REGINA — For Dean Funke, getting hired at Regina’s Co-op oil refinery felt like winning the lottery.
“For a blue-collar worker, you can’t get better than the refinery. And it’s always been that way,” he told The Canadian Press.
Born and raised in Saskatchewan’s capital, Funke had worked in Alberta’s oilpatch but the refinery job allowed him to stay home and put down roots.
Nearly a decade later, the process-operator-turned-picket-captain wonders what he might do next as a dragging labour dispute between the refinery and his union nears the six-month mark.
“They’re hard conversations. What do we do now? Go get another skill, I guess, is my option, so go back to school?” he said.
About 700 unionized workers were locked out by refinery owner, Federated Co-operatives Ltd., on Dec. 5 after they took a strike vote.
One of the most contentious issues were proposed changes to employee pensions because of costs to the company.
On Saturday, Unifor blamed Co-op’s use of scab labour at the facility for an incident last week where the company confirmed sludge from a pond at the refinery entered Regina’s sewer system.
An email from FCL spokesman Brad DeLorey said its early investigation determined that “strong and sustained winds” leading up to May 22 stirred up sediments in the pond, which resulted in “a discharge of sludge into the sewage system.”
The email said the city has indicated “everything is back to normal” and that there was no threat to the environment or the public.
No one with the City of Regina could be immediately reached for comment on Saturday.
Over the winter, Unifor members blocked access to the refinery, which led to fines, court hearings and police arrests. Mischief charges were laid against 14 people, including the union’s national president, Jerry Dias.
“Negotiators from FCL have indicated they are prepared for prolonged job action,” reads a briefing note prepared for Saskatchewan’s deputy minister of labour relations earlier this year. It was released to The Canadian Press under freedom-of-information legislation.
About 200 replacement workers and 350 managers are keeping the plant running, said the company.
“Co-op won’t return to the table unless Unifor removes the barricades, i.e stops breaking the law. Unifor won’t remove the barricades unless the Co-op removes all replacement workers. I think they call that a Mexican standoff,” a labour relations official wrote in an email at the time.
Premier Scott Moe appointed veteran labour mediator Vince Ready, who made recommendations that were accepted by workers, but not the company.
In turn, the refinery owner put forward its final offer, which members rejected.
Scott Walsworth, a business professor at the University of Saskatchewan who is also an arbitrator, said he believes the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown has swung the pendulum of public support towards the company.
The refinery has cut oil production because of low prices and a drop in demand, and Walsworth said it makes it a convenient time not to be paying employees.
“It’s hard to manufacture sympathy in this kind of a climate, when so many people are out of work,” he said.
On the other hand, he said the crisis has also created expectations for employers to be sympathetic and not to put profits before people.
DeLorey said in a statement the company hopes Unifor reconsiders the final offer, which he said exceeds compensation at other Canadian refineries.
Unifor Local 594 president Kevin Bittman said the company’s demands have been met and there’s nothing left to bargain. He also rejected the company’s explanation for last week’s spill.
“I’ve worked at the refinery for 23 years, and windy conditions are not abnormal in Saskatchewan, so Mr. DeLorey’s explanation doesn’t have merit. There is more to this than just weather,” Kevin Bittman, Unifor Local 594 president, said in a news release.
Walsworth said under provincial labour laws, the government can’t force a private employer into binding arbitration unless the case can be made that society is in danger.
If the refinery owner says its equipment and those living around the plant are safe — and without evidence to prove otherwise — ”it’s a pretty tough case to make that the government should step in.”
The premier has called the dispute a fight between a private company and a union, and has rejected the idea.
NDP Leader Ryan Meili, however, said last week’s spill shows the lockout is putting lives and vital infrastructure at risk.
“For the sake of public safety if nothing else, it’s time for Scott Moe to show leadership and bring this damaging dispute to an end,” Meili said in a statement.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2020.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press