REGINA — Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe says he's prepared to appoint a special mediator to an intensifying contract dispute at a Co-op oil refinery, but only if the union removes its barricades.
Moe says he believes a negotiated settlement between Unifor and refinery owner Federated Co-operatives Ltd. is the best option to end the dispute at the refinery in Regina.
The company locked out more than 700 workers in early December after the union issued strike notice. Negotiations had resumed but broke down Friday and Unifor re-erected its barricades, which it had removed before bargaining.
The premier said the blockade is illegal and is restricting the flow of fuel to communities across the province.
"That just isn't going to work," Moe said after a speech at the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association convention.
Federated Co-operatives CEO Scott Banda said parts of Saskatchewan and southern Alberta are most likely to be the areas affected if fuel runs scarce.
"We’re talking days," he said of potential shortages.
"Realistically, there’s only four refineries in Western Canada and as long as we’re blockaded, you’re taking a quarter of the production out of the orbit, Banda said. "As a result, it is foreseeable if this illegal activity continues that product won’t move and there will be outages."
He says there are millions of litres of fuel waiting at the refinery to be transported.
Unifor has said the company isn't bargaining in good faith and rejected a recent proposal that included $20 million in pension savings. Pensions are one of the key issues in the dispute.
Scott Doherty, executive assistant to Unifor's national president, took to Twitter on Monday to say the refinery owner is blaming the union for a fuel shortage, even though the company locked out workers.
Over the last few weeks, labour leaders from across Canada have voiced their support for the workers. Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, whose party has announced it will table "anti-scab legislation" in Parliament, visited the picket line Monday.
Unifor has been urging the premier to force both sides into binding arbitration, but that's not being considered at this point, Moe said.
NDP Opposition Leader Ryan Meili said the government should look at binding arbitration if the special mediator fails. "This has been going on too long," he said.
Moe noted a special mediator would have broader powers than the mediator who was appointed last fall, but could not compel the parties to bargain.
During his speech to municipal leaders, Moe said there has been an unwillingness on both sides to bargain in good faith and the contract dispute has devolved into illegal activity.
"This is not the Saskatchewan way," the premier said.
If the union doesn't remove the barriers, Moe said he expects police to enforce a court order that limits how long those on the picket line can hold up refinery traffic.
"It’s frustrating for us," said Banda.
The company went to court to get an interim and then a full court order, then back again for a contempt hearing where a judge fined Unifor $100,000, he said.
"Still we sit here today with this illegal blockade," he said.
"It’s frustrating and it should be a concern for every business in this province and in this country that someone like Unifor determines when the law is to be applied."
Regina Mayor Michael Fougere says the chief of police has discretion over how officers handle the situation.
"We want the court order upheld, but in doing what they're going to be doing when they do act, public safety is absolutely critical."
The Regina Police Service said it's concerned about the blockade and believes a court application set for later this week will be the best option to end it.
"For the effective functioning of a democracy, police must be independent of elected officials," spokeswoman Elizabeth Popowich said in a statement.
"There are ways to hold people accountable for their illegal actions without resorting to criminal law remedies that may escalate matters, resulting in violence."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2020