For 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.