Saskatchewan

Unifor Local 594 president calls process 'disheartening' after tentative deal reached with Regina refinery

The Co-op Refinery Complex the tentative deal includes a return-to-work agreement.

Full details of deal not released by either side

Unifor has been picketing the provincial legislature in Regina to put pressure on the provincial government to get involved in the labour dispute between the union and the Co-op Refinery Complex. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

The Co-op Refinery Complex in Regina and Unifor 594 have reached a tentative deal, potentially ending a six-months long labour dispute. 

The refinery said the deal includes monetary aspects of its previous offer and a return-to-work agreement. Unifor said details about the deal will not be released until members of Unifor 594 hold a ratification vote.

In a written statement sent out Thursday morning, the union said it worked during negotiations to ensure the return-to-work aspect of the agreement protected members from any retribution from Federated Co-operatives Limited. 

But during a press conference in front of the Saskatchewan Legislature, Local 594 president Kevin Bittman said there was no guarantee that termination of some employees was off the table. 

He wouldn't give details on the agreement, but did confirm that both parties worked out a return-to-work protocol. Due to new measures put in place for COVID-19, he said some employees might need updated training, but they will begin trickling back into the workplace next week.

Unifor has been picketing at the Saskatchewan Legislature to put pressure on the provincial government to end the six-months long labour dispute. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Bittman blamed Thursday's rain for the small union crowd and subdued reaction at his announcement, but said the agreement brings a bit of relief to workers who have faced uncertainty for six months. He said what started with them getting locked out by their employer led to six trips to the bargaining table for him and even death threats online.

"This was personal," said Bittman. "The company tried to take a swing at this local and they didn't even put a dent in us.

"They made a lot of personal attacks, and that was the disheartening part, but it's time to put all that behind us and go back to the plant because we have careers to resume." 

The Co-op hasn't spoken publicly since striking the tentative deal, but released a statement saying that the company is optimistic that an agreement can be reached because the Union Bargaining Committee has tentatively accepted the deal and will recommend it to their membership.

Unifor said the pressure on the provincial government is what helped them reach an agreement with the Co-op Refinery Complex. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

"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. We want to thank our community for their patience and support throughout this process," said Gil Le Dressay, vice president of refinery operations, in that statement. 

Bittman said the employees acknowledge that their frontline managers were only doing their jobs, but said their relationships with upper management and the company itself is likely to be forever fractured. He said he believes the only reason a deal happened was because the union put pressure on the provincial government.

"I have every faith that the company never wanted a deal and they got us to this point and I think the government put pressure on the Co-op to end this deal," he said.

"This was about union busting, it wasn't about collective bargaining."

Bittman said he has no evidence to back up the claim that government pressure led to the deal. 

Kevin Bittman is the president of Unifor Local 594. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

He said that the picketers now know how to lobby and plan to keep doing so during the campaign for the upcoming provincial election in order to change rules surrounding collective bargaining and help create what he calls "a different Saskatchewan."

"Right now for us, Saskatchewan is a pretty disappointing place to live," he said. 

Unifor national president Jerry Dias has been critical Premier Scott Moe and the Regina Police Service during the dispute. 

"In this fight, we showed that Canada's workers are united and will fight to defend good jobs, even when governments and police services choose to side with the rich," said Dias in a statement. 

Bittman said that despite everything, the union remained strong, with all 730 picketers seeing the process through from beginning to end.

He said he expects the employees to vote on June 22. 

With files from Heidi Atter and Alex Soloduca

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