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Co-op, Unifor ratify new 7 year contract after 6 month labour dispute

Hundreds of workers at Regina’s Co-op oil refinery complex will be returning to work after ratification of a tentative contract.

The agreement brings an ends to a six-month labour dispute that began after refinery owner Federated Co-operatives Ltd. locked out more than 700 workers last December following a strike vote.

The company says the new contract is a seven-year deal and that employees will return to work in the coming weeks.

Unifor Local 594 had encouraged members to vote in favour of the deal, which the union says maintained the defined pension plan.

It says the new collective agreement also includes wage improvements that meet the standards agreed to by Unifor’s energy sector unions.

For weeks, union members and the Saskatchewan NDP had called on Premier Scott Moe to intervene and end the dispute by legislating binding arbitration.

The company says the labour disruption was difficult for everyone and the deal reflects the fiscal realities for refineries.


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‘What do we do now?’ Labour dispute at Regina refinery nears 6 months

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 11.08.12 AMFor Dean Funke, getting hired at Regina’s Co-op oil refinery felt like winning the lottery.

“For a blue-collar worker, you can’t get better than the refinery. And it’s always been that way,” he told The Canadian Press.

Born and raised in Saskatchewan’s capital, Funke had worked in Alberta’s oilpatch but the refinery job allowed him to stay home and put down roots.

Nearly a decade later, the process-operator-turned-picket-captain wonders what he might do next as a dragging labour dispute between the refinery and his union nears the six-month mark.

“They’re hard conversations. What do we do now? Go get another skill, I guess, is my option, so go back to school?” he said.

“Maybe this isn’t where we’re going to finish our careers. Hopefully it is, but you never know.”

About 700 unionized workers were locked out by refinery owner, Federated Co-operatives Ltd., on Dec. 5 after they took a strike vote.

One of the most contentious issues were proposed changes to employee pensions because of costs to the company.

“Negotiators from FCL have indicated they are prepared for prolonged job action,” reads a briefing note prepared for Saskatchewan’s deputy minister of labour relations earlier this year. It was released to The Canadian Press under freedom-of-information legislation.

Over the winter, Unifor members blocked access to the refinery, which led to fines, court hearings and police arrests. Mischief charges were laid against 14 people, including the union’s national president, Jerry Dias.

“Co-op won’t return to the table unless Unifor removes the barricades, i.e stops breaking the law. Unifor won’t remove the barricades unless the Co-op removes all replacement workers. I think they call that a Mexican standoff,” a labour relations official wrote in an email at the time.

Premier Scott Moe appointed veteran labour mediator Vince Ready, who made recommendations that were accepted by workers, but not the company.

In turn, the refinery owner put forward its final offer, which members rejected.

About 200 replacement workers and 350 managers are keeping the plant running, said the company.

“This is labour relations at its most brutal,” said Scott Walsworth, a business professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

“This is kind of the threat that holds labour relations together _ that you’d better work things out and keep a good relationship with the other side or else you’ll end up like the refinery.”

Walsworth, who’s also an arbitrator, believes the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown has swung the pendulum of public support towards the company.

“It’s hard to manufacture sympathy in this kind of a climate, when so many people are out of work.”

The refinery has cut oil production because of low prices and a drop in demand. Walsworth said it makes it a convenient time not to be paying employees.

The crisis has also created expectations for employers to be sympathetic and not to put profits before people, he added.

“I don’t think Co-op wants to get on the wrong side of that momentum.”

In a statement, Co-op spokesman Brad DeLorey said the company hopes Unifor reconsiders the final offer, which he said exceeds compensation at other Canadian refineries.

Co-op has criticized Unifor for trying to disrupt the fuel supply of farmers busy with spring seeding by picketing cardlocks.

Unifor Local 594 president Kevin Bittman said the pandemic makes it tough for the union to get its message out when members can’t meet in person or rally in large groups.

He also said the company’s demands have been met and there’s nothing left to bargain.

The Opposition NDP has joined the union in calling on the Saskatchewan Party government to intervene and legislate binding arbitration. Premier Scott Moe, calling the dispute a fight between a private company and a union, has rejected the idea.

Walsworth said under provincial labour laws, the government can’t force a private employer into binding arbitration unless the case can be made that society is in danger.

If the refinery owner says its equipment and those living around the plant are safe – and without evidence to prove otherwise – “it’s a pretty tough case to make that the government should step in.”

Without both sides consenting to binding arbitration or the appointment of another mediator, which the government isn’t considering, the waiting continues.

“How do you break this stalemate?” asked Walsworth.


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Breakdown of co-op partnership sparks layoffs and lawsuits

Screen Shot 2020-04-07 at 11.12.25 AMWhen a relationship breaks down after more than 60 years of mutual benefit, feelings are bound to get hurt.

In the ongoing dustup between grocery and fuel retailer Calgary Co-op and Saskatoon-based supplier Federated Co-operatives, the fallout also includes the closing of a massive Calgary warehouse this month, hundreds of layoffs and a lawsuit claiming millions of dollars in damages.

The increasingly poisonous relationship runs counter to the central “co-operative” theme that has driven the formation of co-op organizations around the world, said Tom Webb, an adjunct professor at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, who has studied and written about co-ops for decades.

“One would have hoped that both co-operatives would have posted the co-operative purpose, values and principles up in their boardrooms and executive office walls and referred to them every time they made a decision,” he said.

“My guess is that the current dispute comes from a long line of decisions, big and small, by both sides that dented, damaged or left in tatters the purpose, values and principles that were supposed to form the basis of their relationships.”

The relationship breakdown emerged publicly last August when Calgary Co-op announced it had served notice to FCL that it was switching to Vancouver-based Save-On Foods as grocery supplier in the spring of 2020, promising to “elevate” customer experiences with more local, healthy and convenient items and a new range of exclusive private brands.

It said it would continue to buy fuel from FCL.

Federated responded in November with an announcement that it would close its massive Calgary Food Distribution Centre, resulting in the elimination of over 200 local jobs.

“By aligning itself with a competitor, Calgary Co-op has directly and negatively impacted our employees, their families and Calgary’s economy,” charged FCL vice-president Vic Huard at the time.

The battle then spilled into the courts.

Calgary Co-op filed a statement of claim against Federated in February over a new “Loyalty Program” FCL had introduced that requires participants buy at least 90% of their products for resale from Federated in order to receive “patronage” (essentially, profit-sharing) payments.

For the year ended Oct. 31, 2019, Calgary Co-op – one of the largest of FCL’s 168 retail co-op members in Western Canada -received $47.7 million in patronage payouts, of which $38.6 million was related to its fuel purchases on a cents-per-litre basis.

The new loyalty program was designed to “prejudicially target” Calgary Co-op, it charges in its suit, asking the court to order Federated to continue to pay its fuel-related patronage, along with unspecified damages.

In its statement of defence filed March 23, Federated points out that despite its size, Calgary Co-op has the same rights and obligations as any other member _ and adds that 163 of 164 eligible members have already enrolled in the loyalty program, with the lone holdout being Calgary Co-op.

“Single members of FCL do not have the authority to dictate to FCL what programs management may or may not offer to its membership,” the document reads. “FCL acts for the benefit of the co-operative membership as a whole.”

In its counterclaim, Federated demands damages from Calgary Co-op, charging it breached confidentiality obligations when it negotiated the grocery deal with a direct competitor.

It says losing Calgary Co-op’s grocery business will result in the loss of over $385 million from FCL’s annual revenue and more than $20 million from net income, cause it to incur severance charges of $4 million for managers and more than $2 million for unionized employees as it lays off staff, force the windup of a local wholesale produce company and reduce its efficiency in providing services to customers and co-operative members.

Despite the current pressure on the grocery supply chain as customers stock up to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, FCL spokesman Cam Zimmer says the layoff notices have been sent and warehouse employee contracts are to end as of April 13.

Calgary Co-op spokeswoman Sage Pullen McIntosh, meanwhile, says the plan to switch grocery suppliers at mid-month is proceeding as scheduled, with grocery products to be shipped through Save-On’s Edmonton warehouse and distribution arm.

In fiscal 2019, FCL reported $9.2 billion in sales, $959 million in net income and $649 million in patronage allocation.

The latest figures from Statistics Canada show there were more than 5,800 active non-financial co-ops in the country in 2018 generating $53 billion in revenue, but only two dozen of those had more than 500 employees. The average co-op had fewer than 18 workers.

“Our co-op movement is actually really small and fragile,” said Webb. “It seems big but it isn’t that big.”

About 44% of Canada’s co-ops are located in Quebec, where traditional support for worker co-operatives remains stronger than in most of the country, Webb said.

In his message in FCL’s recent annual report, CEO Scott Banda summed up his level of frustration while revisiting highlights of the last fiscal year.

“The most disappointing news of 2019 was Calgary Co-op’s decision to move its food business to a competitor,” he wrote.

“While FCL teams worked diligently to assess the impact of this decision and adapt our business to ensure long-term success, the damage done to local co-ops stemming from Calgary Co-op’s decision will be felt for some time.”

 


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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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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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Company seeks injunction: Co op, union in court over pickets at Regina refinery

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 11.08.12 AMA labour dispute between a Saskatchewan petroleum refinery and hundreds of its workers moved from the picket line into the courtroom December 23rd, with the company seeking an injunction against some of the union’s activities.

Eileen Libby, a lawyer for the Federated Co-operatives Limited, told court that picketers with Unifor Local 594 have been blocking access to the co-op refinery complex in Regina and intimidating replacement workers, contractors and suppliers.

Libby said there’s been a lack of action from city police, and the court is the only place the company could turn to stop the union from engaging in what she called illegal conduct.

“The union does not have a right, no matter what it says in arguments, to block the employer’s access to its own premises,” she argued. “The employer is entitled to use replacement workers.”

Union lawyer Crystal Norbeck questioned the allegations of unlawful conduct and argued there should be no restrictions on members blocking or preventing replacement workers from entering the site.

“If the company can simply hire replacement workers at will and those workers have free access to the work site, there’s no economic pressure, at all,” she told the court.

“The right to picket is meaningless.”

More than 700 refinery workers have been locked out since the start of the month, after Unifor issued a strike notice. Pensions are a key issue in the contract dispute.

Last week, Justice Janet McMurtry put some restrictions on the union’s picketing until a full injunction hearing could be held. The judge reserved her decision Monday.

Unifor is calling for a national boycott of the facility’s owner, Federated Co-operatives Ltd., made up of more than 190 independent retail co-operatives in Western Canada, operating food stores, gas bars, convenience stores and home centres.

The workers’ last contract expired in February. The union declared an impasse in contract negotiations in September, which led to the appointment of a mediator.

Union blockades have impeded the delivery of safety equipment and chemicals to the refinery and have raised concerns about the ability of emergency vehicles to get through, Libby told court.

As a result of the union blockades, the co-op brought in helicopters to transport goods and staff across picket lines.

“Think about that for a moment: What a significant act that is,” Libby said.

“It’s expensive. It’s strange, but it was necessary.”

The union, however, said emergency vehicles have not been prevented from accessing the property.

Union lawyer Rick Engel said the company is wealthy enough to fly in replacement workers, and those on the picket lines have a right to obstruct access as a point of protest.

He said the union can engage in picketing that results in blocking or a slowing down the entrance of people into a site.

“They think they’ve got a law-given right to carry on business without interruption – that’s what they think,” he said of the company.

He also told the court that police have been doing their jobs by keeping the peace and not taking sides in the dispute.