IT’S ONE STRANGE WAY TO RUN A CO-OP. Managers of the Co-op Refinery in Regina locked out their 800 workers on December 5. After the workers refused to give in to a demand they accept management changes to their pension plan.
“Federated Co-op has made a mockery of co-operative values and betrayed their members’ trust,” said Kevin Bittman, President of Unifor Local 594. “Co-op members and other members of the public should consider taking their business elsewhere to protest this attack on co-op principles and our pensions.”
The union website explains: "The whole point of a cooperative is to share ownership AND earnings. Unlike profit-driven corporations, cooperatives are supposed to invest fairly in the people involved. Our labour allows the company to share billions in profits with members & communities through the Co-op Retailing System, so why not with its workforce, too?"
The workers started picketing on December 5, minutes after managers locked a blue security fence to block off the entrance to the refinery.
The managers activated their plans to use scabs to keep the refinery running. They had built a campsite for the scabs behind the refinery gates.
Kevin Bittman says he almost feels sorry for the scabs. He believes his members are better placed to endure the standoff.
“We work outside all day long, so the cold’s not going to hurt us,” he said. “Those people are away from their families. They’re locked into the plant. They’re doing jobs that they’re not trained for.
“It’s a scary situation for them. It’s mental anguish.”
Negotiation by helicopter
The refinery mangers soon resorted to helicopters to fly in equipment and food for the scabs.
The union says using the helicopters was just a management stunt to make the workers look bad. “We do stop the buses from crossing our lines,” said Bittman, “because we don’t think having scabs coming into the plant is right.”
“Not once have we said no to managers. If they want to get managers into the plant, they should be contacting us to set up a protocol on how to get the managers in.”
Unifor allows fuel trucks to pass thought its legal picket lines to enter and exit the facility in a safe and orderly fashion.
Costly and dangerous
The union says spending a lot of money on helicopters is costly and dangerous. “It makes no sense to spend all that money on helicopters when the refinery says money is tight,” says Local 594 member Sandy Smart. “Plus, using helicopters puts lives at risk since there is no proper landing area for the helicopters.”
Unifor says the managers are desperate to draw attention from what should be the main concern— namely, the unsafe operation of one of Western Canada’s largest refineries.
“Nearly eight hundred highly skilled refinery workers are locked out of Co-op Refinery. The impact this has on refinery safety is, without a doubt, the most dangerous situation in Regina,” said Scott Doherty, Executive Assistant to the Unifor National President.
“We’re out here on the outside of the fence while people live inside a camp to do our jobs,” says Bittman.
“We all know there’s only one way to safely run the refinery and that is with us on the inside.”
The lockout began after Local 594 members refused to give in to aggressive demands from the company for concessions that would have “gutted the pension plan.”
The union says it wants "choice and protection to ensure pension security for every worker. Anything less would be an unnecessary concession".
Choice, for the union, means giving workers the option to stick with their defined benefits pension plan; protection means no tampering with the plan to "gut" it for those who do choose to stick with the defined benefits plan.
“This will be resolved when the Co-op Refinery decides to take their demand for concessions off the table,”said Scott Doherty, lead negotiator for Unifor Local 594.
“We’re not going to give concessions to an employer that made $2.5 billion in the last three years; made $1 billion this year and they’re asking for concessions. That’s just plain ridiculous.”
Doherty said there’s little point sitting down if the company won’t move on demanding pension concessions from workers.
“We will come to the table and bargain a new collective agreement when those concessions come off the table,” he said
Co-operatives are supposed to be different: a kinder, gentler way of doing business. It’s a difference that is clearly lost on the managers of the Co-op Refinery in Regina. The settlement of the lockout, when it comes, will reveal whether or not its a difference that is now forever lost.
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