Solidarity in Regina: Many unions join locked out Unifor picketers


ED ARVELIN DROVE 848 KILOMETERS TO WALK THE LINE. All the way from Dryden, Ontario to Regina Saskatchewan. It’s what union solidarity means to the OPSEU (Ontario Public Service Employees Union) Region 7 vice-president of. He’s not alone.

OPSEU has over a dozen members from Ontario walking the picket line with the 800 members of Unifor Local 594, who were locked out by the managers of the Co-op Refinery in Regina 20 days before Christmas.

OPSEU president Smokey Thomas was the first from OPSEU to arrive. He joined the line on January 21—the day after Unifor national president Jerry Dias was arrested. “Jerry phoned up and said, ‘We need some help’, said Thomas.  “That’s good enough for OPSEU. If another union reaches out, we’re there.”

An injury to one...

Many other unions are out walking the picket lines in Regina, including CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees), the Seafarers International Union, SGEU (Saskatchewan Government Employees Union) and CFNU (Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions). There’s too much at stake for them not to be there.

The employer attack on the workers’ financial security is bad enough; but there is also the fact the workers are locked out—which is a direct attack on the fundamental labour right to good faith collective bargaining.

“In all my years of bargaining, I have never seen such disrespect to workers, workers who unlike Co-op, do not have billions to spend on this dispute. But that won't stop us. Unifor will continue to take action, with support from union members across Canada,” said Dias.

Union busting plain and simple

Employers always “cry poor” to justify their demands for concessions from their workers. But the Regina Co-op Refinery is flush.

The refinery has made money for 75 years straight—with record profits in recent years. Over one billion dollars in profits in 2018. It currently makes $3M in profit every day. The pension plan has never hurt company earnings in its 51 years of existence. And, yet the Co-op locked out its workers to squeeze them for money to add to the company bottom line.

The company wants to gut the pension plan and eliminate a jointly-funded Savings Plan. Co-op wants the workers to take a wage cut of 11% in order to fund the plan. The company demand to eliminate the savings plan, amounts to another wage cut of 6.5%. A total overall cut to income of 17.5%.

The company left no room for negotiation. They gave the workers one choice: give the company exactly what it demands or get locked out. The workers refused to be bullied. On December 4 the Co-op locked them out.

The workers set up their picket lines.

The Co-op retreats behind their locked gates. They bring in scabs. They use helicopters to air lift supplies to their scabs. They get the courts to restrict picketing. The lines stay strong.

The union stands its ground

On the tenth day of the lockout Unifor calls for a nation-wide boycott of all Federated Co-operative operations in Canada. On lockout day 34 Unifor calls for all its 315,000 members and other unions to send reinforcements to Regina. They do. The lines stay strong, day and night.

On January 20, 46 days in, the union begins to block vehicles entering or leaving the refinery. Regina police arrest Unifor national president Jerry Dias and 13 other union members. The next day Unifor ups the ante on the picket line. It reinforces their barricade with additional fences and vehicles.

A Unifor rally on January 21 includes representatives from more than a dozen unions and other supporters from across Canada.

And so it goes, day in day out. No quarter asked or given. The courts fine the union $100,000. The cops harass the picketers by ticketing and impounding their cars.

The union revises its position in an honest bid to start negotiations. The Co-op sits down with them on January 31, just long enough to to re-supply its scabs, then walks away. More bad faith.

On day 62 of the lockout, February 5, the police arrest four more Unifor picketers. The lines stay strong.

Why here? Why now?

“We shouldn’t be surprised that so many unions are rallying to support the Unifor members in Regina,” says Canadian Labour Institute (CLI) president James Clancy. “The fact is collective bargaining itself is at stake.”

“A lockout is a direct attack on the principle and process of collective bargaining. A lockout allows the boss to dictate, rather than negotiate. A lockout strikes at the heart of what unions are all about. So the will to resist is strong, deep and widespread.”

Clancy also says, “In a very real way, the worker resistance in Regina is a sign of these times. Unions all over North America are finding their voice again. They are once more pushing back hard against employer demands. What’s happening in Regina is part of that. There is a growing sense that Regina is an ‘enough is enough’ kind of moment.”

'One day longer, one day stronger'

It’s February 8, day 65 of the Regina resistance. Hundreds of Local 594 members continue to picket, day and night, in the unrelenting cold. Members of other unions continue to arrive to take a turn on the line.

Music is pumping non-stop. Passing motorists honk their horns in support. There is no sign that anyone is ready to give in

Eddy Almeida, OPSEU First Vice-President/Treasurer said his time on the picket lines in Regina was “inspiring”. “Maybe we need to do offsite pickets in other provinces, to send a message that this isn’t just about Regina. Because the folks here are actually standing up, not just for themselves, but for all workers.

How long will it go on? OPSEU member Ed Arvelin, the man who drove 848 kilometers to walk in solidarity with the refinery workers in Regina, has an instant answer: “One day longer, one day stronger.”

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