Co-op Refinery losing touch with community it was founded to help

A message from Unifor National President, Jerry Dias

November 21, 2019

In the refinery business, tired equals dangerous.

These facilities are operated by hundreds of highly skilled, experienced, and loyal workers handling materials that are perfectly safe if handled properly, but are also explosive and pose a real danger to the workers and those in the surrounding neighbourhoods if things go wrong.

All of that is why it is so confounding to me that the Co-op Refinery Complex (CRC) in Regina would push negotiations to the brink of a lockout that would put the community at risk.

Mediation has broken down between the 800 men and women who operate the Refinery, members of Unifor 594, and the Company. Rather than negotiate a fair deal, the Company has been building temporary facilities to house replacement workers (aka scabs) and managers.

Federated Co-op Limited (FCL) is digging in for a war against its own workforce, fought with out-of-province scabs.

Think about that. Winter is setting in across Saskatchewan, and FCL’s plan for keeping the blast zone safe is to put scabs and managers in ramshackle trailers away from their families, just weeks before the holidays.

Talk about lousy working conditions. Not that I feel sorry for scabs doing our members’ work—not in a million years—but people who are tired and stressed and away from family for the holidays are not the kind of people I’d want trying to run a dangerous refinery in my backyard.

None of these scabs can replace the skills and experience of Unifor 594 members, making for a volatile and dangerous situation.

Don’t just listen to me about how dangerous the situation could become. The Company’s owners have already laid out the case. So has associate professor Dr. Sean Tucker in a presentation he made Monday in Regina on the risks to everyone if anybody but Unifor 594 workers are operating the Refinery.

FCL has repeatedly warned about the dangers of fatigue.

“When you’re tired it’s not a good time to be maybe operating heavy machinery or to be maintaining a highly sensitive, you know, place like a refinery,” FCL vice-president Vic Huard told a Saskatchewan radio station in 2017. And a previous VP, Bud Van Iderstine, said in 2011 in a letter to the City: “The CRC believes the City should not allow a residential development in this area of Regina, and establish a reasonably large setback for residential developments from industrial facilities.“ (Regina Leader-Post, March 18, 2018)

FCL has even warned about the dangers to nearby housing developments, advising the province and the City there needs to be “reasonably large setback for residential developments” and that it was “disappointed” to see housing built so close to the facility.

Despite all this, FCL is spending millions to set up an on-site camp for scabs to try to run the massive facility. It is a perfect scenario for overworked and fatigued workers trying against all odds to keep an unfamiliar facility operating safely.

In other words, the exact situation the FCL has been warning about for years—and such a far cry from the FCL’s admirable roots.

Federated Co-op Ltd. was founded on the principle of working for the people of Saskatchewan, especially small communities. At a time when big corporations were exploiting the province’s resources, workers, and farmers, the co-op movement began to keep profits at home.

It was that spirit of people before profits that built Saskatchewan and made the west what it is today.

Refinery workers keep communities across Western Canada running. The quality, reliable products they make run vehicles on every road and highway across the Prairies—across the country, even. The 130,000 barrels processed every day fuel the farms that feed the world.

Thanks to their labour, the rest of us get us to work and home again. Their wages go right back into the community—in money spent in local stores and restaurants, and that keeps more jobs alive across the community. Secure pensions make sure that local spending continues after retirement.

By attacking their own workers and gutting their guaranteed pensions, FCL is pursuing the opposite agenda and acting like the big greedy corporations it was built to resist.

The Company already makes $3 million dollars a day in profit. How much is enough? How much more do they want? We say there is always enough to respect Refinery workers. And the local economy deserves money from that operation to be used to build the community and keep it safe.

FCL talks a good game about investing in communities. I guess that also means investing in scab camps and out-of-province replacement workers that place us all at risk.

FCL needs to get back to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair deal. Instead of dividing the community, the Co-op should remember the principles it was founded on – to protect communities and the province. If this is how they treat loyal workers, perhaps it is time we all take our business elsewhere.