Saskatoon Co-op Strike Ends with Two-Tier Contract

After a six-month strike that saw workers walking picket lines in extremely cold temperatures, UFCW Local 1400 has reached an agreement with the Saskatoon Co-op. The deal includes the introduction of a two-tier wage system whereby new hires will start at a different pay scale. Workers had fought hard to oppose such a system. We spoke to a worker about her reaction to the new agreement. Interview by Marianne Garneau.

What do you think of the new contract?

Ugh. Horrible. So disappointed.

The deal was pretty much the same as the first one [the Co-op offered]. The only thing they added was the extra three years to the current contract, extending our retro pay and signing bonus.

It just feels like the last six months of picketing was really for nothing.

Just 54% agreed with it. 230 voted no 274 voted yes. It was also disappointing because barely 500 people showed up to vote, out of 900. And the ones who crossed are not getting fined.

What do you make of the low voter turnout?

We don’t know. There were 200 people in my store [where a lot of workers participated in the strike]. Did they go vote? Many of the high school and university students didn’t vote. There was one lady, who crossed our picket line a few weeks ago, and she didn’t even go vote. She said she didn’t have the time. Well, you’ve got to make the time!

Does the two-tier system apply to anyone already working now or just to new hires?

The tier 2 is just for all new hires, starting from the date of ratification. They’ll have to follow that pay scale, that number of hours worked.

There won’t be any full-time positions for a while and those usually go internal first. If it takes about four years to become full-time now, the new tier 2 will take more like six to ten years, depending on hours.

It seems like there just wasn’t much progress made at bargaining table.

The last round of negotiations happened on 12th and 13th with a special mediator. Co-op had agreed to that. And that’s what the mediator came up with: a tier 2 but with what they called an “equity mechanism.” So new hires, once they get to their top wage, get a bonus paid out, depending on the Co-op’s profits.

I don’t think that will ever be paid out, because it takes too long to get to top wage, and because it’s dependent on too many things. To get the full bonus, Co-op has to have a profit between 1% and 4%, and be profitable in the food division. And the food division is rarely profitable, from what people have told me. Margins in the food store are usually not very high. The majority of the profits are in gas.

How much access do you have to their financial numbers in the first place?

They’re posted, but nothing is to stop them — they’ve said they won’t make any large purchases in the next few years, but realistically, if it takes several years for a full-time employee to reach top wage, we’re looking at years down the road before that is ever realized. So what’s to say that in the next four or five years they won’t purchase another store?

So all they would have to do is make some big expenditure, for example, and then that eats up their profit, and they say, “Whoops, we don’t have the profit to give out the bonus”?

Yes, so it’s a crappy way of doing this equity mechanism.

Was the union recommending folks vote yes?

Yes. They were supposed to be neutral. Our union rep got asked whether she recommended this, and she said. “Yes, I do.” That was really disappointing. It was the same as the first [offer], so I don’t know why they would have recommended it.

How do you feel about UFCW leadership? Do you feel as though they could have done a better job?

I’m frustrated, and a lot of people feel this way. It seems like they just kind of gave up. We had a rally the week before, and it was all gung-ho, like “We can do this! Don’t stop fighting!” And then the next week they recommend this crappy deal. I don’t know if their hands were tied, or what.

What is the mood like at work?

I started back today. It wasn’t too bad for me. I know some people had mixed emotions, and some have actually quit because they just didn’t want to deal with some of the supervisors and coworkers who just weren’t really nice.

There was lots of cleanup to do. The deli was disgusting. Lots of empty spaces on the shelves. We had to make labels because there was some stuff out on the shelf with no labels, no proper signage. One of the cashiers said she spent a lot of her shift cleaning three of the tills.

So you could really see a difference, with the store having been operated with scab labor?

Yeah, they had pretty lenient work [conditions].

You probably hadn’t set foot in a Co-op in six months. How did it feel?

It was very odd. I went in the day after we voted because I wanted to put in my availability and my holidays, because I have a new job, and it was just very odd. I felt like, “I shouldn’t be here!”

Have you had any interactions with management?

Last week everyone was on edge. They still had replacement workers in the store. But now they’re being nice.

Are all the replacement workers leaving?

Yes. Anyone who was hired on during the strike as a replacement worker, their last day was Saturday. The only ones being kept on are at new liquor store at the south end of city, which isn’t fully staffed. They had to keep the replacement workers on until the new jobs were posted and filled.

Why did you get a new job? Does it have to do with the strike?

Yes and no. I was always part-time so my hours always fluctuated. I had a casual job that just offered me a full-time position, Monday to Friday, plus it uses my degree. So I figured, you can’t beat that. But I decided to stay on at Co-op because I do enjoy working with my coworkers, I do enjoy working with the public, plus I have a trip planned, so I’d like to save up a little extra money for that.

Where do you go from here?

For the immediate future, I think we just go in, do our job, do what we did before. I’m pleasant to everyone I work with; I’m pleasant to the customers. I’ll be good with management. We had to do a little bullying and harassment spiel when we returned to work.

If there was a strike vote next negotiation, how would you vote?

I would still vote no on a bad contract, and I would still strike.

You guys put up a valiant fight, and I’m sorry you didn’t get the outcome you wanted. I’ve been telling people about how you walked picket lines for six months in minus thirty weather.

And February was cold! But the customer response so far has been good. A lot of people were happy to see us back in. Some customer dropped off chocolates for everybody.