Written by Ronni Nordal, Q.C.
Unifor Canada, Local 594 (“Unifor Local 594”) members have been locked out by their employer, Consumer’s Co-operative Refineries Limited (“CCRL”), since December 5, 2019. CCRL has continued to carry on its operations using replacement workers who are housed on site in a camp which the City of Regina has requested be assessed by the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
CCRL sought regressive changes to long standing collective agreement provisions including the defined benefit pension plan; removing restrictions on management rights regarding minimum numbers of maintenance workers and doing away with the employee savings plan. CCRL claimed these changes were required to cut costs and increase efficiency.
As was noted in my article published on Canadian Law of Work Forum on March 11, 2020, the Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan issued an injunction order limiting the ability of Unifor Local 594 to block entrance or exist from the Refinery to a maximum of 10 minutes unless the individual requested to be let through. A complete blockade was established by Unifor Local 594, ultimately coming down after a second contempt order was issued by the Court.
Although the Saskatchewan Employment Act does not contain a provision for binding arbitration, Unifor 594 asked the Government of Saskatchewan to order the dispute be determined by binding arbitration.
On February 12, 2020, Vince Ready and Amanda Rodgers were appointed as Special Mediators pursuant to s. 6-28 of the Saskatchewan Employment Act to “investigate, mediate and report to the minister” on the labour dispute between CCRL and Unifor Local 594. The Saskatchewan government could have ordered that the mediators’ report was binding so as to ensure a clear end to this troubling lockout, but it opted instead to make assign the mediators only the authority to make “recommendations”.
The Report of the special mediators was released on March 19 with 10 recommendations including significant amendments to the defined benefit pension plan and removal of the minimum number of maintenance workers.
On March 20, Unifor Local 594 advised it would be recommending acceptance of the Special Mediators’ recommendations in order to bring the dispute to an end. However, on March 22, CCRL stated it was “unable to accept the special mediators’ recommendations in full” and that it “will need to make modifications out of our responsibility to our employees, our co-op owners, our customers and the broader communities that depend on the long-term sustainability of the CRC.”
After pointing to changing global economic circumstances, which clearly refers to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CCRL purports to be committed to reaching a fair deal and indicates it will be presenting an offer to Unifor Local 594 in the coming days.
The Special Mediators specifically commented on what they saw as the cost savings effect of their recommendations:
“Our recommendations with respect to the pension plan and operational efficiencies sought by the Employer go a long way to meeting the cost savings and efficiency targets sought by the Employer in bargaining. Put bluntly, implementation of our recommendations would result in significant cost savings for the Employer.”
It appears that CCRL is not committed to reach a fair deal, it is committed to reaching the deal it wants and one has to question whether the deal it wants includes an ongoing relationship with Unifor Local 594.
It is important to remember that this is not a strike, it is a lock-out, and the CCRL has been operational throughout due to there being no prohibition on the use of replacement workers in Saskatchewan. The fact that replacement workers are being housed together in a work camp during a global COVID outbreak adds a bizarre and dangerous twist to the story. The actions Unifor Local 594 took to exert economic pressure on CCRL in order to achieve a fair collective agreement were declared illegal by the Court of Queen’s Bench.
The ability of CCRL to continue its operations through the use of replacement workers knowing the courts will restrict any effective picketing has emboldened this employer to ignore the recommendations of Special Mediators and to continue to leave the employees it says it cares about locked-out at the same time as housing replacement workers in close quarters during the COVID-19 pandemic. It appears the only thing CCRL cares about is getting what it wants.
Ronni A. Nordal, “Saskatchewan’s Labour Laws Allow Co-op Refinery to Reject Mediators’ Recommendations, Prolong Lockout” Canadian Law of Work Forum (March 23 2020): http://lawofwork.ca/saskatchewans-labour-laws-allow-co-op-refinery-to-reject-mediators-recommendations-prolong-lockout/
 The full mediator report can be found at the bottom of the story linked here: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/special-mediator-recommendations-fcl-unifor-1.5506135