'This is a really important strike': Sask. expert weighs in on Co-op labour action

An associate professor of industrial relations at the Edwards School of Business says six weeks is a "very long time" for a strike like this to last.

Union voted to strike on November 1

Striking workers walk a picket line at the Saskatoon Co-op gas bar and Home Centre at Avenue C and Circle Drive. (CBC\Jennifer Quesnel)

There appears to be no end in sight for the strike that saw hundreds of Saskatoon Co-op employees hit the picket line six weeks ago.

"Negotiations that go on this long take on a life of their own," Scott Walsworth, an associate professor of industrial relations at the Edwards School of Business, told CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning.

He said six weeks is a "very long time" for a strike like this to last.

Unionized workers set up a picket line at the Saskatoon Co-op on Wellman Crescent. (Don Somers/CBC)

Workers in United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1400 voted November 1 to strike over a proposed two-tiered wage structure. Under the proposal, current workers' wages and benefits would have stayed the same while new hires would have been put on a different contract with less pay and lower benefits.

"It has the effect of dividing your work force and your union members," Walsworth said.

"You have a group of more senior workers who have better wages and good pension, and then you have a group of younger workers who don't have the same sort of entitlements."

He said the employer can use that division to their advantage by creating incentives for new employees not to strike.

"This is an issue that's happening to labour all over the place," he said.

"It's a legitimate cost-saving measure for the employer, but it's a bit of a fork in the road for the house of labour to deal with."

Both sides feeling effects

"This is a really important strike," said Walsworth. 

He said both the employees and the Co-op are likely feeling a pinch, especially since it's the holiday season.

"This is an important time of year for grocery stores and hardware stores and liquor stores to make sales," he said.

"Those are all the sales they're missing ... every single one of the Co-op customers are showing up to the door and then having to go shop at the competition and that's go to be very costly for the employer."

Walsworth said it's hard to tell when the strike will end, but it will largely depend on the union and what they're willing to accept.

"Accepting a two-tiered contract is a major issue for a union," he said. 

Striking Saskatoon Co-op employees pose outside the gas bar in University Heights. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC News)

Walsworth said he believes the Co-op is facing an "unsustainable model where they have a very legitimate claim that they need to reduce their operating costs."

He said the strike could be hurting the Co-op's wholesome reputation in Saskatchewan. 

"I hope that people in Saskatchewan recognize that this is the union doing their job, this is the employer doing their job, and once the strike settles I hope people can continue to make a point of supporting unionized business."

Craig Thebaud, who speaks for Friends and Saskatoon Co-op Members For The Fair Treatment Of Employees, filed a claim to Saskatoon Court of Queen's Bench on Friday demanding a special meeting between both sides to happen before Jan. 25.

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning


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