Saskatoon Co-op claims workers and customers returning despite picket lines

Saskatoon Co-op and the UFCW Local 1400, the union that represents its workers, have been at odds for close to a month-and-a-half. Co-op wants to create a two-tiered system where new hires would receive less pay and lower benefits.

Hundreds of workers remain on strike

Unioized workers at some Co-op locations in Saskatoon, Warman, Martensville, Colonsay and Watrous went on strike Thursday. (Don Somers/CBC)

If there is any weariness among the hundreds of unionized Co-op workers on strike in Saskatoon, you'll find no hint of it from Jodi Smith.

"We've become strong and are together, we've learned a lot about each other," she said in an interview with CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning.

They've already been pounding the pavement for nearly 7 weeks. And there's no sign Saskatoon Co-op workers will reach an agreement with their employer anytime soon. The two sides are locked in a contract dispute that centres around a second pay scale for new hires. Jodi Smith is a one of the workers walking the picket line. 6:52

Solidarity

Smith is a payroll clerk who worked in isolation from her union colleagues in the Co-op's retail outlets across the city. She said she feels a strong sense of solidarity on the picket lines.

I find the two-tier system to be fundamentally unfair.- Jodi Smith 

Saskatoon Co-op and the UFCW Local 1400, the union that represents its workers, have been at odds for close to a month-and-a-half. Co-op wants to create a two-tiered system where new hires would receive less pay and lower benefits.

"It's all about being competitive in our market place and frankly new hire rates for our competitors, many of which have been bargained by the UFCW, are significantly lower than what we are paying our employees," said Saskatoon Co-op CEO Grant Wicks. "When you are as much as say 30 to 35 per cent higher for new hire rates than your competitors, well that impacts your business." 

Saskatoon Co-op workers have been without a contract for two years. Negotiations for a new agreement have centred around a second pay scale for new hires. CEO Grant Wicks makes his case for the two-tier system. 6:28
"We're not looking to dial back benefits for our people," said Saskatoon Co-op CEO Grant Wicks. "Our offers to the union have have included lower pay rates but the benefits have been untouched." (Saskatoon Co-op)

Crossing the line

Co-op said this week that 147 union members have either stayed on the job, or have crossed the picket lines to return to work. The union could not confirm whether Co-op's number is accurate.

I believe that we will arrive at a settlement in the not too distant future.- Grant Wicks, Saskatoon Co-op CEO

"With each passing week, we are regaining our sales and we are re-opening locations that we had to close at the beginning of the strike because we didn't have the resources to operate them," said Wicks.

Even if some are returning to work, Smith said it's not chipping away at the solidarity she is seeing out on the picket line. Smith said that protecting new hires is important. 

"I find the two-tier system to be fundamentally unfair and philosophically not a good idea in a work place, any work place."

Co-op worker Jodi Smith says she is proud to be on strike. (CBC)

Co-op optimistic 

Wicks conceded that public perception over a two-tiered system is mixed.

"We have people that support us, and we have people that support the union. We hear from our members on a regular basis, but we have to move forward and seek the best agreement," he said.

Recent attempts by the Co-op and the union to reach a deal have failed. The Co-op's latest offer was rejected by the UFCW without a vote by its members. The union said it did not address the core issues and countered by suggesting binding arbitration.

"We can get this solved at the bargaining table if [the union] comes back and bargains in good faith," Wicks said.

"I believe that we will arrive at a settlement in the not too distant future."

About the Author

Danny Kerslake

Danny Kerslake is an award-winning journalist who has worked in radio stations across Western Canada. In his career with CBC Saskatchewan, Danny has reported from every corner of the province and has lived and worked in Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Albert. Danny is a newsreader and digital AP for CBC Saskatoon.

with files from Saskatoon Morning

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