Co-op Refinery employees locked out over protracted pension dispute

Eight hundred unionized employees of Regina-based Co-op Refinery remain locked out after contract negotiations stalled.

The refinery, which is part of Federated Co-operatives Ltd., locked out members of Unifor Local 594 on Dec. 5. Unifor said Co-op is demanding major concessions on the employees’ defined benefit pension.

Currently, the DB plan is fully funded by Co-op, but the company wants employees to begin paying 11 per cent of total contributions. It also wants to reduce the benefit multiplier from two to 1.75 per cent and cut the indexing maximum for retirees from five to three per cent.

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Scott Doherty, Unifor’s executive assistant to the national president and the union’s lead negotiator, says the concessions are in contrast to the company’s promise during the last contract negotiation two years ago. At the time, both parties agreed all new employees would join a new  defined contribution plan.

“When we did that, [Co-op] said that they were never going to come after our defined benefit pension plan. This round of bargaining, that’s what they’ve done.”

Doherty estimates between 600 and 650 union members are still in the DB plan, with the remainder in the new DC plan, which has a contribution rate of four per cent for both employee and employer.

Read: VIA Rail, Unifor collective bargaining includes strengthening pension plan

During the current round of negotiations, the union suggested that DB plan members be allowed to move into the DC plan, says Doherty, noting the option wasn’t available under the existing collective agreement.

“The employer’s position from the get-go was to eliminate the DB plan entirely . . . and that’s where they wanted to go, but we weren’t prepared to go there,” he says. “But we were prepared to say, on a one-time basis, it does make some sense that some of our younger members may choose to go to a DC plan and take care of their own retirement fund if they chose to do that. But we were always saying we needed the protection, and the choice had to be there.”

Doherty says Co-op agreed to the one-time ask, but also came back with proposed changes to the DB plan. “It was almost like they said, ‘We get it. Some people want to stay in a DB plan. We’ll allow them to choose to stay. . . . But if they choose to stay, here’s the conditions going forward,’ which is essentially gutting the DB plan. So that’s not really a choice.”

Read: University of Saskatchewan support workers closer to strike over DB pension changes

When Co-op implemented the lockout, it said in a statement that the purpose was to “ensure the safety and reliability” of the refinery so it could remain operational and “protect the Western Canadian fuel supply.”

In a separate statement on Dec. 15, the company said Unifor’s call for a boycott “comes as no surprise, but it is disappointing.” The company also disputed the union’s claims as misleading and said it had offered a fair deal, including an 11.75 per cent wage increase, a performance bonus plan and “pension choice.”

“The CRC is only asking that employees now begin to pay into their pension like almost every other Canadian with a company-provided pension plan.”

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