Canadian Refinery Workers Face an Unjust Transition

12 Min Read

July 27, 2021

Emily Eaton is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Regina.

Dr. Andrew Stevens is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina. Andrew is currently serving his second term as a Regina City Councillor.

Sean Tucker is an Associate Professor of Occupational Health and Safety in the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina.

There is growing momentum for a world-wide energy transition. Signs of a shift are coming increasingly from mainstream actors, including governments, corporate capital, and international organizations. For example, a growing number of jurisdictions across the world are raising their interim commitments to GHG reductions and affirming a net-zero emissions target by 2050 at the latest. In a recent report, the International Energy Agency considered pathways to net-zero emissions and found that no new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure are needed. Instead, the agency suggested, three quarters of current fossil fuel production and use should be phased out by 2050. Financial institutions, too, are starting to account for climate-related risks and report the emissions of the activities they are financing.

But these are early days in the transition to low carbon economies, with all sorts of players jockeying to define how fast and how deeply we will transition, as well as who will profit and who will pay along the way. In Canada, we could have an unplanned, unmanaged transition where factions of capital (this time green or greenwashed) lead us into the illusion of a net-zero future through mystifying accounting schemes that selectively (and deceptively?) measure and trade carbon sinks and emissions while enriching a small elite. Or we could have a planned and just transition, one that improves the lives of those who have been left out of carbon economies and that helps to transition fossil fuel workers and their communities to dignified post-carbon futures. In the first unplanned and unjust transition, climate change is viewed as a threat to profitability, with governments and capital adjusting their practices so they can carry on business as usual or even exploit new green opportunities. In a just transition, economies are re-oriented to arrest global heating and to support people, and business as usual is understood as a risk to the climate and our collective futures.[1]

In a just transition, economies are re-oriented to arrest global heating and to support people, and business as usual is understood as a risk to the climate and our collective futures.

Our current research on the struggle of oil refinery workers (organized through Unifor Local 594) in Regina, Saskatchewan provides an example of the first scenario. In a forthcoming collection of essays, we show how the Co-op Refinery Complex (CRC) is using the rhetoric of the coming low carbon economy to break the refinery workers union, lay off workers, and decrease operating costs. In a February 2021 memo to employees, the CRC announced it is “embarking on a major transition as we look to meet the demands of the low-carbon economy...Our entire Co-op system, from Refinery to Retail, will need to work together to take on the challenges and to capitalize on the opportunities that lay ahead.” The company’s sincerity in pursuing a green transition is, however, questioned by both the union and the membership. For example, while the CRC boasts about its “award winning” Wastewater Improvement Project to recycle 65 per cent of its wastewater, workers report that the facility is sitting idle while hydrocarbons are dumped into Regina’s sewer system.

Members of Local 594 interviewed as part of this study identified the central thrust of the CRC’s low-carbon strategy as cutting costs and finding efficiencies, with at least as much interest in reducing labour costs as emissions. They believe that the CRC sees breaking the union as part of its transition to a low-carbon economy. Members report that the company had no intention of bargaining in good faith when the latest round of negotiations began, amid record profits, in 2019. The company insisted on significant concessions, especially to pensions, and brought nothing to the table. Members believe the company was aiming to force concessions after a punishing strike or lockout that would make workers skeptical about the benefits of unionization. By December 2019, after reaching an impasse, the union served the company with the required 48-hours’ notice of job action. The company responded by declaring a lockout on the eve of the holiday season. The details of the lockout are historic, and not only because much of it played out during a global pandemic. The company, with the approval of the municipal government, quickly erected an on-site labour camp and used helicopters to fly in replacement workers over the picket line. The provincial courts imposed sweeping anti-picketing injunctions, police repressed demonstrations and arrested members of the Local and of Unifor National, including President Jerry Diaz. It was not until June 2020 that a tentative deal was finally reached, which came after the company rejected the recommendations of the special mediators appointed by the Province. Although the union made significant concessions, it maintained the confidence of its membership and will continue to represent the refinery workers over the long life of the new seven-year contract.

Locked out Unifor Local 594 workers at the Co-Op Refinery Complex, 2020. Photo by Unifor.

Having failed to split the union, the Co-op Refinery Complex continues its push to lower operating costs and lay off unionized workers as part of its “Co-op Energy Roadmap,” a program to “ensure our success in the low-carbon economy” that responds to federal policies such as carbon pricing and clean fuel standards. In May 2021, the CRC announced plans to lay off 87 in-scope employees (including master operators, a position that is crucial to the safety of workers) as part of their plans to remain competitive in the low-carbon economy.

It is clear that a transition is coming at the CRC and more widely across fossil fuel producing sectors. This transition will be profoundly harmful to workers unless the movement for a just transition manages to break through in fossil fuel-dependent communities and provinces like Saskatchewan. The task is big, as fossil fuel industry organizations have been putting up roadblocks to transition by mobilizing workers through populist campaigns that tether their interests as workers to the interests of the industry. While Unifor National has been leading discussions of a just transition in the labour movement, even hosting a national just transition conference in 2019, the members of Local 594 we interviewed were largely unaware of the concept and unsure of what kinds of policies and demands they might pursue with their union, their employer, and their governments.

On the other hand, refinery workers in Regina have now seen firsthand just how far their fossil fuel employer will go to undermine their union. Perhaps the moment is opportune to begin to prise apart the interests of workers, for dignified, well paying, unionized work, from the interests of the fossil fuel industry. While right-wing politicians like Saskatchewan’s premier Scott Moe might have us believe that they are standing up for oil workers, and populist rhetoric might suggest that oil workers are sacrosanct, the story of Regina’s oil refinery workers demonstrates that conservative governments only care about the oil companies and that broad sections of the public wish to bring down unions more than they wish to avert the climate emergency. The time is now to start building a broad-based movement for a just transition in Canada’s petro-provinces. 

[1] Here we draw on Mark Hudson’s unpublished formulation that finance capital asks “what will climate change do to profitability?” when the more pressing question is “what will profitability do to the climate?”

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