Candidate Profile: Ashlee Hicks

Ashlee Hicks, endorsed candidate

On May 13, 2019, Co-op Members for Fairness endorsed Ashlee Hicks as a candidate for the Saskatoon Co-op Board. (See more profiles of Co-op Members for Fairness candidates here.) We encourage all Co-op members to vote for Ashlee at the June 20 AGM at TCU Place, 6PM. We conducted this interview with Ashlee by email.

So, Ashlee, tell us all about yourself.

I’m a current employee of Saskatoon Co-op and I’ve been a member for the past 12 years. I’m also a labour activist, and my family and I are community-minded and passionate about co-operatives. I studied accounting at the former SIAST Palliser Campus, and labour studies at the University of Saskatchewan.

I’ve been a volunteer and executive member for the Fairhaven Community Association. I’ve got an interest in federal and provincial politics, and I’ve served in several capacities within the Saskatchewan NDP over the last 14 years, including being an executive member of the Riversdale Riding Association, and being an MLA candidate in 2016 for Moosomin.

I also grew up on Cowessess First Nation, so I’ve been an advocate for First Nations interests. And I’m a mom of 3, so I spend time out at community events and fundraisers for my children’s school.

People always call me friendly and approachable, and I’m definitely willing to engage with and represent members’ interests, in order to make our Co-op one that is tailored for Saskatoon.

How did recent tensions at Saskatoon Co-op involve you in the Town Halls about Co-op, and eventually, to consider running for the Co-op Board?

I had heard about the Member Town Hall meetings on the picket line – I had recently started working for Co-op and participated in the strike as an employee.

Ashlee Hicks and partner Jason Hicks on the picket line
Ashlee Hicks and partner Jason Hicks on the picket line in many degrees minus zero.

But when the strike vote came up, I knew I would participate in the strike from the beginning. I’m adamantly opposed to 2-tier pay scales (where either present or future workers, doing the same work, get different standard wages and raises), so I signed up to be a picket captain in Stonebridge. I was on the picket line on the first day, the last day,  and every day I was scheduled in between.

My husband was a huge source of support and spent a lot of his time on the line with us and organizing rallies for us, he pushed me through the rough patches. The strike did not end with us getting the Co-op board or management to withdraw the “two-tier” wage grid, but I think getting a possible bridge for 100% of the new lower paid workers would not have happened, if it weren’t for the strike. It was also an opportunity to bring awareness to unfairness in the workplace.

I decided to run for the Saskatoon Co-op Board during my experiences with the strike and after getting to know so many Saskatoon Co-op members. I feel that with my regular interactions with members, and my experiences as an employee, I could definitely be an asset to the Board.  

How would you characterize the problems at Co-op, and what in your background do you think gives you a good perspective on these issues?

I think most members including myself believe the Co-op, as a cooperative, has got a social responsibility to the workers. The vast majority of the workers are also members, especially new hires. Our new hires are mostly women, new Canadians, and young folks just starting out. It’s a problem to single out new hires with a financial burden (of a lower-tier pay grid) when they contain these groups of people who also often more vulnerable financially.

My perspective is unique, since I know exactly what it feels like to start a job as a worker on the second-tier of a business that is set up that way. I worked for seven years through two bargaining periods, following the implementation of a two-tier pay scale, in my previous employment.

We also spent some time on the picket lines. Though it seemed like the public was broadly supportive of the strike, often, what people crossing the line had in common was “not getting it:” not getting the picket line, what workers were trying to accomplish, why it mattered if Co-op’s wage structure was two tier, or that Co-op is supposed to be “a different kind of business.”

What do you think needs to be done about education about all of these issues to the public and the membership, so that the membership realizes what’s being taken away from them and why this matters?

To begin with, I’m not sure if younger people among the public have been given the opportunity to learn that the Co-op isn’t just another grocery, or hardware store. And when the company points to other grocery or hardware chains as examples of why it wants to make the same kinds of implementations, it only reinforces the notion that Co-op is just another grocery or hardware store where customers can accumulate points to redeem.

The company needs to follow the cooperative model, like it claims it does, where profit isn’t the only goal, and capital is the servant of the Co-op, not the master. Our goals as a cooperative should prioritize service to members, workers and community over pure profit.

If you start to follow the corporate model of doing where profit is the only consideration, and worse, it plays out in the media because you instigate a labour dispute by doing this, the public won’t get it, because they won’t think Co-op is supposed to be a different kind of business.

I think that rejecting two-tier grid (of unequal pay for the same work responsibilities and length of time worked), and explaining why we’re doing so, would be a great entry point into talking about how cooperatives, and Co-op, is and should be different. But I would like to spend my time as a Board Member bringing awareness to members who are unsure of what being a member of a cooperative means. And I would like to get to the bottom of why we are not following cooperative principles.

Whatever happens, I’m committed to delivering information about Saskatoon Co-op to both members and non-members in order to foster a better understanding of Co-op’s values and goals for the future.

From the position of Saskatoon Co-op Board member, what do you think you’re able to do to empower workers, particularly new ones who will be receiving the new lower starting wage?

Ashlee Hicks and family
Ashlee Hicks and some family members

I think the best thing I could do is engage with them. To let them know how they can participate as a member and also to let them know that I stood up for them before they were hired, and that I will work hard to understand why we had to go this route, and what can be done to make sure things are fair going forward.

I will work hard to understand why our Coop quote-unquote “had to” go this route of imposing the two-tier wage grid. I have been to annual general meetings that have boasted excellent annual savings, and great projections.

I am confident that anyone I ask about the prospect of having a second tier of wages imposed on them for the same expected work will result unfavorably for the second tier pay grid.  The board should be actively working to reach out to membership for guidance since they were elected to represent our interests.

The member and worker Town Halls that became “Co-op Members for Fairness” passed a series of resolutions aimed at starting to adopt more “cooperative values.” Can you talk about why these are important?

These resolutions are important because they really and truly came from a grassroots group of members who wonder if this is even their Co-op any more. The purpose of the resolutions is to resist the restructuring of the Saskatoon Co-op, and to reinforce the principles and values and sense of community that Saskatoon Co-op was built on.  

Based on my past and continuing conversations with members, I have to say that democratic control came up often. For instance, it seems that too many members are unable to participate in the tiny two-hour window once per year for the Annual General Meeting, leaving many feeling like they don’t get a vote, so they don’t get to participate.

One of the resolutions speaks to the voting process, and I think it’s an important first step to having democratic membership control in the decision-making process. So, I would hope to expand the voting process and implement online/instore voting (advance voting) for any member that couldn’t make it out to the specified date and limited space of the Annual General Meeting.

What do co-operative values mean to you, and how do you see the current Board as not fulfilling them?

Co-operative values mean community and solidarity to me. The idea that we all do our part in a communal effort to achieve more. Participating in my co-op helps me invest locally and in the future by delivering services that enrich the lives of members, Co-op workers, and community around us. The current Board seems either unwilling or unable to represent members’ interests and seems okay with that.

The current board rejected the resolutions, saying that they were “out of scope” of what the Board can legally do. Do you think that’s true? What will you do to help implement resolutions/policy the members clearly want?

I’m skeptical if that is true. I would work to find out just how much direction [to management] that the Board is allowed to give, or believes they are allowed to give. But then explore any avenues that lead us to be able to add to or expand our existing policies and bylaws. And of course, along the way, keep members informed so that they know precisely what the Board’s current position has been, where some of us are wanting to move the Board to, and how we can do it.

The bottom line is, the Board has to be more than a formality. It’s long past time for Co-op to take the interests of members seriously and make them a priority.

Co-op Members for Fairness is delighted that Ashlee Hicks is running as a candidate for the Saskatoon Co-op Board. We endorsed her as a candidate on May 13, 2019 and encourage all Co-op members to vote for her at the June 20 AGM at TCU Place.