Loblaw Co. workers in Ontario have overwhelmingly voted to give their union a strike mandate if Canada’s largest grocery chain doesn’t back down from concession demands that it says are necessary to remain competitive against its non-unionized rivals.

Over 97 per cent of members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents nearly 30,000 employees at stores under names such as Loblaws, Zehrs, Real Canadian Superstores and Fortinos, have voted in favour of a strike.

Loblaw says it must modify some of its existing agreements in order to stay competitive, as earnings have declined about five per cent from where they were five years ago.

The strike vote came after talks between the union and Loblaw that were overseen by the Ontario Ministry of Labour broke off late last month.

“We haven't been able to make any headway,” said Scott Penner, president of UFCW Local 1977, headquartered in Cambridge, Ont. His union says that unless Loblaw “adopts a more reasonable position,” a strike might be inevitable.

Workers are frustrated over company proposals that would cut wages by up to 25 per cent, increase waiting times for benefits eligibility and reduce full-time jobs.

Workers at those stores make between the minimum wage of $10.25 and $25 an hour, plus benefits.

“Their package to date has been entirely concessionary,” Penner said. “So, take-aways across the board on different areas of the collective agreement and their workers’ rights in a time period where employers are turning the corner and things are looking a little better.”

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