Strike under way at Canada’s Co-op Refinery Complex

Workers have been locked out of the site by owner Federated Co-operatives Ltd over the pensions dispute, and are now calling for a boycott

Employees at the Co-op Refinery Complex (CRC) in Canada have been locked out of the refinery after going on strike over pension contributions.

Federated Co-operatives Ltd (FCL), the federation of retail co-ops in Western Canada which owns the complex, said the lock-out was necessary to keep the site operational and protect fuel supplies to 170 local co-ops and their communities.

On 3 December the workers, who are represented by the union Unifor 594, issued a 48-hour strike notice. FCL said the action created an “unsafe operating environment for the refinery”. The management team has now assumed control of the refinery’s operation.

“It is disappointing that the Unifor 594 executive would not return to the bargaining table,” Gil Le Dressay, vice-president of refinery operations at the CRC, said on 5 December.

“Despite our best efforts to resume negotiations yesterday, the Unifor 594 executive has decided to put their membership on the picket line. As we told them, the only way we can ensure a safe operating environment is to lock the union out and have our management team assume the safe operation of the refinery.

“We simply can’t run the risk of employees conducting rotating strikes and walking off the job in our safety-sensitive operating environment,”

CRC said it was willing to engage with the union to resolve the issue. The dispute has been going on for months and is related to staff pension contributions.

Currently, employees do not have to contribute to their pension plans. The co-op says unionised employees should contribute to their own pension plan, arguing that this approach is in line with industry standards.

To settle the dispute, FCL has offered a 11.75% wage increase over four years with the option for unionised employees to remain on their current pension plan or move to its Defined Contribution (DC) Pension Plan – which is used by management and all new hirings. Regardless of the pension choice employees make, the co-op says it will contribute up to 10% employees’ salary in pension. 

“We don’t believe that asking employees to contribute to their own pension plan is an unreasonable request,” Mr Le Dressay said in a statement. “We have always been willing to discuss the details of how they contribute to their own pension, but they will need to contribute as do most people in Canada who have a company-provided pension.”

The refinery is the third largest in western Canada, with a capacity to process 135,000 barrels of oil per day.

Unifor members voted 97.3% in favour of striking, said the union in a statement. The strike started on Thursday evening (5 December).

“The union has strong concerns about the company’s intentions to run the refinery with a mix of under-trained managers, replacement workers, and contractors. It is the union’s belief that running the refinery without Unifor 594 would pose serious safety risks to personnel, equipment, the community, the economy, and the environment,” said Unifor president, Kevin Bittman, in a statement on 3 December.

The workers have offered to facilitate the safe shutdown of all CRC operations until the dispute is solved but the co-op refused.

Employees also say they had to make pension concessions three years ago and refuse to make any further concessions arguing the refinery is profitable.

The Co-op Refinery Complex dates back to the 1930s, when farmers formed oil co-ops to reduce the costs of oil. A couple of years later these oil distribution co-ops started building their own refineries. The refinery is now owned by FCL.

The provincial government is facilitating mediation and arbitration between both sides, but Unifor stepped up the dispute yesterday (15 December) by calling for a nationwide boycott of all FCL businesses and services).

“If Co-op wants to hit refinery workers with a lockout, it’s time to hit Co-op where it hurts,” said Unifor National President Jerry Dias.

The boycott campaign will place ads, billboards and picketers at retail locations across Canada.