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Government appoints special mediator in Regina oil refinery labour dispute

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 11.08.12 AMThe Saskatchewan government has appointed a special mediator in a contract dispute that has dragged on for more than two months at a Regina oil refinery.

Labour Minister Don Morgan said veteran arbitrator Vince Ready will try to help refinery owner Federated Co-operatives Ltd. and the union for about 700 workers to reach an agreement.

He said it is in the interest of both parties to negotiate a contract at the bargaining table.

“We are appointing a special mediator to help resolve the impasse because of the impact of the dispute on Saskatchewan families, communities and businesses,” he said in a news release.

Also on Feb. 12, a judge found Unifor guilty for the second time of violating a court injunction that said members could not prevent traffic from moving in and out of the plant. Justice Neil Robertson fined the union $250,000 on top of a $100,000 penalty last month.

Ready, who has worked in labour relations for more than five decades, was to begin his work Feb. 18.

Premier Scott Moe said he hopes Ready’s appointment will be the “first significant step toward an agreement.”

“It is my true hope that we’re able to move forward – and move forward swiftly – in finding a resolution to this situation that is best for all involved and best for all in the province,” Moe said.

Federated Co-operatives said it looks forward to getting a deal done.

“Since the premier’s first offer of a special mediator, we have welcomed this appointment and the opportunity to have productive bargaining,” the company said in a statement.

“We look forward to meaningful discussions with Mr. Ready that lead to a long-term, sustainable agreement that works for both parties.”

The news was also met positively by Unifor.

“I applaud the government’s decision for appointing the mediator and we hope he can help us in getting a settlement,” said Local 594 president Kevin Bittman.

Negotiations have gone nowhere because of the company’s stubbornness at the bargaining table, he said.

“The Co-op is seeking to gut our jobs and our pensions during a time of record profits,” Bittman said.

“We have asked for the standard industry pay increases and to leave the pensions that FCL promised they would not touch three years ago.”

Federated Co-operatives locked out workers Dec. 5 when the union issued strike notice. Pensions are the main sticking point in the contract fight.

The company has said Unifor’s barricades at the Co-op refinery site were leading to gasoline shortages in some communities because trucks hauling fuel weren’t able to get in or out of the plant.

Ready is to recommend terms for an agreement if the two sides can’t reach a deal with his help within 20 days.

Ready was involved in trying to find a solution in a prolonged forestry strike on Vancouver Island going back to July. A tentative deal was reached this week.

He was part of negotiations in the 2014 teachers strike in British Columbia and published a binding report resolving a stalemate between B.C. Ferries and its employees union in 2007.

He also resolved a violent dispute at the Giant gold mine in Yellowknife in 1992. That strike resulted in the deaths of nine workers in a mine explosion. Miner Roger Warren was convicted of setting up the blast.


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Red River Co-op pumps go dry

Out of gas (1)Federated Co-operatives’ Regina refinery labour dispute is making itself felt well beyond Saskatchewan. Late last week members of Unifor, the union behind the more than 700 workers currently locked out of the Regina refining centre, staged a picket at Winnipeg’s Esso and Shell terminals where local Red River Co-op drivers pick up fuel to restock the group’s 35 gas bar and card lock sites in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario. Red River Co-op is a business independent of FCL that is owned by its more than 180,000 members and it looks to Federated for wholesale  products.

The picket was successful and by Friday Feb. 7, locations were reporting no gas and limited diesel stocks in at some of the 23 locations in the Winnipeg area. The move by Unifor is a pressure tactic designed to get Federated Cooperatives Ltd. (FCL) back to the bargaining table. At issue is the company’s plan to change how pensions are funded.

The dispute is also causing considerable collateral damage to low wage workers and transport operations. For example, the labour action in Winnipeg has caused locations to send workers such as gas bar attendants home after fuel dispensers were closed.

In Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, FCL  has had to impose limits on its cardlock customers. On February 5, Federated asked transport companies to limit their fills to 100 litres of gasoline and 300 litres of diesel at sites in the three provinces. With most transport drivers using between 600 litres and 800 litres per day for deliveries, the fuel limit is a major inconvenience that is negatively impacting trucking businesses.

By Monday Feb. 10, Red River’s gas bar sites reported deliveries were beginning to reappear in the Manitoba capital as the picket wound down at the eastern Winnipeg fuel terminal.

Unifor reports that disruptions will continue as it ramps pressure on FCL operations and customers. Currently, Unifor is calling for a boycott of all Co-op retailers and businesses. The strike and lockout are now in their second month.

Contact OCTANE editor Kelly Gray at kgray@ensembleiq.com


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Premier promises mediator in Regina refinery dispute if union pulls blockades

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says he’s prepared to appoint a special mediator to an intensifying contract dispute at the Co-op oil refinery in Regina, but only if the union removes its barricades.

Moe said he believes a negotiated settlement between Unifor and refinery owner Federated Co-operatives Ltd. is the best option to end the dispute.

The company locked out more than 700 workers in early December after the union issued strike notice.

Unifor has been calling on the premier to intervene.

If the union doesn’t remove the blockades, Moe said he expects police to enforce a court order that limits how long pickets can hold up refinery traffic.

Federated Co-operatives CEO Scott Banda said there’s a risk of fuel outages if the blockade stays up. He said it’s been frustrating that the blockade remains, despite the injunction.

Moe also expressed concern over potential fuel shortages. He said there has been an unwillingness on both sides to bargain in good faith and the contract dispute has devolved into illegal activity.

“This is not the Saskatchewan way,” Moe said during a speech Monday to hundreds of municipal leaders.

He said the special mediator would have broader powers than the mediator that was appointed last fall.


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Sides in Regina refinery labour dispute lay down conditions for talks to resume

Screen Shot 2019-12-16 at 3.27.01 PMThe owner of a Saskatchewan oil refinery where workers are locked out in a contract dispute says there has been a discussion with Unifor about returning to bargaining, but the union wants the premier to step in.

Federated Co-operatives Ltd. says it won’t bargain as long as union members continue to block access to the Regina plant.

“We respect Unifor’s right to picket and peacefully protest but they need to adhere to the court’s order,” a company spokesman said Thursday in a statement.

Unifor President Jerry Dias said the company is moving the goalposts as to what conditions need to be met to resume bargaining. He said the union has already done its part.

“My guess is if we were to take down the barricades and everybody went home … they would have another condition the next morning,” Dias, flanked by members of Unifor’s bargaining committee, said at a news conference.

“We are prepared for a major de-escalation of this fight on the condition that they remove the scabs from the workplace.”

Unifor called on Premier Scott Moe to demand that both sides go to the bargaining table and work with a provincial mediator.

“A provincially appointed mediator is already in place, and has been engaging with both parties regularly throughout the lockout period,” Labour Minister Don Morgan responded in a statement.

“We continue to encourage both parties to return to the bargaining table where the provincially appointed mediator can assist parties in negotiating an agreement.”

Dias said Unifor’s lawyers are looking at a judge’s decision to fine the union $100,000 for violating an injunction that limits how long pickets can hold up traffic going in and out of the refinery.

He also said he is to meet with Regina police Chief Evan Bray following mischief charges earlier this week against 14 union members, including himself.

Dias said he hopes Bray will contact the refinery, request a cooling-off period and urge the company to get back to the table.

Bray has said blocking access to a business is illegal and police are deciding whether to lay further charges.

The company locked out more than 700 workers in early December after they voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike. The main issue is pension plan changes the company wants to make.

 


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Union fined for violating court order in Regina refinery labour dispute

A judge has fined a union that represents more than 700 workers at a Saskatchewan oil refinery $100,000 for violating a court order that set limits on picketing during an ongoing contract dispute.

Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Timothy Keene found Unifor intentionally and deliberately disobeyed an interim injunction limiting the time members can hold up traffic going in and out of the Co-op refinery in Regina.

Unifor, which represents 300,000 private-sector workers across Canada, announced Monday that it planned to stop replacement workers from entering the refinery and fuel trucks from leaving in an attempt to shut down the plant and force talks to resume.

In his decision, Keene wrote that deterrence is required to convey the need for Unifor to follow court orders.

“Particularly those intended to bring some level of stability to a tense labour dispute,” he wrote in a judgment released Wednesday.

Police in Regina have charged 14 Unifor members over the blockade and are still deciding whether additional charges should be laid.

“In light of this ruling, we ask that Unifor comply with the injunction order currently in place and remove the blockade,” refinery owner Federated Co-operatives Ltd. said in a news release.

In a video posted to the Regina police Facebook page later Wednesday, Chief Evan Bray said that officers have a plan on how to deal with the situation and have reached out to Unifor.

Bray reiterated that blocking access to the refinery is illegal. He said allegations that the police’s SWAT team was at the refinery and had used tear gas were not true.

Unifor secretary-treasurer Lana Payne said members would continue to hold the picket line, which had grown to include layers of fencing and parked rental vehicles with deflated tires.

The company locked out workers in early December after they voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike. The main issue is pension plan changes the company wants to make.

Paul Woit, who has worked at the refinery for almost 20 years, is three years away from retirement. He said what the company is proposing would cause him to lose half his pension.

“Thirty-thousand (dollars) a year,” he said Wednesday. “I can’t afford this. There’s no way I can make it up.”

Federated Co-operatives has said workers don’t pay into their pension, which costs the company upwards of $100 million a year and is unsustainable in the long term. It says it’s offering a choice between staying in their defined benefit plan _ but having to contribute to it _ or moving to a defined contribution plan.

Wednesday’s court ruling came as labour leaders from across Canada joined a rally in support of the refinery workers.

“This fight is about all of us,” Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, told a crowd gathered on the picket line.

Supporters hoisted flags representing different unions that have been uniting behind the workers, including nurses unions, the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union.

Some labour leaders, including Yussuff, called on Premier Scott Moe and his Saskatchewan Party government to get both parties back to the table.

NDP Opposition Leader Ryan Meili, who attended the rally, said the government should facilitate a meeting between both sides.

 


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Labour action continues at Federated Co-op

Pension funding behind unrest at Co-op Refinery Complex

Screen Shot 2019-12-16 at 3.27.01 PMOn December 3, 2019, 729 unionized workers at Regina’s Co-op Refinery Complex, an 800-acre site in the city’s northeast sector that produces up to 145,000 barrels per day, went on strike to protect what they saw as a challenge from management on their pensions. Two days later, workers were locked out of the facility after management determined their presence constituted a threat to safety. Non-unionized staff has been brought in to maintain production, a move that has angered Unifor Local 594 members who have since organized boycotts of Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) locations such as grocery stores, gas bars and cardlocks as well as convenience stores and car washes.

Unifor’s position is that it’s all about the integrity of their negotiated contract that ensures pension security for those who choose to remain in the Defined Benefits Pension Plan (DB). The stated goal for workers is to be able to choose whether or not a Defined Contribution Pension Plan (DC) or the DB option is the right way for workers to go and whether those who choose the DB plan will have their pensions protected.

Unifor points to statements from Federated Co-op’s executive vice-president, Vic Huard who is quoted as saying, “Every single employee who currently is in the Defined Benefits Plan will remain in that plan from now until when they retire.” They argue that the company is now reneging on this in a move that will cost workers money and pension security.

Federated Co-op has countered by saying that workers are being asked to make a choice. The first option asks unionized employees to contribute to their current Defined Benefits Pension Plan, as most employees enrolled in pension plans in Canada already do. The second option is to move to a Defined Contribution Pension Plan, which is the same as the one offered to management staff, whereby FCL contributes 10%.

Currently, FCL funds the entire DB for unionized workers. In the DC scenario, workers would see the company shell out as much as 14% of the costs, while workers paid the rest. Terms of the 2016 contract froze out new workers from the DB side and received agreement to continue full pension funding for its legacy employees.

Since the 2016 agreement was inked, Federated has had a second look at the DB option and suggests that the funding of this benefit places it in a competitive disadvantage with other refineries. They claim that the benefits are impacting profits and costing big dollars to members, as well as associated Co-operatives across Western Canada. They report that their unionized employees currently earn, on average, a base wage of $104,000 per year. With overtime, that increases to $123,000.

When the Defined Benefits Pension Plan and other benefits are factored in, the total average compensation rises to $172,000 per year. They also report they are offering an increase of 11.75% over four years to the employees’ base wage before overtime, pension and benefit considerations. And, FCL has offered workers access to the company’s performance plan that pays an annual incentive bonus based on the refinery’s performance.

The union has said no deal, citing 75 years of profits at FCL and a refinery that has made close to $3 billion in profit since 2016. They comment that the profits are the result of the skilled labour and their workers are entitled to a share in the form of continued DB pension plan contributions by FCL. Workers are now picketing retail locations and the union has been running a billboard campaign in cities across the West.

The Refinery Complex has also been the recipient of a blockade, where fuel trucks have been prevented from entering the plant. Videos that seek to ‘out’ replacement workers have also been hitting the Internet. On January 13, 2020, Unifor 594 blockaded the Prairie Sky Co-op’s Crossroads location in Weyburn. There, picketers permitted customers of the gas bar, cardlock and restaurant to come and go, but employees were only allowed in, making it difficult for the business. Other locations such as Winnipeg’s Pembina and Taylor gas bar, car wash and c-store have seen Unifor teams picket and distribute information as the strike moves toward a third month of action.

Octane editor Kelly Gray can be reached at kgray@ensembleiq.com