Sides in Regina refinery contract dispute dug in despite mediator's report

REGINA — Saskatchewan's labour relations minister is telling both sides in a bitter contract dispute at an oil refinery to figure it out themselves because he doesn't want to bring in legislation.

Refinery owner Federated Co-operatives Ltd. locked out about 700 unionized workers in early December at its Regina plant after they took a strike vote.

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The government appointed veteran labour mediator Vince Ready in February after weeks of unrest on picket lines as workers and supporters put up barriers to try to shut the plant down. Police made a number of arrests.

Ready released his recommendations last week and they were accepted by members of Unifor Local 594 in a vote on Monday.

The company said on the weekend it was unable to accept all the terms.

It has now tabled another offer that the union says includes "new, aggressive concessions."

Federated Co-operatives says the proposals are based on the mediation report but take into account the significant effects on the company's business of COVID-19 and declining oil prices.

"We have taken the recommendations in their (mediation) report and built on them," the company said in a Tweet on Thursday.

"Today, we have provided [Unifor 594] a fair and final offer."

Labour Relations Minister Don Morgan said he spoke to the company and the union and offered to have Ready meet with them again.

Morgan said he wants the two sides to resolve the dispute themselves.

"We've indicated binding arbitration is not within our legislative scope right now, nor do we think it should be," he said.

"We knew going into this, when we started to look at the different positions, that this was going to take awhile, that the parties were a long ways apart. They've made progress. They aren't there yet."

In its statement on the weekend, the company said it needed to "consider the stark world developments that are presently unfolding and their impacts to both our business reality and our ever-more critical responsibility to our multiple stakeholders."

It said a drastic decline in consumer use of fuel and quickly declining oil prices have put the refinery "in a more difficult financial position than when negotiations began."

The company wants to modify five areas of the mediator’s report, including recommendations involving the defined benefit plan and an employee savings plan.

Pensions have been at the heart of the dispute.

The union said the offer is anything but fair and wants the province to step in.

"Right from the beginning, we called for mediation to be binding, not a friendly suggestion for Co-op to ignore," Unifor national president Jerry Dias said in a news release.

"The province must introduce legislation to end this dispute and force this rogue employer to restore safe operation of Saskatchewan’s largest refinery."

The union said the modifications include a "significant reduction" in the company's pension responsibilities.

— With files from CTV Regina, CJME

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2020

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