How hard will the Saskatoon Co-op brand be hurt by the ongoing strike?

With the Co-op strike going past 100 days, U of S professor David Williams said it is hard to say what lasting damage will be done to the brand.

U of S professor says it's hard to tell if there will be lasting damage to the company

Striking workers walk a picket line at the Saskatoon Co-op gas bar and home centre at Circle Drive and Avenue C North. (Jennifer Quesnel/CBC)

Negotiators for striking Saskatoon Co-op workers and management finally sat down to talk Friday morning.

But it didn't last long.

Both sides accused the other of scuttling the talks on a strike that now has lasted more than 100 days.

Edwards School of Business associate professor David Williams at the University of Saskatchewan said it is hard to tell how big an impact the long strike will have on the Co-op brand in Saskatoon.

"It may be loyal members won't go, but then again (maybe) they'd rather shop there than somewhere else," Williams said.

Striking Saskatoon Co-op workers watch drivers cross their picket line to fuel up at the gas bar in Stonebridge. (CBC/Chanss Lagaden)

Strike parallels values

The problem the company has, said Williams, is the striking United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) seem to be fighting for exactly what the company stands for.

"They are a co-op, altruistic and caring," he said of Co-op's brand image. "And that's brilliant. It's authentic and caring. And you can't just have that overnight. The ironic thing is that kind of symbolizes why the workers are on strike."

​The major sticking point in the strike is the company's proposal for a two-tier wage system with new employees starting at a lower wage.

Representation from multiple unions rallied outside the Co-op building in downtown Saskatoon on Thursday. (Matthew Garand/CBC News)

Two-tiered wages

UFCW has said it is willing to accept some form of two-tier contract provided the difference between the two tiers is small.

The union's negotiating team said it offered a new proposal on Friday that included "a bridge that provided a limited number of employees who had been working at the Co-op for four years, to finally move over to the main wage grid."

The union said management refused to bargain unless that proposal was withdrawn.

Saskatoon Co-op management, on the other hand, said UFCW negotiators walked out of the meeting on Friday.

The Co-op said its new proposal included "a revised version of the second-tier wage structure, which has been the main bargaining point of contention, but included a major compromise — the wage difference between new and current employees in key positions was substantially reduced."

University of Saskatchewan associate professor David Williams. (Steve Pasqualotto/CBC)

"We came to (Friday's) discussions ready to make compromises because we wanted to get another offer for our employees to vote on and, hopefully, end the labour dispute," said Saskatoon Co-op CEO Grant Wicks in a statement.

Saskatoon Co-op said its latest proposal would see new employees be paid more than competitors.

The UFCW is asking for binding arbitration to settle the strike.

Williams said most people's shopping habits are based on convenience and routine.

Members of UFCW 1400 wave as vehicle honks at their picket line at the Saskatoon Co-op grocery store on Wellman Crescent in Stonebridge. The strike is now in its fourth month. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

So the longer the strike goes on, the harder it could be for the Saskatoon Co-op to get back any customers they have lost.

Prior to the strike, members of the United Food and Commercial Workers said Saskatoon Co-op earned an average of $1.5 million a day at stores selling fuel, hardware, farm supplies, liquor and groceries.

A provincially appointed conciliator worked with both sides for more than a year before the strike began.

with files from Jennifer Quesnel


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