SAME WORK. SAME PAY. NO BRAINER. NOT YET. That’s why the 900 workers at the Saskatchewan Co-op operations in Saskatoon walked off the job on November 1 and were still there when this was written on January 23—84 days later.
Saskatoon Co-op management wants to pay new hires less. The 900 workers in UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) Local 1400 think that’s grossly unfair and unacceptable in any contract they could accept.
“Saskatoon Co-op needs to realize that we’re serious about this, and we aren’t going to back down,” explained striking Co-op worker Amber Dunkley.
“I’m striking so that if my daughter wants to work at Co-op when she gets a little bit older, she’ll be able to do that and will have the same fair pay as the other employees.”
Saskatoon Co-op wants to slash the pay of new hires by $4.36 an hour—a cut of $8,000 per year. Workplace benefits would also have been reduced. Workers decisively rejected the offer and gave the union a 96 percent strike mandate.
Thin end of the low wage wedge
UFCW 1400 says the management demands amount to a sneaky manoeuver to eventually lower the earnings for all Saskatoon Co-op workers. They want the union to agree to make it impossible for new hires on the lower tier to transfer into the primary tier of pay. The new contract would ultimately result in a permanent reduction in wages for all Saskatoon Co-op workers.
The co-op movement has deep roots in Saskatchewan. The hardline approach of the Saskatoon co-op managers rubs many in the community the wrong way. The result is strong support for the workers.
The Co-op has around 116,000 members in the province. Two groups of members launched petition drives to force an extraordinary general meeting to consider removing the Co-op’s board of directors. Petitioners criticized the way the board had handled the collective bargaining process, and argued that the Co-op should be run as a democratic institution.
The Co-op refused to call the meeting. The petitioners challenged the refusal in court. A court ruling on January 14 refused to compel the board of directors to meet.
In a provocative move, Co-op management filed an unfair labour practices claim against the petitioners, accusing them of unfairly seeking to influence the collective bargaining process.
Other expressions of popular support include:
- regular customers refusing to shop at Co-op stores during the strike.
- a public fundraising drive that raised $5000 to help striking workers pay for Christmas gifts.
Solidarity across Canada
Chants of “stop that greed” rang out in downtown Saskatoon December 20 as members of multiple unions rallied outside the Co-op building to demonstrate support for striking Saskatoon Co-op workers.
Paul Meinema, UFCW national president, came to town for the event. “This rally was to show support from across Canada.,” he said. “Not just from United Food and Commercial Workers Union, but from all unions across Canada.”
Meinema stressed that the issues involved in the strike are not only relevant for Co-op employees. “Huge demonstrations show that, unlike what some people think, workers who are unionized do recognize that their representation goes beyond themselves.
“It’s a matter of supporting other workers, even if they don’t work in the store right now.”
Alberta UFCW Local 401 President Douglas O’Halloran called out the Saskatoon management: “A cooperative shouldn’t be run on corporate greed but for the good of its members, many of whom are also Co-op employees. Co-op needs to do well by unionized grocery workers in Saskatchewan, and they should be careful about bringing those kinds of perspectives to negotiations in Alberta.”
Union members in Calgary handed out leaflets to shoppers, urging them to send a message to the Saskatchewan Co-op to treat employees fairly.
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