In the Co-op dispute, the company can’t be let off the hook

Jerry Dias

By Jerry Dias, Unifor National President

By now, the entire country is aware of the ten week long lockout at the Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) refinery in Regina. What fewer people know is the length to which the company has worked to prolong it. It has deftly used numerous systemic advantages to try to break our union. FCL has been let off the hook time and again. It has to stop.

On December 5, 2019, FCL locked out 730 members of Unifor Local 594 after walking back on its promise to keep workers’ pensions in place.

It’s worth noting that these pensions are better than most Canadians enjoy, however most Canadians don’t work for an employer that rakes in $3 million dollar profit every day.

Unifor members on the picket line are fighting a bully employer that, thanks to legalized scabs, has been let off the hook to attempt normal, and arguably risky operation of the refinery using a replacement workforce with questionable qualifications.

FCL has been let off the hook by the Regina Police Department. Even before injunctions were issued, the police took it upon themselves to force refinery supplies through legal picket lines. They have consistently escalated tensions on the picket line with arbitrary arrests, including my own.

With free access to scabs and an aggressive local police force, it is no wonder that FCL has shown no interest in good faith negotiations. The whole deck is stacked in its favour, all it has to do is wait out refinery workers and their families while the system does their dirty work for them.

This corporate coddling must end. The scales must be re-balanced so that the company has an incentive to actually bargain.

Saskatchewan Labour Minister Don Morgan has appointed well-known mediator Vince Ready to bring FCL and Unifor back to the table. While I have a world of respect for Mr. Ready and we intend to pull out all the stops to get a deal, I’m not holding my breath.

Minister Morgan’s offer has a critical flaw, which is that the mediation process is non-binding. Yet again, FCL has been let off the hook.

If the twenty days of prescribed mediation doesn’t yield a settlement, Ready will prepare a report for the government that it is under no obligation to make public. We’ll be back to square one, except it will be Day 97 of a bitter lockout and the company will still have no incentive to bargain.

If mediation fails, Premier Scott Moe must legislate binding arbitration. The step is not unprecedented.

Last year, Moe introduced an emergency motion in the legislative assembly calling on the federal government to “immediately end the CN Rail strike through binding arbitration.”

Unlike the rush to use legislation against CN Rail workers after only two days on strike, the impasse with FCL is a clear case of a breakdown in negotiations with no end in sight.

With all of the systemic advantages I describe above, FCL CEO Scott Banda has repeatedly rebuffed Unifor’s offers. The most recent time we offered a path to $20 million in savings to the company, Banda responded with even more egregious concessions, including new job cuts.

Changing the terms of negotiations mid-stream is not a path to a settlement. It is a path to an even lengthier dispute. Surely the Premier understands this.

There is recent precedent to guide the way for Premier Moe. In 2018 after a 21-month lockout by aerospace parts-maker DJ Composites in Gander, Newfoundland, Premier Dwight Ball facilitated a process that ultimately led the company to agree binding arbitration.

In other Canadian jurisdictions, legislation triggers binding arbitration in lengthy disputes.

Under conservative premier Brian Pallister in Manitoba, the Labour Relations Act calls for binding arbitration after a dispute has gone on for longer than 60 days.

Let me be clear: arbitration should never be the first option in dispute settlement. However, when disputes drag on and there is no solution in sight, it is a necessary step in order to bring closure when one or more parties are proving intractable.

Unifor is calling on Premier Moe to do the right thing: stop letting FCL off the hook. If no deal can be reached with mediator Vince Ready, it is time for binding arbitration.