Workers at a cooperative refinery walk the picket line

Workers at the Co-operative Refinery Complex in Regina, Saskatchewan have been locked out for two weeks, after serving the employer with job action notice. Both the union and the refinery have a unique structure and a radical history. As this excellent article from Doug Nesbitt and Andrew Stevens details, the refinery was founded by farmers “to produce and deliver affordable oil to farmers and other consumers” in “an ambitious act of democratic self-reliance.” For its part, the union has always been a hub of radical worker self-activity, and still has no paid staff.

Marianne Garneau interviewed Kevin Bittman, a refinery worker and volunteer President of their union, Unifor Local 594, about the lockout, the union, and what they’re fighting for.

So you’ve been locked out since early December?

Since December 5th.

We put up pickets that night and we’ve been running them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The company just filed an injunction. We were holding the trucks up pretty good. But now there is an order that we can only hold them for five minutes.

We asked for an adjournment since they filed 26 affidavits and we didn’t have time to go over them all. But the judge gave an interim order.

What are some of the issues? What’s the impasse at the table?

The company is looking to change all existing people who are on a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan.

Three years ago we made a concession to change all new hires to a defined contribution plan. Since then, the company has made $2.5bn, and yet they came into bargaining this time wanting more.

We said if they made it an option, we would do that. But we would want to grandfather people on the defined benefit plan.

The Co-op wasn’t interested in that. The company did offer that people could stay on the defined benefit plan, but would have to pay in 11%. Right now they pay zero.

On top of paying 11% to stay in the defined benefit plan, the formula would change from a multiplier of 2% to 1.75%, with the loss of indexing going forward [Ed note: a multiplier is how a pension benefit amount is calculated, relative also to total earnings and years of service; “indexing” refers to increasing the income stream over time, so that pension payments are not swallowed by inflation] which would take hundreds of thousands out of workers’ pensions.

In year 1, the company will give us a 2.5% raise but we will have to pay 11% into our pension, plus the elimination of a savings plan, that takes 6.5% out of our pockets. So our take-home pay would be 15% less.

So employees would have to go back 15% and have half the pension they used to have.

We feel that they did this on purpose.

What do you mean?

I think it’s just power. They don’t like the union and think the union has too much power. It’s a union-busting tactic. There’s no worker that’s going to accept a deal that goes 15% back after record profits. Let alone having half the pension at the end.

How long has the union had a presence there?

77 years. It was the first unionized refinery plant in Canada, in 1942. The plant was opened 5 years earlier.

How many members?

730. They work six-hour days, from 6am to noon, and then there are 12-hour night shifts.

The company has been helicoptering in workers?

That started day three of the lockout. They are up to probably 10-15 [helicopters] a day, bringing in parts and people.

The ironic thing is they say they need these changes for sustainability. They made a billion dollars two years in a row. They talk sustainability but day three of the lockout, they helicopter people in.

How many scabs have they brought in?

The process department employs 85-90 every day on site. That’s one section, and there are six or seven different sections.

They replaced 285 people with 120 replacement workers – managers, scabs, engineers. They’re just barely holding on.

Is the plant such that it can’t be shut down?

We did get a job action notice, as we offered to shut things down before we left, and the company said no that.

I heard a rumor that trades people are respecting your picket line?

Most of rest of the labor movement has honored our picket lines and not crossed. A few rogue members have crossed and are in there doing our work.

How about the trucks that have been stopped?

The drivers are super supportive, but the Saskatchewan Truckers Association / owners made a big spectacle of it.

I understand that your local doesn’t have a lot of paid staff and is basically run by the members?

We are all of us full-time in the refinery. No paid positions, nobody off full-time. We run it as a volunteer kind of thing. Nobody’s in the office.

We are under the umbrella of Unifor Canada. But our local is self-sufficient. We run our own money. We set dues to the national, but locally we run everything ourselves. Put on our own training courses. We’re getting big enough that we could have full-time paid positions, but we like to keep it this way. You get people actually looking out for everybody instead of politicians running the local. They have skin in the game. There has been talk about when do we go with full-time positions, but we have been pushing back against that.

We have 38 stewards in the plant and no openings for positions.

The people who came before us set it up so that we are strong. We have 730 members and 729 are taking part in the pickets. You walk out on picket lines, and people have lost their paycheck, but they are happier than they have ever been. People are talking about family and forming friendships for life.

Tell me more about how the union works, because that’s very unusual. When and where do you meet?

We have a hall that we work out of when we need it. But for the most part nobody is in it. I am still the elected president so I run the meetings, and the elected recording secretary takes notes. We just all have full-time jobs at the plant.

We have all sorts of working hours so they are usually at 5pm. The executive is the president, VP (four [of them]), treasurer, recording secretary, trustees, and stewards. They attend the exec meeting and the members attend the generals.

We have our own bylaws and policies that dictate how we run our local and anything else is through motions at general meetings. We have an executive meeting the week before the general to decide the agenda for the general. Issues in the plant, grievances, etc. Meetings happen monthly.

How did your predecessors set you up so that you could continue that system?

They just worked hard at mentorship and training the next leaders to ensure that the tradition of running our local with grassroots rank-and-file workers continues. We make sure we give the younger members the tools to take on responsibility and make some decisions. Keeps everyone empowered and strong.

Training is anything from human rights, grievance handling, crisis management, critical conversations, case law. More dealing with the CBA and handling problems. Some training is put on by the National union as well.

We do have some fiscal management to make sure we are transparent with the finances. We have our own strike fund that we operate as well. Obviously in this situation the National union body helps out quite a bit. But day-to-day, we handle things.

Have you been on strike before?

We were minutes away from getting locked out last time. Three years ago the company also built a camp to house workers to run the plant.

In 77 years, we’ve never had a labor disruption, before this.

We’re finding out we work for a disgusting company. They’re doing everything they can to hurt us.

Is this the only Co-op refinery in the province?

It’s the only Co-op refinery in Canada, and was the first cooperative refinery. 85 years ago, farmers were tired of getting doused by big oil, so they formed their own skimming plant.

It’s pretty funny because this is the third strike or lockout in last year for the Co-op. They had a couple grocery stores and gas stations – retailers, as they call them. They had two other lockouts. They’re more or less trying to two-tier everything. They’re losing their coop values. The reason people love working at the Co-op is because a person can start working as a gas jockey and work their way up to general manager. Now the Co-op is trying to be like everybody else.

And they treat the union like shit.

They’re definitely out for themselves. When it comes to bargaining, they’re like everyone else.

We were totally fine – we came into bargaining to offer the status quo. The concession we offered [before] was a huge concession for us. We’re not being greedy here. 15% in first year and half their pension after that – that’s unacceptable.

Any final thoughts?

We are not the typical union and I love the group that we have. I always say we are probably the best 730 workers you will find in one place. We work hard and are extremely dedicated to the good work we do. This is why this is so crazy, the company is literally throwing it all away.