First collective agreement for six Couche-Tard stores in Quebec

MONTREAL – After years of battle, the union representing workers at six Couche-Tard stores has reached the first union agreement in North America with Alimentation Couche-Tard, Canada’s largest convenience store operator.

“Today is probably one of the best days for the CSN and for the workers,” Jacques Letourneau, head of the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN), said at a news conference Monday.

The two sides also agreed on confidential severance packages for about 24 employees at two locations that closed since unionization efforts first started about two years ago. Workers would be covered by the agreement if the stores reopened.

The three-year agreement, approved unanimously provides wage increases to 70 employees, recognizes seniority rights of workers, improves vacation entitlements and includes measures to protect workers from violent customers.

The deal applies to five franchised stores, and one owned by the company, that are located in Montreal and around the province. All but one are also gas stations.

The deal was reached with the help of a provincial mediator and follows months of negotiations that quietly began last spring. Both sides refrained from mentioning they were in talks even when asked about the state of labour relations at last month’s annual meeting of shareholders.

“Couche-Tard is pleased to have been able to find common ground with the CSN and its unionized employees who join the interests of all,” a company spokeswoman, Melissa Lessard, wrote in an email.

Letourneau said the agreement reflects the economic realities of the convenience store sector, which often pays low wages to a transient workforce.

Workers at the stores earn a minimum hourly wage between $10.15 and $12.50. The contract will give them increases starting at about 15 cents per hour and, in six months, and up two per cent for those at the top of the scale. Additional increases in the contract are based on the number of hours worked.

“What we wanted was respect, the best working conditions, and I think our goal was achieved for now,” said Luis Donis, local president for unionized stores in Montreal and Laval.

Couche-Tard (TSX:ATD.B), one of North America’s largest convenience store chains, has forcefully objected to unionization efforts over the past few years.

In 2011, the union accused Couche-Tard of closing down one if its convenience stores where employees were trying to unionize, putting 13 employees out of work. Couche-Tard (TSX:ATD.B) responded by saying the Montreal store was closed because it wasn’t profitable.

Union secretary-general Jean Lortie said the new contracts will assist efforts to sign up more of the company’s workforce in Quebec and throughout Canada.

Couche-Tard has nearly 6,200 convenience stores in North America, including some 1,900 in Canada, that are under the banner of brands such as Mac’s and Circle K. About half of the Canadian stores are located in Quebec and the Atlantic region, where it has 886 corporate-owned and franchised locations.

It also operates 2,287 locations in Europe after acquiring Statoil Fuel & Retail for US$2.58 billion.

Lortie said the union’s efforts were also helped by visiting Scandinavia to see how Couche-Tard dealt with the hundreds of unionized workers on its payroll after purchasing Statoil Fuel & Retail in 2012.

The company employs 60,000 in North America and another in Europe. The company earned US$573 million on US$35.5 billion in revenues last year following its expansion to Scandinavia, the Baltics and Eastern Europe. On the Toronto Stock Exchange, Couche-Tard’s shares lost 37 cents at C$69.78 in Monday trading.