Candidate Profile: Erika Ritchie

Erika Ritchie, candidate for Saskatoon Co-op Board

On May 13, 2019, Co-op Members for Fairness endorsed Erika Ritchie 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 Erika at the June 20 AGM at TCU Place, 6PM. We conducted this interview by email.

So, Erika, tell us about who you are.

Saskatoon has been my home for most of my life. I went to school here, have raised my family with my spouse, Eric and have had an amazing career as an environmental engineer and organizational leader. I love spending time in nature, time with my family and friends, and being active in my community by volunteering for a range of causes and events.  When volunteering my time I like to be involved in organizations at all different levels whether it’s on the front lines, organizing behind the scenes, being a spokesperson or supporting others. I especially like volunteering at summer festivals such as The Fringe, Ness Creek Music Festival and the Jazz Festival.

Volunteering for EcoSwell in Peru
Erika (left) volunteering for EcoSwell in Peru.

This past year I had the amazing opportunity to volunteer abroad in Peru and Mongolia assisting local organizations with improving their operational effectiveness and environmental sustainability.  It was a great opportunity to learn about their local culture and understand how climate change and environmental degradation are impacting their way of life.

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?

Well, I had made two unsuccessful runs at the Co-op board in the last two years and had voiced my objection to the proposed two-tier wage system at the last annual meeting.  So when the strike occurred, I had to show my support for the workers and do what I could.

In addition to observing the picket line and participating in strike actions, at Christmas time I dressed up as Santa Claus and organized a carolling event to boost the morale of the strikers. Since January I’ve helped to mobilize the Co-op Members For Fairness by playing an organizing role at the Town Hall meetings.

Christmas caroling on the picket line, Dec 23rd
Christmas caroling on the picket line, Dec 23rd.

This has been a great way to build relationships with other concerned members and workers while thinking about a future vision for our co-op that respects workers and truly models a democratically-run organization.

I also have to mention that I was really disappointed with the outcome of the last board elections, when the membership voted in three male board members which resulted in no female board representation. I am a strong proponent in both setting quotas and encouraging women and visible minorities to run as candidates because it improves overall board governance when there is a diversity of perspectives represented around the board table.  It’s not a question of a candidate’s qualifications, because there are plenty of well-qualified men and women of minority status, it’s a question of the Co-op being actively inclusive and welcoming.

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 would characterize the problems at the Co-op as two things: a failure of governance and poor member engagement, but really these two things are intertwined. Weak governance has prevented the board from asking the right questions of its management team and understanding the risks and threats confronting the organization. It has prevented the board from acting in a timely fashion to develop a unifying strategic vision, and deal effectively with competitive market forces, aligned with our cooperative values.  Poor member engagement has meant the board and management haven’t been accountable to the membership for the decisions it makes.

I’ve held several board and senior leadership positions in the private and public sector throughout my career, and have formal training in board governance. This past winter I completed the Governance in Cooperatives course that was offered through the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan.

I’ve also been a member of my local cooperative for more than 25 years as well as several other cooperatives. It is this background which I believe offers me a good perspective on the issues that plague our Co-op.

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” (i.e. wage cuts for new Co-op workers), and so on. 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?

I think collectively we all need a better understanding of how being a cooperative holds the organization to a higher standard when it comes to fair wages and collective bargaining. For my part, I believe cooperative enterprises should be leaders in the retail sector by resisting downward pressure on workers’ salaries and creating divisions in the workplace. That is how our values and principles guide us. It truly feels like an existential crisis because you question, why do I even belong to a coop if it behaves like any other private enterprise?  I think a lot of people have been asking themselves that question.

These are fundamentally philosophical questions and in addition to education, we need fulsome debate and robust conversations occurring on these matters.  Unfortunately, the board hasn’t been open to engaging in these debates, nor willing to entertain resolutions that strike at the heart of these issues. I think that is highly regrettable because it stifles member engagement and learning.

There are also opportunities available online for members to educate themselves.  Last year I attended an event hosted by the Saskatchewan Cooperatives Association that featured the film entitled A New Economy. It’s available for viewing now on Netflix and I highly encourage members to watch it for insights into innovative cooperative models and corporate social responsibility.

From the position as board member, what do you think you’ll be able to do to empower workers, particularly new ones who will be receiving the new lower starting wage?

I’d like to address this question from a few different angles.

For starters, I think it’s time to evolve the traditional retail cooperative model to offer more value-added products and services to fully leverage “the cooperative advantage”.  This would allow us to further differentiate ourselves in the marketplace and avoid competing directly with more traditional retail outlets in what has become a race to the bottom on prices and wages.  

Erika Ritchie - Volunteering in Mongolia, June 2018
Erika (left) volunteering in Mongolia, June 2018.

By offering better services and products that engage skilled workers in their delivery, we will be able to maintain better wages.  I think there have been some really great efforts in this area already, such as supporting local growers and specialty products. I’d like to see more of this in other areas.

A more immediate solution would be to strengthen workers’ bargaining position during labour contract negotiations. I’m not in favour of allowing replacement workers during a labour strike, and consider this an unfair management practice that conflicts with the tenets of collective bargaining— by weakening workers’ bargaining position.  

Replacement workers gave management an unfair advantage during the last strike action because they were able to keep their doors open and offer a level of service they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to, thereby extending the strike and wearing down the employees.

I would also encourage and support more workers to run for the board so that their voice is heard directly at the board table, in particular on the issue of wages and benefits, and how to engage them in the workplace as more equal partners. According to The Cooperatives Act, up to 3 workers can hold board positions at any time. This would certainly influence the direction the board would give management on labour negotiations and without creating a conflict of interest. I’m really pleased that Ashlee Hicks (a Co-op worker) agreed to run as a candidate to represent employees’ interest and hope we can build on that momentum in the coming years.

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?

By way of an explanation, the Saskatoon Co-op is a member of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), which is the governing body for cooperatives world-wide.  They provide the governance framework under which cooperatives operate, including the statement on cooperative identity, values and principles. The seven principles include: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among cooperatives; and concern for community.  Linking resolutions to the ICA’s guidance on the values and principles provides an authoritative basis and rationale.

In developing the resolutions we were concerned that over time, the Saskatoon Co-op had strayed from these fundamental values and principles. Clearly, this was the case when it was decided to impose a two-tier wage system. Principle 7 – Concern for Community “….requires co-operatives to be good employers and to be concerned about their employees’ well being and the well being of their employees’ families.”  

Of course as a business enterprise, there is a need for fiscal prudence. I also appreciate how difficult this decision must have been for the board when it didn’t feel that it had other options at its disposal, but balancing the books shouldn’t be achieved on the backs of workers and other options should have been sought.

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?

We had their response reviewed by a lawyer and he advised that there was no legal basis in The Cooperatives Act nor the Co-op Bylaws for rejecting the resolutions. During the virtual town hall, the board blamed it on the strike, but that appears to have been just a convenient excuse with no basis in fact or law.

It looks suspiciously as though the board knew we didn’t have the financial means to launch a court challenge, so they could avoid being held accountable for their actions. The fact that our only recourse to the board’s decision is through legal proceedings is highly problematic and I’d like to see amendments to the Act that strikes a better balance between the board and its members.  

Currently, the board has a disproportionate amount of discretionary power over the membership and that needs rectifying.

How would you improve the democratic processes in our Saskatoon Co-op?

The first thing that needs to happen is greater transparency and accountability to the membership.  To accomplish this, I’d like to see more information sharing on the website and in print form on Board activities, strategic direction and decisions.  As it stands now, we have one opportunity a year to hear from our board and that frankly isn’t acceptable in the “Information Age”.

I’d like to see biannual or quarterly meetings held to increase the frequency of face to face communication from the board. There are provisions in The Cooperatives Act for this and indeed other cooperatives employ these best practises.

Volunteering at a Yoga retreat, Winter 2018
Volunteering at a Yoga retreat, Winter 2018

What do you see as the proper working relationship between the board and management?

The board sets the direction for the organization and the management carries out its actions as its agent. The board is also responsible for hiring and evaluating the performance of the CEO. While the management has specialized knowledge to advise the board on business matters, this shouldn’t be confused with decision-making authority.

What do you see as the proper working relationship between the board/management and workers?

The board plays a vital role by setting the tone and establishing the values and policies that govern the organization, but isn’t involved in the day to day operations. Healthy and vibrant work culture is essential to the success of the organization and it’s important that the board directs management on the values which guide and inform the employee culture.

We as Co-op Members for Fairness are overjoyed that Erika Ritchie 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.

Erika Ritchie may be reached via email at esr987@gmail.com if you have more Co-op related questions for her.

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