Refinery strike passes one-month mark

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Workers won’t back down

Employees of Co-op Refinery Complex (CRC) have been locked out of their workplace since Dec.5 with no apparent end in sight. This lockout came as the result of a stalemate in negotiations between CRC and Unifor Local 594, which represents nearly 800 CRC workers. At the heart of this labour dispute is the security of pensions which many employees have built their lives around. Many workers are currently registered under what is known as the defined benefit (DB) plan, which Federated Co-operatives Ltd. (FCL) seeks to terminate or vastly reduce.

It was stated in March of 2017 by executive vice president of FCL, Vic Huard, that those employees who were under the DB plan would be guaranteed the outlined benefits until retirement. Now, FCL is going back on that promise under the thinly veiled guise of “

A DB plan outlines a specific amount to be paid upon retirement whereas a defined contribution plan is constructed to have an employee pay certain amounts into a fund that is saved for retirement.

In 2016, the DB plan was no longer available to new CRC employees as a part of contract negotiations for that year, so those who were newly hired operate under a DC plan. What the union has steadfastly sought to defend, however, is that employees who are currently registered under the DB plan may continue to remain so as promised, giving these individuals the choice between a DB and a DC plan.

This choice has yet to be offered by FCL. Instead, they have proposed staggering cutbacks to these previously promised pensions.

Here’s a recap of all that’s happened so far in this contentious battle: On Feb. 1 of 2019, the CRC and Local 594’s collective agreement expired. Bargaining lasted nearly nine months until Local 594 declared an impasse on Sept. 26. An official mediator was brought in to help aid the process in continuing as smoothly as possible.

Several weeks later, in October, FCL went ahead with the construction of offsite work camps while negotiations had not yet ceased. In the days following the lockout, citing “dangerous conditions” for scab workers, FCL began to helicopter scabs across the picket lines. Unifor 594 opposed these actions as they went against the necessary good faith of bargaining. In pre-emptively going ahead with preparation for Unifor 594 workers to take job action, the company had closed the door on constructive negotiation.

A month after these events, mediation broke down before a fair deal could be reached. FCL has continually proposed concessions in pensions, a point on which Local 594 is unwilling to relent.

In early December, 97.3 per cent of Unifor Local 594 members voted in favour of striking. The result was not overly shocking given the overwhelming amount of frustration felt by members and the drawn-out, painstaking negotiating process. The CRC was served a 48-hour strike notice shortly following the vote.

Local 594 also offered their members’ services to safely shut the refinery down before job action was set to take place. The union cautioned that continuing to operate the refinery with fewer, less-trained workers, as indicated by the construction of off-site work camps, posed a threat to the safety and security of personnel, equipment, and surrounding community.

Having not received any co-operation on the part of FCL, Local 594 members began their picketing at 5:31 p.m. on Dec.5 outside the gates of the refinery, also marking the beginning of the lockout imposed by the Company.

Since then, Unifor has called for a national boycott of Co-op retailers. The campaign launched on Dec.15, with Unifor investing copious amounts of resources. The union has created television and radio ads, billboards, mail and is circulating a petition. Local 594 members can also be seen picketing outside of various FCL-affiliated retail locations such as Sherwood Co-op.

In a November 21 statement, Unifor National President, Jerry Dias, spoke to the irony of this precarious situation, noting that disputes such as this go against what co-operatives stand for.

“Federated Co-op Ltd. was founded on the principle of working for the people of Saskatchewan, especially small communities. At a time when big corporations were exploiting the province’s resources, workers, and farmers, the co-op movement began to keep profits at home. It was the spirit of people before profits that built Saskatchewan and made the west what it is today.”

A lot of the rhetoric from the side of FCL has revolved around sustainability. According to them, serious cuts need to be made for the sake of the company’s prosperity, but the numbers

Second Wind Consultants affirm that companies who allocate 15-30 per cent of their gross sales into salaries and wages are more likely to sustain themselves. In 2018, FCL gross sales came in at $10.7 billion whereas as wages and salaries only accounted for $449 million, equivalent to 4.2 per cent of sales, far from the 15-30 per cent window.

Using this data as proof, the union rejects these hollow calls for sustainability and demands truth and transparency from FCL. Unifor Local 594 members are willing to wait for a As the president of the local, Kevin Bittman said to Sara Birrell in December, “we’re not being greedy. We’re asking for just what was promised us when we were hired.” And they’re prepared to fight for it.

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