Sask. farmers fear fuel delays after picket line starts at Moose Jaw Co-op cardlock

Some Saskatchewan farmers are worried about getting their fuel in time for spring seeding, as a months-long labour dispute continues.

The Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan says it has been fielding complaints from farmers this week about delays accessing fuel at the Co-op cardlock near Moose Jaw.

Unifor Local 594 president Kevin Bittman confirms fewer than 10 union members were temporarily stopping fuel trucks heading into the bulk station Wednesday through Friday.

“As vehicles stopped, we’d approach the windows and just have a discussion with them about what our issues are, why we’re out there and that they’re going to cross the picket line to get fuel,” he said.

“Everyone was allowed into the bulk station when we were done communicating with them. Nobody was restricted access, nobody was stopped saying they couldn’t go in. Everybody who needed to get in there to get fuel, got fuel.”

Kevin Bittman, president of Unifor 594, was in Saskatoon with roughly 100 other Unifor members who were protesting outside of TCU Place on Feb. 29, 2020. Federated Co-op Limited, which locked out workers at its Regina refinery on Dec. 5, 2019, was holding its annual general meeting at the venue. (Albert Couillard/CBC)

Unifor and Federated Co-operatives Limited have been in a bitter labour dispute since early December. About 800 employees represented by Unifor at the Regina Co-op Refinery Complex were locked out on Dec. 5, 2019, after the union issued a 48-hour strike notice on Dec. 3. 

Among many things, both parties continue to be at odds over pension plans.

Late last week, Unifor members turned down what Co-op called its “best and final offer.”

“We can certainly understand the concerns raised by APAS and producers. Of course, spring seeding is hugely important to this province and Western Canada,” Cameron Zimmer, the communications and public relations manager at Federated Co-operatives Limited, said Friday.

“It’s difficult to respect [Unifor’s] approach, given the pandemic and the state of the economy here in Saskatchewan.”

Todd Lewis, the president of the agricultural producers association, said he respects Unifor’s right to picket, but he doesn’t want farmers to get off track.

“There are lots of places in Saskatchewan to set up picket lines for this labour dispute. We’re not picking sides, one way or another — but please, we ask that the cardlocks are left alone with good access,” he said.

“If we have delays picking up that fuel, it’s going to translate into delays at spring seeding time here and we can ill afford that.”

With some producers still needing to harvest their swaths from last fall, Lewis noted most schedules are tighter and anxiety levels are likely higher than usual.

According to the province’s latest crop report, issued Thursday, Saskatchewan’s seeding progress is slightly behind normal. Seven per cent of crops are in the ground, down from last year’s pace of 13 per cent in the first week of May.

“We’re not going to be put in the middle of a labour dispute,” said Lewis. “But if this continues, then the labour dispute is going to be putting [itself] in the middle of spring seeding, and nobody wants to see that.”

Bittman said Unifor doesn’t plan to ease up on the picket lines around bulk fuel stations and elsewhere anytime soon.

“I think you’re going to see in the next week or so, [picket lines] popping up in lots of different locations,” Bittman said.

“Until the company is ready to sit down and actually bargain out a deal, we’re going to do whatever we can to let the public know why we’re still locked out.”

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