ILWU/GSU delegation visits Unifor Local 594 picket line

Foreground: ILWU Canada president Rob Ashton on the Unifor Local 594 picket line.

On Jan. 25, ILWU Canada president Rob Ashton led a delegation to visit the Unifor Local 594 picket line at the Federated Cooperative Limited (FCL) refinery in Regina.  Ashton was accompanied by five ILWU Canada members from the Vancouver area and GSU general secretary Hugh Wagner.

“The purpose of our visit was to bring solidarity greetings to the Unifor 594 members who are on the line to defend their hard won pension benefits against the efforts of an aggressive employer,” Wagner said. “Unifor’s brave stand has rallied the labour movement across the country. I was proud to stand with Rob Ashton and members of the ILWU Canada family as he brought best wishes from more than 15,000 members in Canada.”

GSU members employed by Viterra went through much of the same thing when their employer decided it wanted to be done with union members’ defined benefit pension plan.

Much like FCL today, Viterra had convinced a GSU bargaining committee to agree to exclude future hires from joining the defined benefit pension plan and promised that it would guarantee the pensions earned under the defined benefit pension plan.

Only a few years later, Viterra said it no longer wanted to stand behind its pension guarantees and proposed to wind up the defined benefit pension plan thereby cutting the pensions of pensioners and the earned pensions of active employees by up to 22 percent. GSU fought Viterra and won, but it was a grueling and expensive battle.

FCL’s propaganda about employee contributions is a red herring. The FCL pension plan for refinery workers in Regina is one of the promises made by the employer as part of the give and take of their collective bargaining relationship.

In 1979 FCL set up an employer controlled and funded defined benefit pension plan in addition to an employee savings plan. FCL did not ask employees to contribute to the pension plan and in turn it had control over the plan including the ability to make investment decisions and determine how investment surpluses were deployed.

FCL proposed the defined benefit pension plan that it now wants to dump in order to attract and retain qualified workers in a labour market that was highly competitive and in a work environment that highly technical, dangerous and stressful. These were FCL ideas and proposals to the union. This was not an arrangement that the union foisted on or extracted from FCL.

FCL never took issue with the design of its pension plan until 2017 when it convinced the Unifor local to agree to exclude new hires from the defined benefit (DB) pension plan and have them participate in a defined contribution (DC) pension plan. Unifor members concede that they made a mistake on this issue in 2017, but relied on FCL’s promise that all those who remained in the DB plan would do so for the rest of their employment.

What FCL is saying this time around, is that all Unifor members at the refinery must move to a DC pension plan and/or that those who want to remain in the DB plan should have to pay all of the supposed 11.5% wage increase being offered into the DB plan in addition to eliminating their company sponsored joint savings plan worth another 6.5% of employees’ pay; all in return for a significantly inferior pension calculation formula and the removal of employer pension backstop guarantees.

It seems FCL has become accustomed to throwing its weight around. After all, it was FCL that was behind the six-month strike/lockout over two-tier wages at the Saskatoon Co-op. It was FCL that was behind the 17-week strike over wages at the Wynyard Co-op several years ago. And it is FCL that seems to run the show at each of GSU’s bargaining tables with Discovery Co-op (North Battleford), Lake Country Co-op (P.A.), Lloydminster Co-Op and Prairie Co-op (Cupar and Strasbourg).

“Unifor has always been a strong force for good in the workplace and I urge every GSU member to do whatever they can to support Unifor Local 594 at the FCL refinery in Regina,” Wagner said.