Manitoba’s brush with fuel shortages, thanks to an ongoing labour dispute, may be at an end.
On Feb. 7, Regina police took down blockades put up by locked out refinery employees around the Co-op Refinery Complex, Federated Co-operatives Ltd. announced Friday morning. Trucks were able to access two loading facilities, the company said, and fuel was being loaded and shipped.
On Feb. 5, Heritage Co-op tweeted that fuel at card locks was being rationed at 300 litres of diesel and 100 litres of gasoline per card per day due to blockades around the refinery. The message echoed service restrictions put in place across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
The co-op said that service to small communities with few alternatives for fuel would be prioritized.
Heritage Co-op later tweeted that their gas bars were “in real danger” of shortages.
The company services a region of southwestern Manitoba around Brandon.
In a Feb. 7 release, the Co-op Refinery Complex said they were “encouraged by the removal of the illegal barricades,” and “anticipates that the rule of law will continue to be upheld.”
CBC later reported that picketers could return to the cleared area once police had removed the barricades or anything that could be used to replace them.
Co-op gas supplies have been embroiled in the escalating dispute between Unifor Local 594, which represents workers at the refinery, and the Federated Co-operatives Ltd. (FCL), the company that owns the refinery, since late 2019.
The refinery locked out union employees in early December, after the union announced their intention to strike. Pensions, in particular, had became a flashpoint in negotiations, with the company arguing that anyone remaining under the old pension plan must also pay into it, while the union argued that the change in policy broke previous assurances the company made to its employees.
In mid-December, the union called for the public to boycott the company.
Conflicts escalated over the next two months, with union picketers eventually blocking access to the refinery. Several picketers have since been arrested, including Unifor national president Jerry Dias and Unifor negotiator Scott Doherty.
On Jan. 22, a Regina judge fined the union $100,000 for failing to abide by an earlier injunction that stated fuel trucks could not be blocked for more than 10 minutes.
On Feb. 6, Saskatchewan media reported that the company had asked a judge to impose another $1-million penalty, plus an extra $100,000 every day refinery access remains blocked and a jail sentence for two Unifor leaders.
The union, meanwhile, has called for an independent mediator from the province, “with the power to implement a collective agreement should the parties not reach a negotiated deal in seven days.”
“If Co-op truly believes that is it making a fair offer then it should have no issue negotiating with the assistance of a special mediator with a deadline and the power to resolve this lockout which they initiated,” Dias said in a release, “This is a clear path to end this right here, right now. The question is does Co-op Refinery (Complex) really want this to end?”
Manitoba farmers say they were starting to feel the shortages.
Jeff Hildebrandt, who farms in the Municipality of Montcalm, took to social media Feb. 7 to report that he could not get fuel to his farm.
“Found out yesterday (that) getting gas delivered to my farm may be a problem,” Greame Manness of Domain, Man., echoed, also on social media.
Manness noted that his farm uses the fuel daily to operate augers and conveyors.
Others, such as Andrew Dalgarno of Newdale, said they were filling farm fuel tanks in case of a shortage.
Brooke Rossnagel, who farms near MacGregor, argued that fuel disruption threatened feed shipments critical to both production and animal welfare in the livestock sector.
“Blocking the fuel trucks from the people, I think that’s gone above and beyond,” he said. “(It’s) basically stopping people from having their livelihood, because that fuel isn’t just coming to farmers; it’s coming to the truck transport; it’s coming to ambulances.”
Rossnagel further decried what he described as a lack of action on the part of federal and provincial elected officials.
“They need to start speaking on our part,” he said. “That’s what they get paid for.”
Likewise, he argued for more action from organizations like the Keystone Agricultural Producers.
Dianne Riding, who operates a cow-calf operation in Lake Francis, Man., suggested that livestock transportation companies would find an alternative company to source fuel from, if co-op shortages became an issue.
“It is a problem that they are limiting the amount of fuel, but because of the time of year that we are at, it’s not as huge a problem as if we were in haying season or if we were trying to, in the fall, haul our feedstuffs home,” she said.
The Manitoba Pork Council could not be reached for comment.