Co-op Refinery Complex, union sign deal to end labour dispute

One of the most bruising and contentious labour disputes in Regina's history has finally come to an end. On Monday, Unifor Local 594 members ratified a tentative agreement with the Co-op Refinery Complex that was reached last week.

Union says agreement maintains the defined benefit pension plan for existing workers

The six-month lockout of 730 workers at the Co-op Refinery Complex is over. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

One of the most bruising and contentious labour disputes in Regina's history has finally come to an end.

On Monday, Unifor Local 594 members ratified a tentative agreement with the Co-op Refinery Complex (CRC) that was reached last week.

Union membership voted 89 percent in favour of the offer.

"They finally gave us an offer that we could take to the membership and recommend and we'll be going back to work next week," said Unifor Local 594 President Kevin Bittman.

The six-month long lockout featured blockades, arrests and even a bomb threat.

The 730 Unifor workers were locked out of the CRC on Dec. 5, 2019, after they held a strike vote.

The most contentious issue was proposed changes to employee pensions because of costs to the company.

Regina police were seen monitoring the Unifor picket lines at the Co-op Refinery Complex on Friday, Jan. 31. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

The union said the agreement maintains the defined benefit pension plan and the company matched employee savings plan for existing workers. It said there is also wage improvements in the agreement.

The refinery said the new contract is a seven-year deal.

Unifor employees will return to work over the coming weeks in accordance with the new contract's return-to-work agreement.

Bittman said he didn't think the company wanted to get a deal done.

"So this was, you know, this was union busting at its finest. They never had any intention of giving us a deal at this point," Bittman said.

"They pretty much kept the concessions on the table and then even when we gave them all the concessions and there was none to even give, we still didn't get off the picket line because they wanted to fire people."

"You know when the company can bring in scab labour and, you know, put it in a camp. And we're not allowed to do anything on the picket lines it definitely makes everything a little jaded and on the side of the company."

Unifor Local 594 president Kevin Bittman attended the rally outside the legislative building on Jan. 30, 2020. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Bittman said the workers will be contributing anywhere from four to 10 per cent of their earnings to their pension.

"And then depending on the 50-50 of the service and costs it could be higher than the 10 [per cent]."

Bittman said they spent an extra month-and-a-half locked out because CRC didn't want to give a return to work guarantee.

He said there were reports the company wanted to fire some of the employees.

"And we were not going to go into that plant with them being able to fire people and take four-and-a-half years to get through arbitration because the process is broken in Saskatchewan, like a lot of things in Saskatchewan," Bittman said, adding he believes the province put pressure on the company to settle.

Barricades, including metal fencing and wooden pallets, were placed outside the complex after bargaining between Unifor and Co-op broke down. (Ethan Williams/CBC )

Gil Le Dressay, CRC's vice president of refinery operations, said in a release he was "sincerely pleased" the employees would be back on the job.

"This labour disruption was a difficult period in our history but I believe that we will emerge from this a stronger team and organization," Le Dressay said. "The Union has been our partner in fuelling Western Canada for more than 75 years, and they will be our partner for generations into the future."

Unifor national president Jerry Dias said the deal should have been reached sooner.

"In the end, we were successful in protecting their retirement security and in achieving the national wage pattern but this result could have been reached far earlier if the mediator recommendations had been enforced by Premier Scott Moe," Dias said in a news release.

Over the winter, Unifor members blocked access to the refinery, which led to fines, court hearings and police arrests. Mischief charges were laid against 14 people, including Dias.

A tanker truck outside the Co-op refinery in Regina. (Aldo Columpsi/CBC)

Two months into the dispute Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe appointed veteran labour mediator Vince Ready, who made recommendations that were accepted by workers but not the company.

In turn, the refinery owner put forward its final offer, which members rejected.

About 200 replacement workers and 350 managers kept the plant running during the lockout, said the company.

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

Despite the acrimonious nature of the dispute, Bittman says union members are ready to go back in and do their jobs.

"Our people are pipe fitters, our people are mechanics and that's what they're trained to do," he said. "So they'll go back in there and do their jobs because at the end of the day, that's what our trades are and they'll do them well like we always have."

with files from Heidi Atter, Alex Soloducha and The Canadian Press


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