The standoff between the Co-op Refinery and its workers shows a skewed balance of power – and one that is becoming all too common.
On one side is the Co-op Refinery Complex. Owned by the Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL), the refinery generates $3 million in profits every single day. Since its last agreement with workers, company profits have totalled approximately $2.5 billion. Company press releases boast that 2018 was a year of “record profits” and laud the refinery as a major contributor to the results. Business is clearly going really well.
On the other side are the workers – members of Unifor Local 594. There are over 700 of them – women and men – whose jobs are to keep the refinery operating safely. They did the work that allowed the company to bring in those huge profits.
When it came time to negotiate a new collective agreement the company called for significant cuts to workers’ pensions – a shocking move given all those profits. It was also something the company promised it wouldn’t do in the last round of bargaining. People have worked for and are counting on their pensions.
Jacobin magazine explains the impact workers will feel: “What Federated Co-operatives is proposing is nothing short of a gutting of our pension,” Kevin Bittman, President of Unifor Local 594, told the magazine. “Many of us simply don’t have enough working years left to save to make up the difference. A pension cut this deep will undermine the retirement security of every single member.”
When the workers wouldn’t accept cuts at the bargaining table, the company locked them out. They have been walking the frigid cold picket line for more than 50 days now.
The company’s move to lock workers out was deliberate. As Rankandfile.ca reports, “For months the [refinery] had prepared for this moment by establishing a scab camp on property adjacent to the plant in Regina’s north end. A helipad was also set up to help the company bypass picket lines it knew would disrupt the entry of supplies, workers, and fuel trucks needed to carry product to market.”
In late 2019, the company obtained an injunction prohibiting Unifor Local 594 from delaying trucks from entering the refinery for more than 10 minutes, effectively taking away the workers’ power to hold a picket line and put economic pressure on the company – leverage that workers should have when they’re locked out or on strike.
Fast forward to last week when 50 officers from the Regina Police Service showed up at the picket line. Videos show officers pushing and shoving, and one person was injured when police attempted to move a truck that was onsite. Fourteen people were arrested, including Unifor National President Jerry Dias.
It was a show of force that is almost unheard of, capturing national and international attention, especially when it was revealed that pressure from trucking companies servcing the refinery may have influenced the police force’s actions that day.
But it wasn’t enough for FCL. The company went back to court and asked for a penalty against workers for breaching the court injunction. The court complied and fined Unifor Local 594 $100,000 – a fine that Unifor is contesting.
The police and court actions prompted Unifor members from across Canada to travel to Regina to join locked out workers on the line. Labour leaders and members from other unions in Canada, including the Canadian Federation of Nurses, the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, CUPE, the Canadian Labour Congress and others also joined the picket line.
With tensions escalating, Unifor called on Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe to intervene. A request for an emergency meeting was met with a terse “the Premier is not available” reply.
Unifor and the workers said they want to get back to the bargaining table to settle this dispute. The company finally agreed to do this providing barricades were removed at the refinery and trucks were once again allowed to enter. The scabs, however, remained. The two sides headed back to the table this morning. (Talks broke off later that night.)
It’s not clear how – or when – this dispute will end. What is clear is that people on that picket line are up against a multibillion company, courts and a provincial government that appear fine with a corporation forcing major cuts on workers despite its record profits.
“For working class people in Canada and globally, all the rules are stacked against us,” said Unifor President Jerry Dias in an earlier press conference.
“[The corporations] will do it knowing that they can fly in scabs and show their outrageous wealth. By doing it the helicopter is not only bringing in scabs, but it’s a show of power – it’s a show of corporate wealth,” he added. “And then they know the police will be there to ensure the trucks can come and go with unfettered access, somehow ensuring that the workers’ ability to have free collective bargaining is diminished.”
In a sad irony, Federated Co-op Ltd. was supposed to be different. It was founded on the principle of working for the people of Saskatchewan, especially small communities. Its mission is “to provide responsible, innovative leadership and support to the Co-operative Retailing System for the benefit of members, employees and Canadian communities.” Profits and power have clearly changed these values.
With the odds stacked against them, Dias said workers have a choice. “We can accept that and fold, or we can say we have to fight within a system that is inherently wrong. Our members in Regina and in our Union have chosen not to accept the rules that disadvantage working class people.”
The Council of Canadians stands in solidarity with workers and challenges the corporate power they – and we all – face. Companies like Federated Co-op Ltd. shouldn’t be able to use scabs, courts, police forces and our governments to increase their profits at our expense.
It’s time to change this balance of power.