What does Co-op have planned for Refinery workers?

Co-op Refinery - aerial shot

At any given moment, dozens of skilled workers are operating the Co-op Refinery Complex (CRC) that sits in a large expanse of land on the northeast corner of Regina, upgrading and then boiling oil and condensing it into gasoline, diesel fuel, propane, and other products. Represented by Unifor 594, over 800 workers at the Refinery do 21 jobs across industrial and administrative occupations, including electrical, work, pipefitting, and accounting.

Currently, the union is in negotiations with Refinery representatives, who appear to be seeking aggressive and serious concessions on traditional union benefits such as job security and pensions.

Impressed by the local’s efforts to increase public awareness about their value to the Refinery, Co-op Members for Fairness reached out for an interview with Kevin Bittman, a refinery worker who holds the position of president of the union (a volunteer position).

This interview was conducted via email by D-Jay Krozser.

Kevin, what’s your role and typical day like at the Co-Op Refinery?

Kevin Bittman

I am a Master Operator in Section 2 of the Refinery. I am the senior person on a shift of seven operators that take direction from the management team to safely operate multiple processing units. Our team manages the equipment that primarily makes Gasoline, Propane and Butane. While safety is our overall priority in everything we do, our main function is to ensure the efficient operation of the processing units while managing any projects and maintenance work by our maintenance crews or contractors.

What is your position with Unifor and can you outline those duties?

I have been President of the Local since 2007. Everyone on our Executive work full time jobs at the Refinery, there are no full-time paid union positions. As elected volunteers, we must work as a team to run the Local, which happens mostly on our own time.

As President, it’s my role to make sure we are being accountable to the members for the work we do. The Executive works hard to keep the membership engaged and proud of the work our Union does.

Our Local has a long history of making sure our solidarity is strong well into the future through effective succession planning. We are always identifying the next leaders of the Local and providing them the education and mentorship they need, but also empowering these young leaders who do step up, to make decisions.

Can you outline the importance of a refinery worker with respect to contributions to your community, the economy and the safety of the public and of fellow workers?

Our members are very active not only in Regina but the surrounding communities. Our members sit on local boards, they’re your kids’ coaches, they volunteer with numerous local organizations, and really are out contributing every day in our communities.

We also are the key to keeping the community safe in how we run the Refinery. Our refinery neighbors several residential areas in Regina, so community safety and stewardship is very important to us. Because each function is integral to the overall operation, our 800+ workers cooperate as a team to ensure everyone is safe.

During the recent Saskatoon Co-Op AGM, it was noted that revenue transfer from FCL was a major part of the overall revenue of the Saskatoon Co-Op. How does the Co-Op upgrader and refinery fit into the overall structure of the cooperatives in Western Canada, and how are Co-Op members affected by FCL’s ownership of the Co-Op upgrader and refinery?

The Refinery is what keeps the system profitable. We have provided the majority of the profits for as long as I have worked at the refinery. It’s no secret that FCL’s energy sector is the golden goose.

Refinery workers have helped the Refinery & FCL achieve 75 years of record profits. The Refinery has never been in a situation where it has lost money. The same can’t be said for some of the other workplaces in our industry. That makes us unique, and I believe that’s solely due to the work of our members.

The Co-op retailing system is actually quite amazing; because it was designed to provide the best product and best service to its members. The profitability of the refinery allows that to happen (with its massive profits). The problem is that FCL has lost its way. One billion in profits in a year is not enough for them. Providing excellent product and service to the communities is not enough for them. They want to be a cooperative when it suits them and behave like a corporation at the bargaining table when they try to increase the bottom line from taking from the employees. I’m afraid Co-op has become more of a brand and less of the mindset that made us who we are.

Your local is currently in negotiations of a new bargaining agreement. How is that going?

The Company wants us to go backwards on our contract, and drastically change people lives, including retirement planning and security. We believe record profits should mean greater security for workers, not concessions. Not only do the workers deserve security, the workers have earned that security by keeping the refinery safe and profitable, but Company wants to take it away.

The Company claims to be bracing for tough times but keeps moving the needle on what defines tough times. According to them, we are never good enough. We say there will always be enough profits to respect Refinery workers.

During the Saskatoon Co-Op strike, we heard a lot from the CEO and board on how our Co-Op workers compare to the rest of retail industry. How do your wages and benefits compare to the rest of the energy industry? Can you outline what it means to be part of a national energy bargaining pattern.

The “National Pattern” is a system where all the energy workplaces within Unifor get together and bargain items that are issues in every workplace. While still competitors, this helps to keep our industry on a level playing field. A company of National significance will bargain with the National Union to set Term and Wage increase. This year the program also bargained language around helping employees deal with issues around domestic violence.

The “Industry” or “Industry Standard” is a term used by the company to chase the lowest common denominator. I really believe if you are always chasing others in the industry you will never be unique or better. I really believe that our refinery was unique, more efficient and better than others because we were a cooperative. It really allowed us to operate in ways that others could never do. By reverting to the Industry standard, we have lost our edge and have turned into being like everyone else.

"Did you know? 78% of Co-op Refinery workers enjoy our jobs but only 22% respect the Company. Many feel the Company has abandoned the cooperative values on which it was founded." - a recent Facebook post on the Unifor 594 page.
A recent post on the Unifor 594 Facebook page: “78% of Co-op Refinery workers enjoy our jobs, but only 22% respect the Company. Many feel the Company has abandoned the cooperative values on which it was founded.”

The co-op system should allow us to excel and separate us from our competitors when it comes to what matters, and that is providing quality, affordable products and services to every owner who buys a $5 membership. The Company is part of “the industry” in terms of what we make and do, sure, but does not have to play the industry game of profits are priority number #1, that’s not the coop way.

The company does not understand what they have in the workers in the co-op system. We are not like every other place in the industry. We have a mutual stake in the workplace and the system.

I noticed Unifor local 594 has launched a new campaign about refinery workers. Can you outline your campaign and what you hope to achieve?

"To help the community get to know us better, we are proud to answer 'Who is Unifor 594?'"
Stills from Unifor 594’s awareness campaign video.

The general public may not know that the fuel that keeps Western Canada running strong is made by the 800-plus dedicated workers of Unifor 594. So really, the campaign is about increasing public awareness about who we are, what we do, and the value we bring to the Refinery and the community. We are highly trained and highly experienced to deal with situations that have potential to be life or death. Our jobs cannot be done by just anyone.

Our slogan “Respect for Refinery Workers” is about valuing the people who work 24/7 365 days a year to keep the Refinery safe and profitable, who are active across the community. We are proud of our work and our Refinery; all we are asking for is respect for the work we do and what the Company has promised.

Have you been following Co-Op Members for Fairness, and if so, and what do you think of our organization? Do you have any suggestions? Is this something that we can move into the larger cooperative movement in Western Canada? Should we?

I think the organization has been needed for a long time. The Company has been dealing with Co-op employees as a group for years, but the workers and Co-op members have never really talked to each other. Being more organized and collaborating with other workers across the retailing system is a good way to combat the corporate greed and try to bring the Company back to its cooperative values. The Company has obviously lost its way prioritizing profits over people, and Co-op Members for Fairness should expand to hold our elected people accountable for the decisions being made.

Many of our Co-Op members, including myself, are also members of other cooperatives such as Sherwood Co-Op. As you know, Co-Op Members for Fairness ran 3 candidates for the board of directors of the Saskatoon Co-Op, and managed to get 2 of them elected with the intention to take back democratic control of the Saskatoon Co-Op. Have you tried anything like this, and would you suggest it to other Co-Operatives? Is that something that can and should be done elsewhere?

I think it is always important to get workers involved in politics and boards. We have let the business community hold these positions for way too long. These positions affect workers every day and we should not accept that we do not belong there.

We have always encouraged our people to participate in AGMs and support candidates that are friendly to the workers.

What do you want Co-Op members to know about refinery workers, and how can Co-Op Members for Fairness help you?

We hold the key to safety at the Refinery. We work in an extremely dangerous, highly volatile facility. A pipefitter said it to me best the other day, he said, “every time I go to do a job and open up flanges it has the potential to kill me. It’s either a flammable hydrocarbon or a toxin or poison. I rely on the expertise and experience of the process operators isolating equipment, and my other fellow workers to help me get home safe to my family each night.”

We value the co-op system and what it provides to communities. We are proud of our work and our Refinery and see ourselves as an integral part of the system. We value being part of the system and we have a vested interest in ensuring its cooperative values are retained well into the future. We are highly trained experienced to deal with situations that have the potential to be life or death. Our jobs can’t be done by just anyone.

We are always proposing ways to better utilize the people and resources we do have. Cooperatives do not exist to rake in massive profits; they exist to reduce prices to customers while providing the best possible service. When the Refinery pumps hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars into the Co-op retailing system, the Company should value the workers who make that possible.

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