Regina Co-op refinery employees locked out by management

Approximately 800 unionized employees of Regina's Co-op Refinery Complex are now locked out.

A news release from refinery officials says the lockout is necessary to ensure safe operation at the plant.

The lockout, which started at 5:30 p.m., comes after refinery employees voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike last month. Unifor subsequently issued a 48-hour strike notice late Tuesday afternoon.

Kevin Bittman, president of Unifor Local 594, expressed concern about employees who are filling in for workers who are on strike. He said many of the substitute employees had been shadowing their counterparts for the past few weeks to learn their jobs in preparation of job action. 

"They may be highly trained but not in the jobs they're going to be doing once we're locked out," he said. 

He called the job shadowing "uncomfortable" for the union's employees.

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In a statement issued Tuesday after strike notice was given, refinery vice president of operations Gil Le Dressay, also expressed concerns about safety.

"A 48-hour strike notice creates an unsafe operating environment for the refinery," he said in the statement. "It is vital to the safety of our operation that we control the timeline of labour action."

No one from the refinery was available for an interview Thursday.

Public's safety could be at risk, says professor 

Sean Tucker, an occupational health and safety professor at the University of Regina, echoed Bittman's concerns about the inexperience of temporary workers and said fatigue could also add risk.

"If you're fatigued, you're not as sharp as you usually are," he said. "A combination of inexperience and fatigue with a situation that requires a quick response to lock things down, then you have added risk of a small incident getting larger."

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Tucker noted there are regulations in place to ensure the safety of employees and the public. He said inspectors from the Ministry of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety have been instructed to visit the refinery to ensure compliance during the strike. 

He said future labour impasses need to be resolved in ways other than employees going on strike in order to ensure the community's safety.

Pension plans sticking point in negotiations 

Currently, Unifor employees of the refinery have a defined benefit pension plan. As part of the arrangement, employees don't have to contribute a portion of their salary to their pension. 

The refinery gave employees the choice of moving to a defined contribution pension plan, where they would contribute to their pensions, or staying with the defined benefit plan. The caveat of staying with that plan, the refinery said in a Dec. 3 news release, would be that employees would need to start contributing money to their plans.

"Most CRC [Co-op Refinery Complex] unionized workers, unlike most Canadians, have never had to contribute to their pension plan," said Le Dressay in the release. "Unfortunately, that just isn't sustainable any longer and we have to ask them to at least contribute to their plan."

Scott Doherty, the executive assistant to Unifor national president Jerry Dias, said he feels the company has the capacity to contribute to their employees' pension plans.

"This employer [made] $2.5 billion in the last three years," said Doherty. "There's no reason this employer can't afford to continue to make the pension contributions that it does."