by Andrew Stevens
The lockout of 700+ workers at Regina’s Cooperative Refinery Complex has now entered its third week. On the table: another round of pension concessions and the elimination of a co-funded savings plan.
Under the guise of a “business continuity plan,” the Refinery has for months been preparing for what Unifor Local 594 members understood to be a predictable course of action. In October, a scab camp was established on adjacent property and contingencies were put in place for the plant to weather a prolonged work stoppage.
CEO of Federated Cooperatives (FCL) Scott Banda, is alleged to be the instigator of this dispute, having recognized following the 2011 and 2013 Refinery explosions that the complex needed to be placed within the orbit of the central office’s control after decades of relative autonomy.
Injunctions, helicopters, and villains
After feeling the effects of picket line disruptions, Coop Refinery filed for an injunction on December 17. While Unifor’s legal counsel requested time to prepare, the court immediately instituted a five minute limit on the blockade of vehicles used to shuttle replacement workers, fuel, and supplies into and out of the facility (the delay has now been extended to ten minutes after both parties had chance to submit relevant documents). Helicopters were already being deployed to outflank the picket line by this point in the dispute.
While the employer has attempted to construct a narrative that casts workers as villains in this saga, conversations with members on the line and, indeed, language from Justice McMurtry’s court injunction decision paint a different picture.
Scab behaviour inside the refinery
In a small warming shed outside of Gate 7, Local 594 members reflected on texts they and their co-workers received from scabs inside the plant. The scabs had uncovered their personal contact information from the worksite, joking about using clothing and personal equipment left behind by locked-out workers for their own use. The looping of the Chipmunks Christmas Carole blasted by scabs at picketers outside one of the gates was a display of management-endorsed psychological warfare, according to one locked-out process operator.
Trusted accounts further suggest that on-site workers – either contractors or scabs – are incorrectly handling chemical containers and are not wearing required personal protective equipment. These actions, workers claims, would violate the Refinery’s “life saving rules” and normally result in discipline, suggesting that some offences are being openly ignored or overlooked by management.
About those fuel trucks…
A summary of affidavits in the injunction decision, in addition to statements from workers on the line, suggest that the company was needlessly dispatching fuel trucks to the site in an effort to build a case for the injunction by exaggerating the hardship faced by the employer, drivers and trucking companies hired to haul fuel. It is also alleged that the long line of vehicles waiting for hours on both sides of the line was staged. One worker also stated that he observed “fuel trucks leaving the Complex empty or underloaded.”
In-scope dispatchers also claim that it is not uncommon for truckers to wait extended periods of time in the fuel marshalling area of the refinery, further indicating the employer’s intention to deliberately create a sense of urgency that could be used against Local 594. Again, sworn affidavits cited in Justice McMurtry’s decision corroborate these claims.
Intimidation and threats of violence
Either complicit with or victimized by the Coop Refinery’s agenda, the Saskatchewan Trucking Association entered the fight by demanding City of Regina police and the provincial government use a firm hand to break the picket line.
In the one-sided narrative constructed by CRC’s communications team, whereby scabs and drivers alike were subject to intimidation and threats of violence, the company conveniently failed to acknowledge accounts of their own security team using physical threats against Local 594 at several of the gates. These claims were never refuted by the company, according to Justice McMurtry’s decision. Nor did the Refinery substantiate allegations that picketers were causing irreparable costs or hardship.
These charges, to be sure, were being used to undermine the union’s constitutionally protected right to picket. Meanwhile, Local 594 President, Kevin Bittman understood that tensions between the parties were soliciting picket line confrontations and so he took charge of the problem.
“There have been a few minor incidents that have bordered on illegal and I am asking for these types of activities to end,” read a letter from the Local 594 President. “[We] need to remain calm and professional to avoid injunctions and to keep our lines up”, he continued. Bittman’s concerns were well founded, as the employer’s application for an injunction makes clear.
Employer seeks sweeping arrest powers
Representing the Refinery is Regina-based law firm, MLT, which some claim is the architect of the province’s unconstitutional essential services legislation. Acting on behalf of their client, the draft order submitted by the legal team would have had restricted most forms of labour and public picketing.
Here, the employer insisted that the court must empower peace officers to “arrest, or arrest and remove” any person (“agents, officers, representatives and members of … [Unifor Local 594] and any persons acting pursuant to their counsel, directions or instructions, or anyone aiding or assisting any of them”) directly or indirectly associated with the blocking or obstructing access points to and from company property anywhere in the province.
Amplified police presence was explicitly mentioned throughout the draft order. That could mean arresting community allies, or even family members who were siding with Local 594 and participating in planning or executing picket line strategies.
No tea party
A “win-win” for both sides looks increasingly unlikely in this dispute. The Refinery, along with FCL and some of its affiliated coops, have made no pretence to respect cooperative values at the bargaining table – language that is even enshrined in Article 4 of the CRC-Local 594 collective agreement.
And while the court recognized the longstanding importance of picketing as a means for workers to bring some measure of balance to an otherwise asymmetrical power relationship, restrictions imposed on locked-out workers and their union swings the pendulum, again, towards the employer.
The absence of anti-scab legislation ensures that the refinery management maintains the upper hand in these disputes. What the ongoing struggle signals, and what Justice McMurtry’s decisions reminds both parties citing a 1959 decision by Justice Ivan Rand, is that “a strike is not a tea-party and it may have consequential impacts on associated interests which cannot be met or disposed of overnight.”
The impact of this lockout will most certainly be felt for some time. It is no tea party, but Local 594’s membership has a long history of overcoming immense odds when it has the solidarity and support of the wider labour movement.
For a copy of the court’s decision, click here.
For a copy of the employer’s draft injunction order, click here.