Emotions high as Saskatoon Co-op members elect 2 new directors to board

Co-op Members for Fairness, a grassroots organization opposed to the previous board of directors, endorsed two candidates who were elected to the board during Saskatoon Co-op's annual general meeting on Thursday.

More than 1,000 people attended Saskatoon Co-op's annual general meeting on Thursday

Members of the Saskatoon Co-op reach to place their ballots in a box at the organization's annual general meeting at TCU Place on Thursday, June 20, 2019. (CBC News/Morgan Modjeski)

A night full of emotion, tension and frustration came to an end with two new members elected to Saskatoon Co-op's board of directors at the organization's annual general meeting on Thursday night.

Erika Ritchie and Mary Carroll Chubb are the newest additions to the board while Nathan Holowaty, was re-elected.

The meeting itself, attended by 1,073 Co-op members, was the largest in the last decade. 

It comes roughly two months after the end of a tense strike that saw Co-op employees, represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1400, walking the picket line for nearly six months. 

Two new board members

Both Chubb and Ritchie were backed by grassroots organization Co-op Members for Fairness which was vocally opposed to the current board, which they feel was unresponsive to employee concerns about a two-tier wage system for new employees. 

Ritchie said she was elated with the win. 

"We worked so hard to get out our vote," she said, noting it was an "extremely collective effort" of numerous concerned members and volunteers that resulted in the strong showing. 

Ritchie said the grassroots group is in it for the "long haul" when it comes to making changes to Saskatoon Co-op. 

Members of the Saskatoon Co-op can be seen with their ballots in the air as they wait for a ballot box to circulate through the organization's annual general meeting, which took happened at TCU Place on Thursday, June 20, 2019. (CBC News/Morgan Modjeski)

"We recognize as a grassroots organization that change doesn't happen overnight and we are already planning for next year," she said. 

Nathan Holowaty, who was re-elected to the board, said the AGM was an "exhausting evening." 
"You can tell from the reaction of everybody here, that there's a lot of passionate people about this Co-op," he said.

"There are people who want to see us engage our members and our employees in a different ways, so it's going to take some work to get people back on board, just so it's a little more cohesive, because this was a bit adversarial."

Tense meeting 

The 15 people who were vying for a spot on Saskatoon Co-op's board of directors sit at the front of the room at TCU Place during Saskatoon Co-op's annual general meeting on Thursday, June 20, 2019. (CBC News/Morgan Modjeski)

There were numerous instances where board members and the crowd were at odds, with some Co-op members jeering as leadership members took questions or made statements.

Many in the crowd expressed disappointment when Grant Wicks, Saskatoon Co-op's CEO, said it would be impossible to determine how much the strike cost.

He declined comment following Thursday's election. 

Healing must start 

Grant Whitmore, president of the Co-op board of directors, said while emotions were high, he felt the overall tone was respectful. He said Saskatoon Co-op would be working to rebuild its relationship with members and employees 

"The board recognizes the need that we have to heal," he said. 

"As the strike has ended, we've started to see people come back to the stores, so that's reflective too, that there is a desire from the membership to come back," he said. "In many cases, people don't want to cross a picket line, which is understandably so, and now that's gone so they can come back home."

Jason Hicks is a spokesperson for the group Co-op Members for Fairness. He called Thursday night a success, saying the group has made huge gains.

"I feel pretty positive," he said. "It was a big hill to climb and from an organization that didn't exist five months ago, we did a tremendous amount of organizing, our volunteers deserve a ton of credit and I think we have to look at this in a positive light." 

His wife, Ashlee Hicks, was also backed by the group but did not win a seat. 

He said the voices of frustration heard at the meeting could be an indication of how members are feeling overall. 

"You really didn't hear anyone standing up and crediting this board for doing a good job during the labour dispute, it was non-stop, people up to the microphone venting their frustrations with how this board handled it." 

He hopes the two new members will be a "voice for change" on the board, noting his group will continue to organize until they feel they have a "board that is actually representative of the membership."

Ballot results

Nathan Holowaty - 472
Erika Ritchie - 460
Mary Carroll Chubb - 429
Mike Puckett - 420
Ashlee Hicks - 416
Tim Wall - 399
Derek Vanthuyne - 122
Michelle Neufeld - 78
Dan Danielson - 51 
Kyle White - 38
Gord Gillespie - 33
Anne Drover - 24
Philip Stang - 22
Vanessa Amy 19
Gary Crawford - 18
Spoiled Ballots - 2


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