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USW to seek charges against PotashCorp

(Resource News International) — The United Steelworkers (USW) union says it’s proceeding with charges of bargaining in bad faith and unfair labour practices against Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan.

The charges, brought forward under the Saskatchewan Trade Union Act, relate to a letter sent by PotashCorp to striking employees at three Saskatchewan mines in early October urging them to accept the company’s contract offer.

Citing the global financial uncertainty, PotashCorp’s potash division president Garth Moore wrote in the letter that “in this uncertain current global environment, we cannot provide assurance as to how long we can continue to justify our outstanding contract offer.”

The letter, customized for each employee’s job category, explained the details of the company’s contract offer. Moore said there was still a “significant distance” between the two sides in the negotiations, but noted that the company has agreed to resume talks if the union removes its demand for a new bonus plan.

Steve Hunt, USW’s director for Western Canada, said the union’s new appeal to the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board was prompted by what he described as PotashCorp’s attempt to circumvent the bargaining process by contacting the employees directly and its attempt to set provisions for the resumption of bargaining.

A finding in USW’s favour would result in PotashCorp being ordered to “cease and desist” with their actions, in this case, appealing to the employees directly and setting conditions for their return to the bargaining process.

Given how many unresolved issues remain between the two sides, Hunt said, it was unfortunate time would now be wasted by having to involve the Labour Relations Board.

“We all know that before the collective agreement is signed there will be changes. We’re not going to get those changes made by wasting time going to labour relations board so that they can tell us how to bargain,” he said.

“Desperation, posturing”

As far as the letter goes, Hunt said he sees it as a sign of PotashCorp’s desperation. Their insistence that the strike is having a minimal impact on the company is just posturing, Hunt added.

On PotashCorp’s proposed provisional return to the bargaining table, Hunt said, “you can’t return to the bargaining table subject to your wishes. You actually have to get to the table first and then you bargain once you are there.”

USW, he said, is not prepared to drop its request for a new bonus scheme before the proposal has even been discussed and the idea explored by both sides.

USW has proposed a profit-sharing scheme that would entitle unionized PotashCorp employees to a bonus linked to the rise and fall in commodity prices.

Bill Johnson, direction of public affairs for PotashCorp, rejected the union’s suggestion that the company’s appeal directly to its employees was a sign of desperation and defended the letter.

“We believe that this charge of unfair labour practices will prove to be unfounded,” Johnson said.

“We sent those letters to ensure that our employees were fully informed about the offer that we had presented. We thought there were some fundamental misunderstandings about out offer that needed to be cleared up,” he said.

Johnson had little comment about the letter’s suggestion that PotashCorp’s current offer would not remain on the bargaining table indefinitely, saying only that for now the offer remained and that the company would like to see it voted on.

Profit sharing

He also said the company remains uninterested in discussing a new profit-sharing bonus scheme with the USW.

“There is currently a bonus plan in place for the striking workers that is the same for all of the company’s employees and PotashCorp is not interested in negotiating a new one,” he said.

The union’s request for a new bonus scheme comes at a time of strong profits for the world’s largest fertilizer company. PotashCorp’s third quarter results, released Thursday, came in above analyst expectations.

Johnson declined to comment on what impact, if any, the strike has had on PotashCorp’s potash inventories and the company’s ability to meet customer demand.

Nearly 500 PotashCorp employees have now been on strike since Aug. 7, when contract renegotiations between the fertilizer company and the USW first broke off. The workers are employed at PotashCorp’s Allan, Cory and Patience Lake mines in Saskatchewan and are responsible for underground mining operations, as well as milling and shipping activities on the surface.

In the meantime, production continues in reduced capacity at the Allan facility, the largest of the three mines affected by the strike. Potash mining and milling operations started up again Aug. 25 using managerial staff brought in from the other two facilities.

The Allan, Cory and Patience Lake mines account for roughly 30 per cent of the company’s potash production, according to company data.

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