Refinery strike a battle over values, not just pensions

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Public has role to play

After a bitter month that has seen the parties face off in court, the battle over pensions between co-op refinery workers and management at Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) that began on Dec. 5, when the company locked workers out, shows no signs of letting up. Like the strike at Saskatoon Co-op last year, which saw FCL leave some 900 workers out in the cold for five months, this job action promises to be a long one, with the potential for consequences that will ripple out far beyond the walls of the Co-op Refinery Complex.

Unlike the strike in Saskatoon, which was primarily over FCL’s introduction of a two-tiered wage structure, which sees new employees paid less for doing the same work, and functions as a way of introducing instability and inequality in a union, this strike – actually a lockout – is over pensions. Workers say they just want what they were promised, while management claims it’s just not sustainable. For a company – especially a company that, like FCL, has seen record profits over the past two years – to call a pension “unsustainable” is profoundly problematic, and the problem is rooted in what a pension is.

As the philosopher and cognitive linguist George Lakoff wrote in his 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, a pension is deferred payment for work already done. Workers who have a pension enter into an agreement with their employers that, in exchange for lower wages during their working life, the employer will maintain a separate fund – which is typically invested – that will then pay out on a regular basis after the worker retires.

The important thing to note here is that a pension is deferred payment for work already done. It is not a generous gift from the employer. It is not a bonus. It is money that, by the time it is paid out, has already been earned by the worker. And so, when an employer says that they cannot pay out a pension – that it has become “unsustainable” as FCL is saying now – the employer is saying that at best, they have horribly mismanaged the pension fund, which they had already agreed to pay into. At worst, they have stolen it outright.

Workers give their lives – in the case of workers in high-risk occupations like those held by some of the striking Unifor 594 members at the refinery, sometimes literally – to their employers. Their labour creates profit for the company. Without them, there is no company. So, when an employer interferes with an employee’s earnings, whether that be in the form of wages or pensions or both, what they are doing is a form of theft. They are stealing the worker’s labour. They are stealing their time. In the case of the Co-op Refinery strike, FCL is trying to steal their retirement.

The violation is made all the worse not only because the lockout comes so quickly on the heels of another ugly FCL labour dispute, but because FCL is a co-operative. Although consumer co-operatives do not come without problems – they are, after all, businesses whose purpose is to generate profit for shareholders – community members are not wrong to have higher expectations for these kinds of locally based companies. That’s why many people become co-op members. It’s not for that annual dividends payout (although it is nice). It’s because co-operatives are supposed to uphold certain community values, like treating workers fairly and putting people before profit.

I am a co-op member because I believe in co-operative values. I’m respecting the boycott of all co-op locations that own FCL because I respect workers and their present, and future, livelihoods. But I also support them for my own selfish reasons. An attack on the wages and/or pensions of any worker is an attack on the wages and/or pensions of every worker. Every win for an unscrupulous employer shows other unscrupulous employers what the public is willing to tolerate. As a worker, I don’t just want to live in a community where workers are treated fairly, I need to, to survive and thrive.

And I support refinery workers because I support co-operative values. Because I know the history of Saskatchewan, and I know that this province was built on co-operation, and that our quality of life depends on it. FCL’s recent attacks on workers are an attack on every Saskatchewanian. They’re an attack on our shared history and a threat to our collective future.

Unifor 594 workers need the support of the public. Although we are not picketing, we need to show solidarity with those who are. Boycott Co-op. Educate yourself on co-operatives and on the history of the province, so you know what we gained from co-operatives, what we lost when they first came under attack in the late 70s and 80s, and what we stand to lose if we don’t defend what remains. Solidarity now, and forever.

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