to show their support for the workers who first took their fight for a better contract to the streets last Friday. 

The strike action by Teamsters Local 879 has closed the CAA Stores in Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph, and London since then as about 18 employees rotate between locations seeking public support.

The timing is more a coincidence than anything, said Cambridge CAA travel agent and 879 union steward Brenda Wheeler. 

But there's no denying the pressure is on the company to get back to the bargaining table as travel ramps back up, the US border reopens to leisure travel Nov. 9, and hundreds of local snowbirds flock south. 

"There is a ton of pent up demand and big budgets to spend," said Wheeler, one of two employees at the Cambridge location who was picketing Thursday.

The union is asking for a one per cent increase in each the next two years followed by a 1.5 per cent bump in year three.

Wages now amount to $16.39 an hour with salaried commission added for travel agents.

But CAA wants to see wages frozen for another two years with a 1 per cent increase in year three.

"As the travel industry and our retail business show no signs of recovery, we are disappointed that Teamsters Local 879 has chosen to strike but are respectful of the relationship with our representative unions and are committed to attempting to resolve this labour dispute in good faith,” the company told GuelphToday in an emailed response.

The stressed workers say throughout the pandemic CAA locations across the province have been losing people without replacing them or not calling back part-time employees.

"They're saying travel retail is down so they won't hire," said Carolyn Bain, who works in member services at the Guelph location. "But we also don't get upper management support."

Bringing workers in from other locations is next to impossible since the province's 36 stores operate under four separate unions, she added.

CAA employees outside of SCO also earn higher wages, so part of the ask from local workers is for wage equity with those outside the Greater Toronto Area.  

And with travel business picking up, Wheeler doesn't understand why the company can't support their request for a reasonable wage increase.

"We work on future revenues and they need to see that in three year's time their future revenues will be there," said Wheeler, who has been busy with customers seeking travel insurance and recommendations for the last month.

Now that the Cambridge location is closed, she's watched as disappointed customers try the doors before realizing the strike has forced the shut down.

CAA South Central Ontario said the strike action has no impact to its roadside assistance to members, and members will be able to access almost all in-store services by calling 1-866-323-2414, by visiting other retail locations or visiting CAA online.

As travel came to a virtual stand still last year, the company applied for Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy to top up lost commissions for its travel agents and says it "made extraordinary commitments" throughout the pandemic to minimize its impact to employees. 

"This included a commitment of no layoffs and a decision to invest in training and licensing opportunities for retail and travel associates to transition into new careers at CAA," reads an emailed statement.

"CAA has long maintained a positive relationship with its representative unions and continually seeks to address issues that may arise with respect to the bargaining agreements in place," it says.

But Wheeler said their previous contract, which expired Sept. 1, included a clause that allowed wages to be frozen when the pandemic hit because the company didn't meet a revenue threshold. The lost increase amounted to about $3 an hour, she said.

And Bain questions how the company could have continued its "shared success" plan, which awards bonuses to certain employees, when it was unable to meet their demands at the bargaining table last month.

"We're just asking for a livable wage," she said.

"We're here for as long as it takes," Wheeler added. "They have to come back to the table with a reasonable deal."