by Emily Leedham
The Co-op is the only grocery store in Martensville, Saskatchewan, population 10,000, and its workers have been on strike for almost a month. The Martensville Co-op workers are in the same UFCW Local 1400 bargaining unit as the Co-ops in Saskatoon, where hundreds of workers are also on strike fighting a two-tiered wage system that would see new hires earn less. Instead of crossing the picket line, strikers say many Martensville Co-op members are driving 20 minutes into Saskatoon for groceries.
“It’s significant to us,” says Lucy Flack Figueiredo, secretary treasurer with UFCW Local 1400, “I think this is the end of week three on the picket line, and the first week when people were still unaware that we were on the picket line, they would come in and they would see us. As soon as we explained what was happening, there were people clearly choosing to travel to Saskatoon in order to get their groceries rather than support the Co-op in their endeavours in changing our collective agreement.”
While the town itself has been supportive of the workers, Martensville and the neighbouring town of Warman are further removed from the rest of the rest of the Co-ops on strike in Saskatoon and haven’t received the same media focus. UFCW 1400 put a call out for other union members to come walk the picket lines on Saturday, November 24. Normally there are about 6-8 workers picketing in Martensville for six hours at a time. On Saturday morning, there were about 30 people on the line, including members of SGEU and ATU.
“The community has been awesome, we’ve had a huge response from people who are Co-op members really critiquing the Co-op and the board of directors of the Saskatoon Co-op for the concessionary proposals that they have out on the table…We’ve had people stopping, people refusing to cross the lines, people bringing us coffee.
“We have trunk loads of coffee every night that we’re donating to the Lighthouse, a shelter in downtown in Saskatoon, and enough support that our own picket lines and picket captains have requested thank you cards because they want to hand them out to places like McDonalds and the surrounding businesses who have been really supportive, letting us use their bathrooms, giving them free coffee. It’s been really overwhelming.”
Striking for the next generation
Figueiredo says the Co-op workers are content with the offer on the table for themselves, but are striking in solidarity for future workers to attain the same standards of living.
“The employer is making a proposal that no matter how long a new hire works, they will never achieve the rate of pay that these employees currently now have. and for us, that means that there’s a reduced standard of living for people in the future who are new employees. So to me that’s the proudest thing and the most valuable thing to know about this.”
The next bargaining date is November 29. Figeredo says the strike is working, and in the most recent talk with management, she believes the Co-op is softening their position.
Co-op members take action
The two-tiered wage system has drawn ire from Co-op members, who are also looking at management and the Co-op structure itself in a new light.
Craig Theboud, Co-op member, former employee and UFCW member, recently submitted a petition with over 450 signatures to instigate a vote to replace the Co-op board of directors.
In response, the Co-op has filed an unfair labour practice with the labour board, arguing that this petition means UFCW is bargaining in bad faith. But both Theboud and UFCW 1400 maintain that this is a completely separate initiative brought on by Co-op members unhappy with how the board is treating workers.
The Saskatoon Co-op is a consumer co-op, not a worker co-op, with each member being a shareholder and receiving dividends from profits based on how much they purchase at the Co-op. This means larger purchasers receive larger dividends, which comes with pressure to create surplus value through driving down wages. The Federation of Co-operatives Limited, provides administration for each individual Co-op, including human resources and labour relations.
Don Kossick, Co-op member and former UFCW negotiator, believes that a new level of solidarity is forming between Co-op members and Co-op workers. He says members don’t want to earn dividends on the backs of workers, driving down wages. He believes this strike encourages workers to become more educated about the structure of the co-op itself, to understand how it functions and who it benefits.
“We shouldn’t throw co-ops out. I think they could become a great part of our economy again, actually, because there was a time here in Saskatchewan where co-operatives, if you put them all together, were over 50% of the economy..They’re important for local economic development, and regional, but they shouldn’t be done on the backs of workers.”
Learn more about the Co-op strike
Listen to the Rank and File Radio – Prairie Edition‘s November 2 interview with Rod Gillies, chief negotiator with UFCW 1400