A labour dispute between Federated Co-operatives Ltd., and unionized workers from FCL’s refinery in Regina was expected to spill into rural Saskatchewan this week, potentially delaying bulk fuel deliveries to farmers.
In a May 22 interview with The Western Producer, a spokesperson for the union that represents 730 locked-out refinery workers said unionized workers were planning to set up picket lines at six bulk fuel locations this week.
Unifor 549 president Kevin Bittman did not say where the picket lines would be located but said they could result in some delays for farmers who are running low on fuel and who depend on FCL for bulk deliveries.
Co-op cardlock fuel locations were not expected to be affected.
“Right now, our plan is just to (picket at) the bulk stations,” Bittman said.
“They’ll be scattered around the province. I don’t know the exact locations right now,” he added.
“We’re not trying to prevent any farmers from getting fuel but … I guess there could be (some disruptions)….
“Right now, as our plan sits, there are no cardlocks on the schedule.”
Unifor Local 594 represents about 730 workers at the refinery.
Workers have been locked out since last December when they rejected FCL’s final wage offer, which included payroll reductions and changes to workers’ pension plans.
FCL owns approximately 60 bulk fuel terminals across Saskatchewan.
Unifor’s picket lines are not intended to cause major interruptions to farmers’ spring seeding operations, Bittman said. They are aimed at getting Unifor’s message out to bulk fuel buyers that FCL refinery workers are still locked out, despite giving up what Bittman described as major concessions.
“We all come from farming communities and we all come from farming backgrounds. We understand that in Saskatchewan, what always drives the economy is farming,” he said.
“We don’t want to be where we are right now. We’re hitting the bulk stations … to let farmers know that we’re still out on lockout, we’re still on the picket line.”
Bittman said there is a misconception that Unifor picket lines at bulk fuel terminals are aimed at ensuring that no delivery trucks are allowed in or out.
“That’s not our intent,” he said.
“We know we have a fundamental right to picket … and to spread information and that’s what we intend to do.”
Earlier this month, Unifor issued on its website an “open letter to farmers,” saying it has no choice but to disrupt access to Co-op fuel outlets in hopes of getting back to work.
Since last December, FCL has continued to operate its Regina refinery using replacement workers, albeit at reduced capacity.
“We are in the fight of our lives and careers,” the union’s letter to farmers said.
Today marks day two of our informational pickets in rural Saskatchewan. You will see #Unifor594 out at Stenen, Pontrilas, Porcupine Plain, Meacham and Southey.#SupportUnifor594 #Ready2Work pic.twitter.com/FgJeqQkwyL
— Unifor 594 (@Unifor594) May 26, 2020
“We have attempted to end this dispute time and again, including accepting the mediators’ compromise with its huge rollbacks. Nothing has worked.
“We are in a position where disrupting the flow of fuel to farmers during seeding is the only option we have to get back to work. We do not want to do that, but our options are limited when the company does not want a deal.”
Earlier this month, the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan raised concerns about the potential for the FCL-Unifor labour dispute to affect rural fuel supplies in the province.
“Our members have a very short window in which to seed our 2020 crop,” APAS president Todd Lewis said in a May 8 news release.
“The very last thing that farmers need right now is to have seeding compromised by not being able to get fuel.”
In a recent interview with the Regina Leader Post, Lewis said Saskatchewan farmers should be left out of the dispute.
“I think there’s lots of opportunity for both sides to get their point across without disrupting farmers at such a critical time in their production cycle.”
Cam Zimmer, public relations and communications manager with FCL, said the company is confident in its ability to deliver fuel to farm customers in a timely manner. It is not aware of any significant delays affecting farm fuel deliveries, he added.