Co-op Pride: A Thing of the Past?

February 27, 2020

For over seventy-five years co-operatives, including Federated Cooperatives’ Limited (FCL), have been the life blood of small towns and communities throughout Saskatchewan. In most cases, especially in rural areas, co-ops were the only source of goods, services, and even jobs for most communities. While times have changed and society has urbanized, co-ops will forever remain a key element of Saskatchewan’s identity and economy.  

The only thing that put the future of the co-op in jeopardy was the appointment of Scott Banda to FCL CEO. Since he took over in 2010, the co-op brand has lost its lustre in the public eye. In a province with less than 1.2 million people, Banda’s leadership of FCL has managed to separate the population into one of two groups; those that support the working class and those that don’t. 

Since Banda has taken over the top job at FCL, there has been four major labour disruptions throughout the co-op system in Saskatchewan. First in 2013, the Wynyard retail workers fought with FCL over fair wage increases. Labour relation tensions boiled over again in 2018, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw were forced to strike attempting to protect workers from divisive two-tier wages that would pit workers against each other.  

Most recently, the workers at the Co-op Refinery in Regina have been locked out since December 5th, 2019 in Banda’s latest attack on workers. They were locked out because they refused to take pension and compensation concessions during a time of record profits for FCL, including $2.5 billion over the term of the last collective agreement. 

What is incredibly important to remember is that these are not just workers Banda is alienating, they are also co-op member-owners. Their co-op memberships carry just as much weight and provide them with just as much voice as any farmer, trucker, or executive with a membership.  

That’s the beauty of a co-operative. Or at least it should be. 

Under Banda, workers have no voice. Despite their vote counting just the same as his, workers are treated like second-class citizens. Banda has divided not just the co-op membership, but also the province of Saskatchewan. 

FCL says they are here for the west. But they weren’t there for Wynyard, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon, or Regina when those workers were trying to protect their livelihoods. The co-op needs to focus less on catchy slogans and remind themselves about why the co-op was formed all those years ago. It’s the people who need to come first, not profits.  

The FCL Board of Directors, and all 1.8 million member-owners, need to start asking themselves the tough questions about the future they want for the co-op and if Scott Banda is capable of providing the necessary leadership required going forward.  

If a competent leader was in place, the co-op system could begin to heal and return to its roots of providing quality products and services while still respecting workers and earning substantial profits. Both profitability and respect for workers can be true. It doesn’t have to be one or the other as Banda seems to think.  

Due to Banda’s leadership, anti-greed groups, like Joe Public and Co-op Members for Fairness, have sprung up because they are not satisfied with the direction Banda has taken their beloved co-operative. These groups are concerned about the corporatization of co-operatives and how they negatively affect workers and the member-owners when profits are prioritized before people and their communities. 

These grassroots groups are a sign of the growing discontent within the 1.8 million member-owners across Western Canada, but especially in Saskatchewan where the labour disputes have had the most impact. It’s well-known that the Saskatoon retail strike has had a lasting effect on sales as customers have refused to return to co-op branded outlets. The Unifor led boycott of Co-op gas, grocery, and hardware supply stores is having a major impact on revenue and market share not just in Regina, but across Western Canada. Has Banda adequately weighed the risk to the Co-op brand when he undertakes these campaigns against the working class? 

When Unifor offered $20 million in yearly savings on January 31, 2020, as a compromise to end the lockout, FCL turned it down saying they had zero interest in the proposal. Even when a good deal is staring Banda in the face, he chose to turn it down, continue the lockout, and risk further damage to the brand and co-op’s market share. 

With the Refinery’s profitability in question and customer loyalty on shaky ground, the entire co-operative system is on the brink of collapse. There is a real danger that FCL could already be following the ill-fated footsteps of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. The absence of the Wheat Pool has decimated rural Saskatchewan and if Banda sells off FCL money-making assets, like the Co-op Refinery, it could be the death blow for many small communities that rely on the Refinery’s profits to keep them in business. 

What this means for small town Saskatchewan going forward is hard to say, but the writing is on the wall. What is clear, belonging to a co-operative doesn’t come with the same sense of pride that it once did. 

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