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Union rips PotashCorp for letter to strikers

Letters couriered to the home of each striking worker at three PotashCorp mines in Saskatchewan, urging them to reconsider the company’s offer, may constitute “bad-faith” bargaining, the workers’ union warned Friday.

The letters, sent to workers from PotashCorp’s Allan, Cory and Patience Lake potash mines on Oct. 8, state that “from what we’ve heard on the street and through media reports, we realize that our offer may not have been clearly understood.

“I’d like to share the details with you again,” company president Garth Moore wrote in the letters, which were customized by job category, wage level and other site-specific contract differences, “and ask that you consider it very carefully.”

But “the content of the letter contains another pitch for the only offer made by the company, which was soundly rejected by our membership,” said union representative Lee Edwards of the United Steelworkers (USW) in a release Friday.

Edwards called the letters “another attempt by the company to circumvent the bargaining process and try to influence our members.” The union is considering filing a charge of bad-faith bargaining, he said, and “we believe PotashCorp’s actions are in violation of Saskatchewan law.

“Beyond the legality issue, the letter insinuates that our members are stupid and would have made a different decision if only they listened to the ‘wisdom’ of the company.”

Moore’s letter, posted Friday on Saskatoon-based PotashCorp’s website, refers to the “significant financial turmoil” in financial markets in recent weeks, “with companies in all sectors, from financial to manufacturing to commodities, being significantly impacted by a wide-spread credit crisis.”

Several major fertilizer firms took a simultaneous hit on their respective stock exchanges on Oct. 2 after a Merrill Lynch report on the fertilizer sector ranked it as “underperform.” PotashCorp stock dropped 26 per cent that day on the TSX to $101; Agrium dropped 23 per cent on the TSX to $45.01, while Mosaic dropped over 40 per cent on the NYSE to US$39.65.

Market volatility has continued for PotashCorp, with its TSX shares trading at above $116 Tuesday afternoon, down from its opening price this morning of $133.

These prices came after PotashCorp in September announced plans to buy back up to 10 per cent of its shares, at that time calling them “significantly undervalued versus our long-term potential.”

Now, however, “in this uncertain current global environment, we cannot provide assurance as to how long we can continue to justify our outstanding contract offer,” Moore wrote in the letter to workers, referring to the company’s July 16 final offer to USW negotiators.

The company said in its letter that it is only willing to return to the negotiating table if the union removes its proposal for a bonus plan tied to the company’s net earnings. That bonus, Moore wrote, is “estimated to be an increase of more than 200 per cent over three years.

“Based on feedback we have received, however, we believe the union leadership has not yet shared their proposal to the company with you, the members,” he wrote.

Almost 500 USW members have been striking since Aug. 7. Managerial workers from all three mines have continued production, albeit at a reduced rate, at the Allan mine, about 50 km southeast of Saskatoon.

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