by Emily Leedham
“Cops are towing vehicles, threatening arrests, FYI. Gate 7.” my friend Geoff* texts me.
“Oh shit,” I texted back, getting up from the couch to find my ski pants.
I was staying with friends in Regina, Saskatchewan to cover the Co-op Refinery lockout where around 750 refinery workers – members of Unifor Local 594 – had been picketing for 46 days trying to save their Defined Benefit pension plans.
“Come ASAP. Gate 7. Folks are climbing on trucks to prevent them from being towed.”
It was just before 5 PM and I had spent most of the afternoon transcribing interviews.
Earlier that day, Unifor National President Jerry Dias announced the union would blockade all refinery gates, challenging a court injunction limiting vehicle delays to only 10 minutes:
“I’m here to say to you publicly, that on January the 20th, you are officially locked out yourself. So as of now, the scabs that are in the facilities can leave, the management in the facilities can leave – but no one will be going in.”
The night before, the union had flown in around 500 members from across Canada to bolster the lines.
“It’s pretty amazing to feel the support that I haven’t felt these first 50 days,” a scaffolder named Joel* told me after the press conference. “I felt pretty disheartened, didn’t feel like anyone was really understanding what we were out here for. It seemed like we had a lot of people against us, so it’s nice knowing that there are people that agree with what we’re doing and support us fully. It’s awesome to see everyone come out on this terrible and cold day and help us out.”
Dias asserted that Unifor was doing the blockade, not Local 594, and therefore not breaking the injunction.
The Co-op Refinery felt differently, calling the blockade illegal.
Collecting my winter gear, I called Aleem*, a cab driver I had struck up a rapport with earlier in the day.
“Hey Emily, how are you doing?” he responds, “Almost ready to go?”
Aleem had picked me up from the press conference at the refinery that morning, bewildered at the sight of the blockade. He was animated, shocked and concerned, repeating “Oh my god!” as I explained the lockout. He was particularly concerned about who had been running the plant for the past 46 days.
His eyes widened as I explained how the replacement workers were flown in over the picket lines with helicopters. Shaking his head, he exclaimed how dangerous it is to run a plant with inexperienced workers.
Aleem is a chemical engineer who moved from Toronto to Regina to try and gain employment at the refinery. He says over 10 years he’s never even received a callback, despite being highly qualified. Now, he drives a cab, which he feels is a waste of his expertise. So, he’s invested in the cause of the refinery workers, despite not being part of the workforce. He tells me that If I want to go back to the refinery to call him directly.
He picks me up and drives down to the refinery, passing through a billboard battlefield between Co-op and Unifor.
“We keep farms running. How would a disruption impact your operation? Help us fight for a fair deal.” a Unifor billboard reads.
“Unifor wants to disrupt your fuel supply. We won’t let them,” a Co-op billboard responds.
We arrive at the refinery, but the road to Gate 7 is now blocked off by two police cars.
Aleem lets me off on the side of the road. I start walking.
Ahead of me is an unmarked windowless white van and two more police vehicles.
To the left of the van, workers are gathered around – and on top of – one of two U-Haul trucks: the first line of defense in Unifor’s vehicle blockade. As I get closer, I hear the clanging sounds of workers unloading metal fencing from the U-Haul and stacking it in a pile to block access to a tow truck.
Behind the U-Hauls are around 30 vehicles parked in front of the picket line, where more workers are diligently carrying flags and walking back and forth.
Behind them, a road leads down to the refinery – which billows steam into the horizon as the sun begins to set.
I head towards three warming huts which line the left-hand entrance to the gate. Some workers are clustered outside talking and I look around to see if there’s anyone I know who can explain what’s going on.
In the warming huts are chairs, tables, space heaters and outlets. The tables are filled with coffee, snacks, and boxes of hand and toe warmers.
On the walls are printouts of messages of solidarity and support, and lists of local businesses offering discounts to locked-out workers.
“The company brought this union together tighter than anything I have seen before. 700+ legitimate brothers and sisters.” one poster reads. “Camaraderie is at a 10. It’s remarkable, it’s unbelievable, it’s something I couldn’t have ever imagined! How are things in there? – Process Operator Section 4”
The hut is crowded and noisy. Workers sit in most of the chairs chatting, while others stand around the table fixing coffee. One worker shows another how to shake the hand and toe warmers to generate heat.
With a mix of workers from across Canada, a blockade, and an impending police crackdown, there’s a lot to talk about. Everyone is calm, but rumours spread fast and there’s a lot of speculation about police plans after the sun sets.
I step back outside and run into Brianne*, a worker I met at Gate 2 the day before.
“Where’s Dias?” I ask, trying to parse if he had been arrested.
“Umm, I don’t know, I haven’t seen him,” she responds.
I walk back out towards the police vehicles.
Workers have started carrying the fencing from the second U-Haul past the warming huts towards the picket line, while others stand observing the police’s unmarked white van.
“Is Dias in there?” I ask one worker walking past me.
“Yeah, he’s in the back.”
“Holy shit,” I respond, “Holy fuck!”
I snap a few pictures of the van, and in a few minutes, workers around the first U-Haul start yelling “Shame!”. Two officers break out from the crowd and escort a worker towards the van.
I start recording video and follow them to another officer who leads them around the back. He opens the first door – the officers ask if there’s room for more.
He opens the second door.
Dias is handcuffed in the back of the police van – this is the first national labour leader arrested in years – likely decades. The night at Gate 7 had just made history.
CALM BEFORE THE STORM
Two nights earlier, Gate 7 looked a lot different. I met Unifor 594 President Kevin Bittman at one of the warming shacks on Saturday evening for an interview.
“The one thing that has really thrown the membership for a jolt has been the company, the company and what they’re willing to do to try and hurt us,” he tells me. “And they’re really willing to do anything. And they say on a billboard that they respect their workers but everything has indicated that they don’t. They’ve tried every dirty tactic, they have a security firm trying to get us into altercations, they’ve painted us as thugs, they painted us as violent and none of it is true.”
Namely, a trucking company had accused Unifor of sabotaging fuel trucks with tire spikes – and the media put it in headlines as if it were fact.
“It’s a little irresponsible of them to be reporting on something when they have no proof of the accusations, right?” Bittman says, “Their security, they watch us everywhere we go,” he continues, adding that he was personally followed everywhere he went for the first three weeks of the lockout.
“That’s where it’s funny when they talk about the road spikes, like we get followed everywhere we go on the picket line, there’s cameras everywhere, there’s microphones everywhere, you can’t go anywhere without being video taped and yet there’s no evidence that we’re doing anything on the picket line.”
While Dias may project the image of a tough-talking “union boss,” Bittman carries himself more down to earth, like a kindly dad or uncle. As I talk to members over the next few days, it is clear he is well respected as a union brother.
“Kevin, he’s a good guy,” is a phrase I often hear when I mention him.
After the interview, I stayed on the line for six hours that frigid Saturday night. I wanted to know what it was like to do a normal shift of picket duty.
A Unifor truck delivering dinner drops off some chili and bannock, and one worker offers me his meal, saying chili doesn’t usually agree with him. Having rushed to the refinery thanks to a delayed flight and a missing baggage escapade, I realize I’ve not eaten anything since the morning, and oblige. It’s a windy 20 below, and if I want to last for a few hours, I’ll need more than the Cliff bars I brought in my bag. The chili is warm, filling and exactly what I need.
One worker sitting across from me scratches his beard. Due to refinery safety regulations, they aren’t allowed to have facial hair. Now, a bunch of the workers are growing beards for the first time in years. He’s still not used to it. We joke that it’s like a lockout beard instead of a playoff beard: see how long you can go without shaving until you get a deal.
After dinner, a few of us return to the line outside. The union has lights, heaters and music hooked up to generators, playing a mix of classic rock and country.
It’s easy to see why the union has chosen Gate 7 to be their homebase for press conferences and rallies. The sunset lights up the sky in a blush pink, while the steam rising from the plant takes on a deep violet hue. As it gets darker, the refinery glows, covered in golden lights. One worker says his daughter calls it the “little city.” It feels strange to call a refinery beautiful, but it is.
The workers point out a scaffold set up on the refinery’s side of the picket line with a video camera mounted on top. Beside it, a parked truck with two security guards sit inside. You get used to feeling watched, they say.
I strike up a conversation with an older electrician, but soon realize I’m walking faster and have to slow down every few moments to let him to catch up. A maintenance worker named Kyle* tells me that to get through an eight hour shift of walking back and forth, you really have to take it easy and pace yourself.
There’s no place to be, no reason to rush.
The refinery flares are higher than usual tonight, which becomes a source of laughter and jokes on the line. The flare stacks burn off excess toxic gas when there’s too much pressure inside the plant, instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. It’s normal to have a small flame burning on top of a flare stack at all times, but if it burns too high, it’s a sign that something is wrong.
The higher the flare, they tell me, the more money Co-op loses. It also affirms the Co-op can’t run the plant effectively without them.
“If only we could contain that heat and warm something, hey? So much heat,” a board operator named Matt* jokes. “Like, it doesn’t look it, but that stack, you could drive a half-ton right inside of that. That’s how big that stack is when you get up close to it, like it’s huge, right? Like it’s big!”
He agrees to do a short interview with me explaining how the flares work in a warming hut, but just as we’re about to begin, we hear the other workers yelling outside.
He looks out the window, yells “Holy fuck!” and runs out the door.
I follow him outside. Everyone is filming the flare with their phones – which had doubled in size – and shouting over the music (comically, Afternoon Delight by the Starlight Vocal Band):
“Wowww, look at all that black smoke!”
“Holy fuck, wow.”
“In my opinion, that’s inexperience.”
“That’s a whole unit going down.”
“That’s definitely inexperience.”
“Wow, that is – that is terrifying”
“That is really scary shit.”
“Look at all that black smoke! That’s bad. That’s some pretty big environmental issue.”
“Like, I’m scared it’s gonna blow up!”
“I know, like that’s scary, actually.”
“Hopefully they do their flare report.”
“Yeah, you think so? ‘Uh, sorry, not enough manpower.’ That’s really bad”
Matt explains flare-ups like this happen occasionally and can be brought under control, but it’s certainly not a smooth ride, especially if you have workers inside who aren’t as experienced. Later, we’ll find out these flare ups were the result of a power outage.
Some of the supervisors he’s talked to on the inside are tired, working long hours, doing multiple jobs, and want out – but can’t leave otherwise they’ll lose their jobs.
“It’s not a cardboard plant here,” he adds. “It’s serious stuff here.”
Matt also tells me the picket lines are close enough to the plant that if there was a serious incident or explosion, all the locked out workers would have to evacuate.
“I just hope we have something to come back to, you know? As much as you want to get back, after seeing this…You still do want to make sure there’s still a plant to go back to work to.”
These workers are fighting for pensions, implying they’d like to work until retirement, not die in some kind of accident. Yet many workers acknowledge the dangerous work they do can shave years off their life. Matt admits he doesn’t expect to live past 65, but wants a good pension to make sure he can take care of his family.
After seeing how close the picket lines are to the refinery and talking to workers about their own safety concerns, the idea of any one of them engaging in sabotage appears counter-productive to their overall goals.
We’re not in The fucking Irishman.
“I’ve told the reporters, you know, if I for one minute thought our members were doing this,” Bittman tells me, “or there was any evidence our members were doing this, we’d be talking to the police not the reporters.”
The lockout has been a long time coming – since the union made 11th hour concessions in the last round of bargaining to avoid a lockout three years ago. The workers told me they had mentally prepared for a strike or lockout – but the last six months were particularly stressful, to the point where many dreaded going to work.
In the fall, the Co-op had started building scab camps – clusters of trailers for replacement workers to live in – and even got Unifor members to help set them up. Workers also say they were expected to train their own replacements, but many refused.
“The day we actually got locked out, I didn’t realize how many of us there were and how united we were until we actually walked out of the refinery and we saw all those people that were there waiting for us that day,” a worker named Sierra* recalls. “They just had a rally there waiting for us of everyone else that wasn’t at work that day and people that were just there to support.”
“There’s quite a different feel out on the line here than there has been at work, because of the tension between the company and the union,” Kyle tells me. “So it’s pretty jovial, a lot of joking around – you’ve heard some of the joking around.
“Spirits are high, so you kind of get closer to people here, you know? Because now they’re not just a process operator, they’re someone you’ve spent hours talking to on the line, right?”
For many workers, this is their very first time in a lockout or strike, and the experience has brought them together in ways they couldn’t have imagined.
“In my job, I’m quite isolated,” he continues, “So I don’t talk to a lot of the guys in the refinery. I don’t really hang out with anyone at the refinery either.”
Kyle enjoys listening to podcasts and audiobooks while walking the line, as well as getting to know other people and hearing about their families. Some nights, their picket crew will add their favourite songs to a playlist and have a dance party they call the “Power Hour.”
“Everyone has their little quirks and stuff and it’s nice to see,” he reflects. “It gives a really human face to the workforce, rather than just a bunch of guys dressed in blue.”
This is Bittman’s first time on a picket line too. He thought it would be harder.
“The membership really has truly been my rock through this. When I come out to the picket lines, they’re the ones that boost me up with their positivity. So it’s been really amazing to, you know, just be in this fight with 750 of my brothers and sisters, really.”
Before I came to Regina, I was a little skeptical of the videos and social media posts from the union that spoke about the high morale on the line. They’re locked out in the freezing cold over the holidays while the Co-op runs expensive billboard smear campaigns against them – how enthusiastic could they really be?
With around 750 workers locked out for 46 days, there has undoubtedly been a litany of emotions and experiences throughout the holidays and deep-freeze winter.
But something special is happening on the line and it’s exciting to witness. You can feel it in the pauses as they speak, thoughtfully searching for words to describe this transformative experience of solidarity.
“I would just say, every day is great,” Sierra says matter-of-factly. “Every time we all come together in our picket group, no one’s angry or trying to bring people down, like we’re all just there to help each other.
I would say that’s maybe the best part about picketing, is that everyone’s just so supportive – and that is something I will always remember.”
RACE TO THE BOTTOM
The week before I came to Regina, I spent time at a different kind of lockout. A Tim Horton’s franchisee in Winnipeg had locked out his workers for demanding ten more cents at the bargaining table.
I organize with Fight for $15 & Fairness Manitoba – we’re trying to raise the provincial hourly minimum wage from $11.65 to $15.
For me, my friends, and many other minimum wage workers, pensions are low on our priority lists. Long-term planning is nearly impossible when you’re not sure what you’ll be able to buy for groceries next week. Most of us are one missed paycheque or unexpected emergency away from not being able to pay rent.
So why should a pension fight for well-paid refinery workers in Saskatchewan matter to low-wage workers? How much do we really have in common with Sierra, Matt, Kyle, or Kevin?
One thing that surprised me was that Unifor 594 represents a range of positions at the refinery, including: janitors, accountants, clerks, lab technicians, data entry operators, computer programmers, storekeepers, tank car loaders, building maintenance workers, fire and safety inspectors, process operators, electricians, scaffolders, pipefitters, mechanics, and welders.
Learning about these various positions, in addition to actually visiting the picket line, helped me relate far more to the refinery workers. These workers weren’t so different from other accountants, mechanics, and electricians in my life – they just happened to be employed at a refinery.
Darin Milo has visited the picket line several times, even though he works in a different industry and makes far below what the refinery workers do.
“The thing is ,this place is highly profitable,” he says about the Co-op, “Now, if my boss came to me and said, “You know, you need to take a pay cut or we need to slash your pension now,” and they’re not making as much money, it makes it difficult to stand your ground. If they’re allowed to do it when a company is profitable – at what point can workers even get ahead? I mean, there is no moving forward, there’s only moving down. When a company makes a lot of money, workers are still expected to take less. It’s just the race to the bottom is all it is, if this happens – if they are successful in slashing their pensions.”
I realize the reason a decent pension and secure retirement seems so far removed from my list of concerns is precisely this race to the bottom. It limits our imaginations as working people and tells us that no matter how much profit we generate for an employer, we must do with less.
The biggest minimum wage employers are large corporations, like Wal-Mart, Loblaws, Tim Hortons and Amazon. And yet, these same corporations will ruthlessly push back against wage increases of a few dollars – or even ten more cents.
It’s the same behaviour the Saskatoon Co-op exhibited in 2018 when they forced over 800 workers on strike for five months throughout winter. The Co-op was trying to force a two-tiered wage system on some of its already lowest paid workers, members of UFCW Local 1400.
“So, the fact that we work for a co-operative, they should set the standard when it comes to pensions,” Bittman argues. “And really, this pension has been in place since ‘71. We just had the two best years of an 84 year career in the refining business, so it’s not like they can’t afford it – they just don’t want to.”
While we organize to push the wage floor up from the bottom, Local 594 – continuing their long history of labour organizing in the energy sector – wants to fight the ceiling being pushed further down.
On Monday morning, after the press conference at Gate 7, I hitch a ride in the back of a Unifor food delivery truck from Gate 7 down to Gate 2. It’s a cold but bright day, and each gate we pass is packed with Unifor members from across the country.
Over the truck radio, John Gormley, 980 CJME’s right-wing personality, is commentating on the latest developments. He’s none too pleased with the union’s blockade.
While workers were building new friendships with each other, they told me gaining support from the public could be challenging at times. Some said they didn’t feel the workers’ position was represented fairly or accurately in the media, which impacted public perception of the lockout.
“We feel like the company has little things they try to spark,” Bittman says, “And then we deal with that message for a little while, and then when it’s deemed that it’s not true…there’s not a retraction or anything like that. So we get stuck with this narrative that we’re thugs and bullies.”
He refers not only to the aforementioned tire spikes, but an allegation that a Unifor worker punched a replacement worker on the picket line. A social media video of the alleged incident circulated indicating no assault took place, but there was no follow up from the media to set the record straight.
Matt tells me his own partner isn’t exactly pro-union. When he comes home from the picket line, he has to diffuse rumours about the lockout, the union’s local and national executive, and the alleged sabotage and assaults. He even skipped Christmas dinner to avoid spending the night justifying the union’s actions to his unsupportive in-laws.
“I stopped reading media because it just…I can’t,” Brianne sighs. “It’s just…many people tend to speak when they don’t know the whole situation. You get stuff from the company and you get stuff from the union side and…they don’t jive, right? So who do you believe? So I just don’t read the media at all.”
Another Co-op narrative is that picketing the refinery is a safety hazard. Joel feels like this message detracts from the fact that the Co-op has replacement workers running the refinery.
On Sunday morning, walking at Gate 3, he tells me all the workers have to sign Non-Disclosure Agreements to prevent them from talking about safety incidents inside the plant. It’s the workers who know the safety regulations inside and out because their lives are on the line, he explains, even though the Co-op now frames the union as a safety risk.
As we talk, an alarm goes off. The workers say it’s a routine test alarm for hydrogen sulfide. If exposed, it can cause respiratory failure and death.
As a scaffolder, he mostly works outside, but sometimes he’ll have to build scaffolds inside empty chemical tanks. He and his co-workers will joke about some tasks taking decades off their life from possible exposure. He says those are the risks you sign up for in exchange for the good pay and benefits – which is why it stings to see the Co-op demand workers give up their Defined Benefit pension plans.
In the truck, Gormley practically salivates over the airwaves at the possibility of a police crackdown:
“But now whether – or if – the police will actually bring down the blockades that are preventing anyone from going into the refinery – that’s going to be the call of the Regina Police Service,” he taunts.
The truck stops at one gate to check if the workers had received lunch.
“You guys all eat here?” one worker shouts out the car window.
“Yeah, we got some hotdogs here, thanks!”
A couple workers walk up to the truck window.
“What else you got?”
“Hey, don’t get this fucker towed,” one worker outside jokes, referring to the truck, “This is the one that’s in my name!”
“Okay, let’s bail out and block the road!” the driver shouts back and everyone laughs.
We drive down to the next gate while Gormley continues to opine on refinery pensions. The workers get irritated and start talking back at the radio, correcting his claims and interjecting:
“Shut the fuck up, Gormley.”
HOLDING THE LINE
Gormley got his police crackdown.
So did the Co-op, who called the blockade illegal.
And so did the trucking lobby – which had sent a letter to the mayor, the police chief and various other government officials that morning asking for police intervention.
Now we were seeing a side of the law many of us had been privileged to have never experienced before.
Unifor’s National Secretary-Treasurer Lana Payne tells the media during a scrum in the middle of the road: “We are going to hold this line, nothing gets in.”
“This is one of those moments – let’s be really clear – one of those moments where workers are under attack, their rights are fundamentally under attack on this picket line, and we will not stand for it,” she concludes.
On my way back to the warming huts, I run into Daniel*, a worker I had met at Gate 7 two days earlier. The police were still present, and I asked what he thought they were going to do.
He said they were waiting.
“Riot cars and dogs,” he says. “I assume that’s what they’re mobilizing right now.”
“Really?” I exclaim, trying to imagine what I would do in such a situation.
“How else are they going to enforce the injunction? How else are they going to disperse the crowd?” he responds matter-of-factly.
I walk away shaken. There are a lot of us here, and there are a lot of vehicles. No one was prepared to move. This line would take a lot of effort to break.
Brianne is inside one of the warming huts, I ask her how she feels about the cops arresting Dias.
She tells me she didn’t see him get arrested, but has been on the line since 4:30 and hasn’t seen anything unpeaceful.
“That’s kind of the general…no one really understands,” she says. “We’re not hooligans, we’re not doing anything crazy, we’re just peacefully walking back and forth.”
Back outside, the workers have set up four rows of metal fencing along the picket line. I recognize Darin Milo from the Regina & District Labour Council walking the line.
He tells me he was apprehensive driving to the refinery and seeing all the police vehicles. However, he thinks Dias’ arrest ultimately sends a positive message to workers.
“That’s leadership standing their ground and it’s about walking the talk, ultimately, you know?” he says. “A lot of people can say a lot of things, but you know, when you’re on the ground, you gotta be there in the trenches with the workers and clearly that’s happening – and the workers are also there with him. That means a lot, it shows that people are… it’s not rhetoric, they mean what they say.”
I ask him what he plans to do for the rest of the night.
“Just keep walking with people and see what happens,” he says. “It seems pretty calm, it doesn’t seem like there’s any aggression from the police, so we just gotta keep doing what we’re doing.”
More cops have arrived. Seven cop cars are lined up in a row flashing their lights – but not doing much else. Behind them, two City of Regina tow trucks and a front-end loader. I’m told that further down the road there are two bulldozers, but I can’t see them.
Down by the picket line, in preparation, workers have let the air out of the blockade vehicle’s tires to make them harder to move.
I use the lull to charge my phone and camera in a warming hut and snack on a protein bar in my bag.
Geoff asks if I have a plan in case I get arrested.
I tell him I hadn’t thought it through yet.
He says I should. Everyone here should plan for more arrests.
So I thought it through.
Getting arrested can be romanticized by some. Sure, it could make my story more sensational – but I didn’t feel my arrest would be politically useful for this cause in the long term.
As a young white woman, I knew I would likely experience less police violence during an arrest than if I was Black or Indigenous. Physical harm was less of an immediate concern to me than the long-term headache of dealing with potential charges, legal fees and paperwork.
I decided I would be okay with getting arrested if it happened – that would be up to the cops, anyways – but would do my best to avoid it.
A little while later, a worker enters the hut and reports the cops are planning to use tear gas in 20 minutes.
I wasn’t really sure how I would avoid that.
Despite the rumours and uncertainty, there wasn’t much fear or panic. After 46 days, the workers had been on the line too long to back down.
Around 8:30, the cops make another attempt at towing the U-Haul. Workers have yet again clustered around it shouting, “Shame!” “Get that tow truck out of here!” and “Move that truck!”
In a few minutes, Scott Doherty, Executive Assistant to the National President, holds up his hands in the middle of the crowd. He has a message directly from Dias: to deter further arrests, they will surrender this U-Haul to the police.
“We still have a strategy, but this truck – they can have it!”
One of the two workers on top of the U-Haul shouts down, “I still need a ladder!”
“We’ll get you down, buddy!” Doherty responds and the crowd laughs.
Shortly after, Doherty reassures the workers that giving up the U-Haul does not mean they are backing down.
“We’re going to hold this line forever if we have to!”
He also informs us that CUPE National President Mark Hancock was able to make a call to get the City of Regina tow trucks and front-end loader removed. We wouldn’t learn until the next day that the CUPE members operating those vehicles were told they had the right to refuse unsafe work, and did so, leaving Gate 7.
But the removal of the first U-Haul opened up space for the tow truck to hitch to another Unifor vehicle. Cops lined each side of the union’s vehicle as it got winched up onto the tow truck.
Workers surrounded them, breaking out in a prolonged chant of “One day longer! One day stronger!”
“Is FCL paying you too?” one worker asks the cops.
Another says the cops shouldn’t be shoving people.
“Who’s telling you to do this?”
“I don’t know man, I think it’s pretty sad.”
“How would you like it if your fuckin’ pension was gone, eh?”
“We haven’t done anything to you guys!”
“Come on, you guys! Have some integrity!”
“I’m sure you got friends and family that work out here too.”
“That wasn’t cool what you did there! That’s not cool, man!”
At one point, a cop responds: he’s just doing his job.
Once the tow truck leaves with the vehicle, the cops remain standing in the middle of the road in a cluster.
I get a text from Alex* who has just arrived on the line & head over to the warming huts to fill him in on the action. A lot had happened, but also not as much as I expected.
It’s now around 9:30 pm. The cops have been here for nearly 5 hours and have barely made a dent in the blockade. At this rate, we’ll be here until morning. Was that the point? To wear us down until we were too tired to fight back? There had so far been no signs of tear gas or riot gear.
Geoff jokes he’s going to leave the cops a bad Yelp review for slow service.
But in a few minutes there’s more shouting. Evidently set back by CUPE tow truck drivers leaving, the police enlisted a new truck from a private company, which has just arrived on the scene. The truck is big, blue and decorated in flashing orange and blue lights.
It’s clear there’s about to be another protracted standoff. The workers form a line to keep the truck from moving further.
I step inside a warming hut to grab a slice of pizza. I’m cold, stressed, and once again, I rushed off to the line before eating dinner. The pepperoni deep dish could not have tasted better in that moment.
By the time I finish my slice, I return outside to be informed that a police officer has somehow taken control of Unifor’s second U-Haul and was attempting to drive it away – with a flat tire.
Workers have gathered around the U-Haul, trying to keep it from moving further. The officer then drives the truck maybe 20 meters forward, then stops as workers yell, “Whoa! Whoa”
“Did you hit somebody? Did you hit someone?”
“You’re the ones who created violence! We had a peaceful protest going…Fucking pigs.”
“Where are you guys even moving this?”
“A lot of our kids probably go to the same schools as your kids.”
“Did anybody get it on video?”
The officer had hit a worker with the U-Haul. Eyewitnesses described him as going “under the wheel.” The worker was then arrested and put in the police van. None of the workers knew if he was okay or needed medical attention.
I came around to the other side of the truck and saw yet another worker being escorted to the van by cops.
“You’re being arrested for mischief,” the cop said, pushing the worker against the van and handcuffing him.
“Mischief, for trying to stay on my own two feet?” he snapped back.
Another worker stood beside me filming the cops.
“Give us some space,” one cop tells us.
“About as much as you gave us, right?” the worker retorts.
The cops have now formed a line on both sides of the U-Haul as it keeps inching forward, while the crowd still tries to get information about the incident.
“What is your badge number? You have to identify yourself as a police officer,” Geoff demands. “Who is the police officer driving the vehicle? Anybody? Anybody? Identify yourself sir!”
The cop rolls up the window.
“Ohhh, doing up your window, that’s a beauty!” he taunts. “That right there is like, oh, faith in our justice system! Come on, this is upholding the law! Give me a break. This is that thin blue line sticking together. We serve the law! Good lord.”
The cops finally started identifying themselves, and workers follow the U-Haul collecting information before finally letting it amble away.
On the other side of the road, workers had dealt with a runaway tow truck, which I am told tried to drive around the workers by taking the ditch and getting stuck. By the time I got there, the truck was gone.
And then the unexpected happened.
The police vehicles began to leave.
“Are the cops actually leaving?” Geoff asks, “Did we just fucking win? Did the cops and fuel trucks just leave? Is this what’s happening right now? Or am I delirious because I’ve been up for so many hours straight?”
“Maybe both,” Alex responds.
“I want to know what the answer is.”
Alex laughs and yells, “Victory!” as the surrounding workers clap and cheer.
Doherty tells us it’s not over until it’s over and that he expects the cops to be back. He asks people to stay on the line for as long as they can tonight.
A total of 14 people, including Dias, were arrested that night. They were all charged with mischief.
I head back into a warming hut, sit down and close my eyes. I’m exhausted.
And then the crowd erupts into cheers outside.
I run outside. All three refinery flares are blazing at the same time – bigger than anyone has seen yet. The middle flare is burning pure blue hydrogen. The workers tell me this is the result of another power outage.
And then, like we’re in a movie, a country power ballad kicks in over the speakers. Two workers start slow dancing in the light of the flares.
I walk around the rows of metal fencing to get a little closer. Another worker is there taking photos. He’s in awe but a little terrified, echoing what Matt had told me two nights prior – he hopes he has a plant to come back to. If there was an explosion, we’d be knocked to the ground, possibly hit by shrapnel. People could die, he says.
It was like an exclamation point at the end of the night to show how high the stakes were.
“You know, they’re operating that plant, those people have been in for 40 days now, some of them have been working long hours, we know that.” Bittman tells me. “So, when things happen, they escalate really fast and it is concerning. We don’t have a lot of information about what’s going on in there and I don’t imagine they’re going to start telling us what’s going on in there. We really have no clue how that place is running and if they’re doing okay or if there’s things going on, right?”
Earlier that day, Kyle tells me the workers never wanted any of this.
“Our intent is to go back to work and go back to the way things were 50 days ago, that’s all we ever wanted,” he says. “We didn’t want to be out here, we don’t want to be hurting anyone else, and we hope that they understand and speak with us and see if we can get a deal done.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
This piece would not have been possible without the support of RankandFile.ca’s readers, who raised $1000 to send me to Regina, friends who offered me accommodation, and the hospitality of Unifor 594 workers on the picket line. Thanks to all the workers who felt comfortable talking to me and trusted me to help tell your stories. Solidarity.