The union that represents 730 oil and gas workers at Federated Co-op’s oil refinery in Regina, Sask. says interrupting the fuel supply to farms during seeding is “the only option we have to get back to work.”
Unifor 594 has written an open letter to farmers, explaining the union’s rationale for once again limiting the availability of fuel.
“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,” says the union.
Fuel supplies at many Co-op gas stations and cardlocks across the prairies were rationed in early February as the union blocked truck traffic in and out of the refinery and other Co-op fuel terminals.
Picket lines have popped up again this month at Co-op fuel sites, as the labour dispute has escalated.
The Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) sounded the alarm after a picket line made it difficult for farmers to access a Co-op site in Moose Jaw.
“Our members have a very short window in which to seed our 2020 crop, and this year many producers are still racing to complete their 2019 harvest,” noted APAS President Todd Lewis, who farms near Gray, Sask. “In the face of COVID-19, we’re already dealing with a very tenuous food supply situation in Canada and around the world. The very last thing that farmers need right now is to have seeding compromised by not being able to get fuel.”
Many farmers also rely on cardlock stations as their primary source of fuel, he noted.
“In many cases farmers replenish their fuel supply daily and traveling long distances to avoid picket lines is not an option,” he continued. “This is not a matter of convenience. It’s been a cool wet spring in many areas, and producers are watching their window for optimum seeding conditions start to close.”
Meanwhile, on May 17, the union published an anonymous letter that appears to be a bomb threat regarding the blockades in February. The alarming letter, which was addressed to the RCMP and Regina Police and acquired by the union via a Freedom of Information request, purports to be from farmers saying they would set off explosives near picket lines if police did not intervene.
“We farmers have always had issues with beavers dams on our land — and we know how to get rid of them with some special products — that usually blow the dams in all directions,” says the letter. “We have already set up some special mixes — and have them set in place at some of these gates, pallets and gates may start flying. Only a cell phone call away from Ignition Time.”
While police haven’t said the threat was real, the union is questioning why it wasn’t previously informed about it.
One of the initial reasons for the labour dispute was Co-op’s proposal to have refinery employees begin contributing a portion of their salaries to their pension. After a failed attempt to reach a mediated settlement, Unifor members voted 89 per cent against the contract that Co-op called its “best and final” offer in late April.
The refinery is currently operating at a reduced level in response to low oil prices and reduced demand for gasoline as a result of COVID-19. Co-op announced in mid-April that it was reducing daily production from the normal level of up to 120 thousand barrels down to 90 thousand barrels per day.