A significant moment in Canadian labour history is happening now.
A bitter dispute has played out at the Co-operatives Ltd. refinery in Regina for the past two months, involving Federated Co-Ops Ltd. (FCL) — the company that runs it — and around 700 locked-out workers. It’s expanded to demonstrations and calls for a boycott of all of co-op’s facilitites across Canada. A physical barricade has been set up around the refinery and hundreds of picketing workers are locking access to the plant.
The picket line has garnered national attention, as Unifor, which represents the locked out workers, called on Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe’s government this week to intervene by appointing a mediator with the power to implement a binding settlement. Meanwhile, truckers are calling for an end to the picket, citing an inability to get refined fuel out of the refinery.
It’s a complicated situation with huge implications for Canadian labour. Here’s everything you need to know.
The refinery is a facility where hard crude oil is processed into gasoline and fuel. Crude oil is heated to boiling, and the resulting liquids are separated into different refined oil products such as petrol and diesel fuel. That product is then shipped out to retail service gas stations.
The Regina Co-op refinery processes up to 145,000 barrels of oil a day.
First opened in 1935, the Regina refinery is owned and operated by FCL.
The contract for workers at the Regina refinery expired on Jan. 31, 2019. In early December, Unifor Local 594 — which represents workers there — voted overwhelmingly to strike over proposed changes to their pensions in contract negotiations. According to the union, the proposed changes would involve workers paying over 11 per cent of their salaries into their pensions. The union protested this change, arguing it was disproportionate to the company’s profits.
But before the union could initiate a strike action, management served them with a 48-hour lockout notice on Dec. 4. A day later, union members were officially locked out, and picket lines went up around the refinery.
According to the Saskatchewan Employment Act, a lockout refers to an employer stopping or disrupting work in an attempt to compel employees to agree to certain terms or conditions. It can involve closing a place of employment or stopping work.
WATCH: Labour board rules Unifor engaged in ‘unlawful protests’ during GM closure. Story continues below.
In this case, FCL hired replacement workers to run the plant after handing the union a lockout notice. This prompted the union to set up picket lines to prevent replacement workers from accessing the refinery.
Shortly following this, the refinery began helicoptering in replacement workers to avoid the physical barriers on the picket line.
How is the union barricading the plant?
The physical picket line has evolved over the past two months. The union has set up wire fences and vehicles to impede access to the refinery. Oil arrives by pipeline, and while FCL can transport some refined products out of the refinery using trains and pipelines, it relies on trucks largely to supply its network of retail gas stations.
The union is blockading the road to disrupt business and put pressure on FCL.
On Dec. 24, the Court of Queen’s Bench issued an injunction ordering that the picketing workers could only impede a vehicle for up to 10 minutes to provide information on the dispute. But throughout early January, there were accusations from management and various trucking companies that the union was continuing to block and sabotage efforts to access the plant.
On Jan. 22, 2020, a judge found the union in contempt of court for violating the injunction and issued a $100,000 fine to Unifor.
In late January, the union pledged to continue picketing, which provoked a breaking point on Jan. 20 when Unifor president Jerry Diaz was arrested alongside 13 other union members. Following the arrests, more fences were erected, blocking the line.
FCL claims the continuing dispute is about holding ground on a company’s right to do business. The union claims it’s about enshrining and setting a standard for fair pension rights for workers across Canada.
Following the arrests, both the union and FCL announced they’re willing to return to talks if barricades go down and there are no replacement workers. These talks started up on Jan. 31, allowing fuel trucks to access the plant for the first time in two weeks.
However, it didn’t last long. On Feb. 1, talks broke down and the Regina barricades went back up.
Picket lines have popped up at FCL facilities across Canada in support of the Regina Unifor workers.
Most notable is the line in Carseland, Alta. near Calgary where union members and supporters blockaded access to the FCL plant there. On Thursday, an Alberta judge issued an injunction designed to give vehicles access to the plant.
On Sunday, the union complied and barricades came down there.
However, according to FCL, “similar tactics” of erecting barricades and fencing are being used at facilities across the prairies.
Throughout the dispute, the union has called on over 300,000 members nationwide to join the pickets, and it’s also encouraging supporters to boycott FCL-owned gas stations, grocery stores and other facilities to pressure management.
Remember that convoy of semi-trucks that drove across Canada to Ottawa for a less-than-epic demonstration? That was organized by a group called United We Roll, and it’s back to take on Unifor.
Part of the increasing tensions is the inability for fuel trucks to access the refinery, and other facilities such as the Carseland plant. While barricades have been up, trucks have been unable to refuel at the plant. There are 26 independent operators employing around 400 truckers contracted to haul fuel from the Regina plant. As well, with limited access to refined product from the Regina plant and others under barricade, FCL gas stations across western Canada have started to run dry.
United We Roll Convoy For Canada originated as a pro-pipeline convoy of semi-trucks the aimed to travel to Ottawa in protest of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government last year. The group’s Facebook page has remained active since then.
However, the group has come under fire for connections to the Yellow Vest movement — it was originally called the Yellow Vest convoy — and far-right groups in Canada. It’s Ottawa rally last year was attended by members of hate groups including C3 and Northern Guard, as well as controversial far-right figure Faith Goldy.
Around 80 truckers held a protest Feb. 6, driving around downtown Regina blasting their horns to call on police to force down the picket line and resume fuel service. United We Roll has been organizing demonstrations of truckers against the labour action and in support of FCL.
Ahead of the group’s planned congregation at the Carseland co-op a week ago, members shared memes to the United We Roll Facebook page seemingly encouraging the idea of running over picketing workers.
No matter how the dispute ends, it will set a legal and labour precedent for pension negotiations across sectors going forward.
This weekend, Regina police announced they were re-opening an area near the Regina refinery to pedestrian foot traffic to facilitate picketers.
“Those wishing to set up peaceful, lawful picket lines are permitted to enter the area on foot, and are allowed to carry signs, flags, informational material and any foodstuffs they wish to carry,” a statement from police said Saturday.
“They are not permitted to enter with any materials that could be used to construct a barrier.”
The union has called on the premier to appoint a special mediator to end the lockout. Moe has said he will, but only if the union removes its barricades.