A lockout of roughly 720 workers at the Co-op Refinery Complex (CRC) in Regina has entered its second month. Since imposing the lockout, the company and the state have used every measure to break the pickets, with a judge issuing a court order against the picket lines and the company using helicopters to get scabs into the refinery. This conflict, in embryo, represents all of the main challenges facing the labour movement in Canada. It is therefore vital that we build the widest possible movement in solidarity with the Co-op refinery workers to push back the attacks of the bosses. A victory for the workers of Unifor 594 will serve as an example for other workers to follow, to stop the deterioration of our living conditions.

The oil refinery workers, who are members of Unifor Local 594, have been locked out since Dec. 5. CRC management locked out employees less than 48 hours after the refinery workers voted by a 97.3 per cent margin to strike if necessary against the company’s rollback of pensions. The CRC, owned by Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL), is willing to spend considerable amounts of money in an effort to break the union. As Unifor launches a nationwide boycott of Co-op retailers, workers are holding strong on the picket lines and determined to save their pensions.

What is at stake?

The major issue in dispute is the company’s efforts to move refinery workers from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution pension plan—which has been a growing trend among employers in recent decades. In a defined-contribution plan, workers contribute part of their wages towards a retirement fund, while employers typically match all or part of this amount. Retirement benefits are not guaranteed because they are dependent on the performance of the fund on the market. It is not hard to see why capitalists favour defined-contribution plans. They have no obligation regarding how accounts perform and therefore take on less risk. Workers, on the other hand, risk seeing the value of their pensions wiped out in the event of an economic downturn and falling stock prices. 

According to Scott Doherty, Unifor lead negotiator, about 640 current employees at the CRC have a defined-benefit pension plan. Under these plans, the employer contributes to the plan and guarantees workers a specific payment amount upon retirement. New hires, meanwhile, have a defined-contribution plan. This two-tiered pension system sows divisions among workers, but for the bosses it is also a sign of things to come: their long-term effort to slash all employee pensions.

In theory, the CRC is offering refinery workers the choice to switch to a defined-contribution plan, or to stick with their defined-benefit plans. If workers choose the latter option, however, there is a minor detail: they must start contributing money towards their plans. Here we see the real truth of the matter! To maximize profits and reduce their own financial obligations, CRC management are determined to shift much of the burden of paying for pensions onto workers—one way or another. The result of this is a wage cut in all but name. Despite FCL earning a record $1.1 billion in profits in 2018 and its second-highest earnings ever in 2019, the capitalists’ desire for ever greater profit is insatiable. To achieve this goal, they aim to make workers pay.

But refinery workers are having none of it. Unifor 594 responded that current workers should have the option of remaining in their existing defined-benefit plan, “like they were promised when they began working at the plant.” The CRC is claiming that they are being generous by also offering an 11.75 per cent wage increase over four years. But 11.75 per cent is in fact the minimum standard set by the National Pattern, which establishes industry-wide bargaining norms. 

Bosses fly in scabs—but workers fight back

Even before the lockout began, there was sinister foreshadowing of the scabbing to come. The CBC reported that for weeks leading up to the lockout, workers had noticed substitute employees shadowing them to learn how to perform their jobs in anticipation of strike action. Local 594 President Kevin Bittman called the job shadowing “uncomfortable” and expressed concern that the company’s use of scabs would create safety hazards. Predictably, CRC vice president of operations Gil Le Dressay sought to shift blame onto the workers, claiming in a statement that Unifor’s 48-hour strike notice created an “unsafe operating environment for the refinery.”

The company quickly escalated after it issued its lockout notice and Unifor members set up picket lines. On Dec. 8, the CRC announced that they would be using helicopters to move supplies over the picket line, which soon included using the choppers to transport scabs and keep the refinery running. Bittman asked why the company was spending the money of FCL member co-operatives on helicopters: “If I’m a Co-op member, I’d be asking why we’re spending all this money flying supplies in?”

The answer is that this lockout is not a simple dispute over pensions. The company is willing to spend as much money as it takes to bust the union, which would enable them to open up wholesale attacks to the benefit of their bottom line. Besides employing scabs and paying for helicopters, CRC has mounted a propaganda campaign accusing Unifor of wanting to “shut down the Western Canadian fuel supply” and misleadingly describes the workers as being on strike. The latter has sparked strong resentment from Unifor members who seek to remind the public that they were locked out by CRC management.

Unifor quickly organized solidarity rallies to support workers on the picket lines. On Dec. 15, Unifor called for a Canada-wide consumer boycott of all FCL businesses and services. The boycott campaign included billboards, television and radio ads, a petition, mailouts and secondary pickets at Co-op retail outlets. Local 594 members stayed on the picket lines over Christmas, defiant in the bitter cold and making clear to the bosses their willingness to fight.

Spirits remained high into the new year. At a solidarity rally on Jan. 7, livestreamed on Facebook, Unifor national secretary-treasurer Lana Payne called on the 315,000 Unifor members from across Canada to come to Regina and walk the picket lines outside the refinery. Jill Straker, a CRC inspection clerk and Local 594 picket captain, highlighted the larger ramifications of the lockout. As reported by the Regina Leader-Post, Straker correctly noted, “The fight for pension security here is monumentally important because when unions fight for pensions we are helping all workers.”

The bosses unite 

Business owners have united around CRC’s attempts to break the picket lines, with the Saskatchewan Trucking Association (STA) leading the way. One week into the lockout, STA representatives alleged in the media that truck drivers were being detained for hours at the refinery and that picketing Unifor members were harassing them. STA officials and owners of trucking companies were featured prominently in the media, adding to the propaganda campaign against the workers who were picketing the plant. 

To add insult to injury, on Christmas Eve, the bourgeois state—as it is designed to do—offered support to the bosses in the form of a judge’s order, which ruled that picketing Unifor members could detain trucks only “as long as necessary to provide information, to a maximum of 10 minutes, or until the recipient of the information indicates a desire to proceed, whichever comes first.” 

Picket lines mean do not cross

After 34 days with no end in sight, Unifor decided to escalate tactics. Correctly, Unifor launched a national campaign to shine “a very bright light on the scab labour being employed by this company,” in the words of Lana Payne. Payne also described these actions as “union busting,” which is undoubtedly correct. Two days later, Unifor posted a video called “Meet the Scabs” on its national Twitter feed, which named and shamed 12 replacement workers who had taken over the jobs of Unifor members during the lockout.

As one might expect, numerous voices appeared in the media to express shock and dismay at the video. Sean Tucker, a University of Regina professor specializing in occupational health and safety, was quoted in the Regina Leader-Post wringing his hands about the possibility of harassment resulting from a video specifically aimed at identifying scabs. Not surprisingly, CRC spokesperson Brad DeLorey declared that the video “goes against our Western Canadian values.” But the naming and shaming of scabs is a perfectly appropriate measure and Unifor members are well within their rights to do so.

Fightback has previously written about how the general understanding of what it means to cross a picket line has eroded over the last 100 years. For the workers’ movement, there is no greater crime. As we reminded our readers, “We should have no sympathy for a scab. A ‘replacement worker’ (to use the sanitized terminology) is helping the boss to break a strike”—or in this case, to break the will of workers who have been locked out. Should the bosses emerge victorious, workers will suffer lost pay, face cuts, and endure victimization and potential permanent replacement by the scab workers. Even Maclean’s magazine—hardly a bastion of Marxist radicalism—has acknowledged the basic right of workers to defend their picket lines. In a 2018 op-ed, columnist Terry Glavin defended Unifor after it posted a similar video that identified scabs doing the work of locked-out Unifor members in Gander, Nfld. “The point of a picket line,” Glavin reminds us, “is to prevent a jobsite from being scabbed.”

Support the workers! Spread the movement!

Unifor 594 members in Regina are fighting to defend the right of workers to a decent pension and secure retirement. Their struggle is our struggle. If the workers are defeated, it will be a defeat for all working class people and the bosses will be emboldened to attack workers everywhere. Conversely, if the union wins, it will be a victory for all workers. Therefore, we should support Local 594 in every way possible. One way of increasing pressure on the company would be to declare “hot edicts” on all FCL products. A hot edict would mean that no unionized worker in the labour organizations declaring the hot edict may touch any property owned by FCL. Hot edicts have been used in the ongoing B.C. forestry workers’ strike, costing the bosses millions in lost revenue and shifting the scales in favour of the workers.

The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) must immediately declare a hot edict on FCL property, in solidarity with Unifor 594 members. This would provide a major boost to refinery workers. While Unifor disaffiliated from the CLC in 2018, the Canadian Labour Congress – Prairie Region recently shared a photo on Facebook of SFL officials, including President Lori Johb, standing on the picket lines in support of Unifor 594. This solidarity must be spread to more concrete actions such as a hot edict against FCL property, solidarity strike action and mass rallies in support of the workers. There could even be mobilizations to picket the helicopter pad to stop the scabs at the source. By supporting Unifor 594 in every way we can, we can beat back this attempt at union busting, defend good pensions and provide an example for workers around the country who need to see that militancy wins and picket lines mean do not cross!

Defend pensions!

Picket lines mean do not cross!

End the lockout! Support the refinery workers!

The workers united will never be defeated!