Co-op Refinery, union reach tentative labour deal

Proposal now goes to ratification vote

The operators of one of Western Canada’s biggest fuel refineries have reached a tentative deal with the union representing workers locked out since December.

The deal, if ratified in an employee vote, would end the lockout at Federated Co-operatives’ (FCL) Co-op Refinery Complex (CRC), a major bulk fuel supplier to farmers and rural co-ops across the West.

The Regina refinery will “begin the process of welcoming hourly employees back to work” when or if a new contract is ratified, FCL said Thursday.

Details of the proposed deal weren’t released in statements from FCL or the workers’ union, Unifor 594. FCL said the deal “balances an appreciation for our unionized employees with the fiscal realities of the refining sector.”

Unifor 594 said it “worked to ensure the ‘return to work’ protocol protected members and local union leaders from retribution from Co-op.”

The union’s 730-odd members at the CRC were locked out Dec. 5 after serving 48 hours’ strike notice, mainly over FCL’s proposals to move employee pension plans from a “defined benefit” to a “defined contribution” model.

The labour dispute and related picketing have weighed intermittently on Prairie farmers, such as when affected fuel stations briefly imposed volume caps on purchases in February.

Last month, Unifor published a notice saying it was “in a position where disrupting the flow of fuel to farmers during seeding is the only option we have to get back to work.”

FCL said Thursday it’s “optimistic that an agreement can be reached as the union bargaining committee has tentatively accepted the deal and will recommend it to their membership.”

“This deal, if accepted by bargaining unit employees, along with the operational efficiencies our team has recently realized, will go a long way towards ensuring a sustainable CRC for generations to come,” Gil Le Dressay, FCL’s vice-president for refinery operations, said in its release.

“The labour disruption has been a difficult process for everyone involved, but we are hopeful that the membership will ratify the deal and our employees will return to work soon.”

“Nasty”

The union’s statement on Thursday implied hard feelings may linger regardless of the vote’s outcome. Unifor 594 local president Kevin Bittman on Thursday hailed workers as having “never wavered throughout this nasty dispute.”

The lockout, he said, was “union-busting from an employer that has made billions off of our backs and together we fought and defended our collective agreement.”

A tentative deal “would have been signed weeks ago but Co-op showed their true colours by punitively continuing the lockout,” Unifor negotiator Scott Doherty said in the same release.

FCL, he said, “will have to try and build back a dedicated and committed workforce that will not forget the disrespect they felt from this profitable employer.”

The National Farmers Union, a booster of the co-operative system, had called in January for FCL to end its lockout, saying the circumstances showed “it has become harder to see how (FCL) is different from other companies.”

The Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) had also raised concerns about the ongoing dispute, saying last month that “in many cases farmers replenish their fuel supply daily and traveling long distances to avoid picket lines is not an option.”

The Regina refinery can produce up to 130,000 barrels of refined petroleum products per day and ships up to 17 million litres of product per day, supplying over 650 retail co-ops operating fuel stations and cardlocks across the West.

The CRC operation in Regina dates back to 1935, when area farmers put up money to build what was billed as the world’s first co-operative oil refinery. — Glacier FarmMedia Network

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Dave Bedard

Editor, Daily News, Glacier FarmMedia Network. A Saskatchewan transplant in Winnipeg.

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