Unifor, Co-op end months-long pension dispute with new collective agreement

Saskatchewan refinery workers have ratified a tentative agreement with Federated Co-operatives Ltd., bringing an end to a half-year labour dispute over the company’s defined benefit pension plan.

The new seven-year collective agreement for Unifor Local 594 members, who voted 89 per cent in favour, will maintain the DB pension plan and the employer-matched employee savings plan for existing workers. Wage improvements are also included in the agreement.

Unifor declined Benefits Canada‘s request for comment, citing a need to prepare for the return to work.

Read: Saskatchewan NDP calling for binding mediation to end Unifor, Co-op pension dispute

However, Jerry Dias, the union’s national president, said in a press release that members and their bargaining committee held firm throughout a difficult, protracted negotiation process.  “In the end, we were successful in protecting their retirement security and in achieving the national wage pattern, but this result could have been reached far earlier if the mediator recommendations had been enforced by Premier Scott Moe.”

The 730 workers have been locked out since December, when they voted to strike to protest the Co-op’s proposed pension changes. Historically, the DB plan was fully funded by the employer, but it wanted employees to begin paying 11 per cent of total contributions. It also wanted 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.

“This was the first, and hopefully last, work stoppage in our local’s 78 years of faithfully providing the Co-op Refinery with our dedicated labour,” said Kevin Bitterman, president of Unifor Local 594, in the release. “It will be hard going back into the workplace for some of us, but we will do it with our heads held high because we stood in solidarity for one another. This has been the toughest period in our history, but we will be stronger because of it.”

In late March, Unifor accepted the recommendations of a province-appointed mediator, which would have seen employees in the DB plan contribute up to eight per cent to the pension by February 2022, among other changes.

Read: Unifor accepts mediator’s recommendations around Co-op pension changes

The Co-op rejected the mediator’s recommendations, citing its “responsibility to our employees, our co-op owners, our customers and the broader communities that depend on the long-term sustainability of the [company],” and tabled what it called its “final offer” on March 29. That proposal would have had employees contributing eight per cent by February 2021, one year earlier than suggested, and sharing current services costs 50-50 by February 2022, which Unifor said would mean employees would contribute 11.7 per cent to the plan.

In a press release, the Co-op said the new collective agreement “strikes a much-needed balance between the company’s appreciation for our unionized employees and the fiscal realities of the refining sector,” noting it would help ensure a sustainable future for the company.

“This deal is about competitiveness within the refining industry and long-term sustainability,” said Gil Le Dressay, vice-president of refinery operations, in the release. “It’s about ensuring that we continue to be an economic engine and that we provide good jobs for this city and this province for generations to come. Our industry is changing and we have only begun to see how new regulatory requirements and external pressures are going to shape our industry’s future. We all need to recognize that these changes are imminent. We are better off facing that future as partners as we work together to achieve our collective goals and interests.”

Read: Unifor decries Co-op’s ‘final offer’ on pension, files unfair labour practices complaint