REGINA—Nic Skulski didn’t watch the Super Bowl from his living room or a sports bar last weekend. Instead, Skulski took in the big game from a stack of wood pallets on a picket line, as he and other workers watched the 49ers versus the Chiefs being projected onto the side of a white cargo truck.
It was a moment of camaraderie for Skulski and the others, as the sweet and spicy scent of barbecue riblets mingled with an acrid stench and the dark plumes of smoke emerging from the Federated Co-operatives Ltd. refinery in Regina.
For the past two months, this refinery and picket line have been ground zero in a heated dispute involving 700 locked-out workers.
Some have cast the protracted fight as a watershed moment, illustrating how unions are losing ground to more powerful corporations, some of which are looking to reduce worker benefits or expand profit margins.
Others argue the situation in Saskatchewan is serving as a reawakening of sorts for Canadian workers — one that’s taking place in the very province that gave birth to this country’s labour movement.
In early December, the union voted overwhelmingly to strike over proposed changes to their pensions. Before they could do so, FCL handed them a lockout notice and hired replacement workers to run the plant. Unifor Local 594 has been picketing since.
Skulski, who’s worked at the refinery as a process operator for six years, has been on the front lines, missing just six or seven days of picketing. It’s been a stressful time. He loves his job, but says he’s frustrated with the company and the bargaining process. His wife, meanwhile, is due to give birth in April.
“Six years ago, it was the start of the decline,” Skulski says. “It was actually a good place to work then, but you’ve steadily seen a drop off since then, morale wise. You can see the company pushing for a lot more stuff; you can see they’re trying to make cuts everywhere. … I definitely lose sleep over it.”
This past week, the union — which represents about 315,000 workers in sectors across the country, including employees at the Toronto Star — announced it was outlining a plan to have its members back to work Monday, calling on the Saskatchewan government to appoint a mediator with the power to implement a binding settlement. FCL has rejected the idea of binding arbitration and said it’s a non-starter.
With the situation changing every day, Skulski refused to place any wagers: not before Super Bowl Sunday’s game, and not on when he expects this dispute to end.
“I’m not really a betting guy — not on sports, at least,” he says with a chuckle.
Canada’s labour movement can, in many ways, trace its historic roots to Saskatchewan.
In 1935, roughly 1,000 men had walked off the job at federal relief camps in British Columbia that had been established by then prime minister R.B. Bennett in response to the Great Depression.
They formed the “On-to-Ottawa Trek” and vowed to march to the nation’s capital to demand that the federal government introduce laws to ensure higher wages, recognition of unions and more rights for camp workers.
The trekkers made it to the Prairies when the RCMP cracked down, resulting in what came to be known as the Regina Riot.
During a public rally at Regina’s Market Square on July 1, 1935, the trekkers clashed with Regina police and RCMP. Tear gas was hurled, windows were smashed, pieces of cement were thrown and one plainclothes officer was killed. The Toronto Daily Star reported two deaths, 100 injuries and 41 arrests.
Ottawa’s handling of the ordeal reflected poorly on Bennett, who subsequently lost the 1935 election. The riot is widely credited for helping to establish workers’ rights in Canada, as several of the trekkers’ demands were ultimately satisfied.
The FCL’s formation in Saskatchewan is of the same vintage. It was formed as a membership-owned collective with a similar purpose to a union — to protect farmers and make sure profits stayed within rural communities.
Scott Doherty, the chief union negotiator in the current dispute in Regina, suggests the company has today lost its way and accuses it of acting more like a corporate board, prioritizing profits over its members.
Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear that the tone of the negotiations between Unifor and FCL over the past two months hasn’t been very co-operative.
Union vs. Co-op.
In the wake of the lockout, the union has erected barricades, complete with chain-link fences and vehicles with deflated tires, to prevent replacement workers from entering the refinery and fuel trucks from leaving.
FCL says its gas bars and fuel distribution stations in parts of Saskatchewan and southern Alberta will face periodic fuel outages as a result of barricades and interference it’s experienced.
At least 18 union members, including Unifor president Jerry Dias, have been arrested and charged with mischief for blocking access to the site. Dias accused the police of using heavy-handed tactics. Unlike the city’s 1935 clash, the current Regina police chief has denied allegations his service used tear gas against pickets. Police have said they’re investigating paintball damage to several residences and vehicles, which FCL says are owned by company management.
Vic Huard, an executive vice-president with FCL, told the Star the union’s tactics have been excessive and counterproductive.
“We believe, and the law agrees with us, we have a right to operate the plant and they have a right to picket. And we respect that right. But what’s happening now … is not picketing,” Huard said. “We are simply not going to accede to these illegal tactics, because this will set a very dangerous precedent for labour relations.”
The dispute has expanded beyond the refinery itself, with union members encouraging boycotts of all Co-op gas stations and grocery stores throughout the province. Union members such as Tammy Hayward say that’s causing division in small communities where the local Co-op is often the only option for gas and groceries.
“My family, they want to support the boycott right? But guess what … some of them have to go an hour and a half to go get groceries at somewhere other than Co-op,” she said. “Co-op dominates this province.”
Union supporters set up a blockade in late January at a fuel distribution station in Carseland, Alta., which inspired a counter protest. And on Thursday, a group of truckers who haul gas for FCL drove their semis into downtown Regina, blaring their horns to protest the union barricades.
“It’s been a very frustrating, stressful situation for the business owners and for our drivers,” said Heather Day, a spokesperson for the truckers. “It’s really concerning that they’re basically holding the Prairie provinces, especially, but all of Western Canada hostage by choking off the fuel supply.”
Glen Carritt, an Alberta business owner who helped lead the United We Roll convoy to Ottawa, said he went to the counterprotest in Carseland because he’s heard from other truckers who are suffering as a result of the barricades.
“They’ve got an illegal blockade and people are intimidated,” he said. “That’s why we went down is to give these people a voice.”
Carritt said he’s an oil and gas supporter, but accused the refinery workers of being part of an anti-pipeline union. He argued unions themselves may have outlived their purpose.
Huard, the executive vice-president with FCL, accused the union’s leadership of intentionally stoking resentment toward the company to garner nationwide support and flex their muscle.
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“This dispute is no longer in the control of the local. … We’ve been saying for months this is not about Local 594. It’s not about pensions. There’s a much bigger play here,” Huard said.
At the picket line last Sunday, the lockout did seem to be serving as a lightning rod for workers across the country who believe the time has come for them to stand up for their rights.
“I cannot stand by and watch injustice,” said Ashley Feeney, a welder at the Halifax shipyards represented by Unifor Local 1. “This isn’t just a fight for Local 594 — this is a fight for every single worker in Canada that has an interest in pensions.”
Back in December, during the initial round of negotiations, FCL said it did not believe asking employees to contribute to their pension plans was an “unreasonable” request. The company noted it had offered an 11.75 per cent wage increase over four years.
Kevin Bittman, president of Unifor Local 594, said workers weren’t willing to accept what they saw as a significant hit to their pensions based on the company’s profits. Saskatoon-based FCL, which is owned by 170 independent local co-operatives across Western Canada, reported 2019 earnings of $959 million and said it would return $649 million to local co-ops.
According to Bittman, FCL wanted workers to contribute 11 per cent of their salaries into their pensions. Per the most recent collective agreement, workers currently do not contribute to their pensions.
The two sides met again in early February and Bittman said during that round of negotiations, the company demanded more concessions. He charges that the company’s new concessions would have affected scheduling, removed the top job in the bargaining unit and removed language protecting maintenance workers.
“Every time we talk about something or move towards something, they change the goal post and they want more,” said Doherty, the union negotiator.
He said the resources FCL has put into keeping the plant running have effectively deprived the union of any bargaining power. He said the company’s tactics, which he claims include bringing in trailers to house the temporary workers hired to run the plant and flying them in by helicopter, have added fuel to the fire.
He said the company’s actions signal not just an attack against Local 594, but against the entire labour movement.
“This is a fight about showing the labour movement isn’t going to sit down and idly take employers continuing to demand concessions and right-wing governments continuing to take stuff away from us,” he said.
As the dispute drags on, Regina’s police Chief Evan Bray has said both sides are “essentially holding our city hostage a little bit.” He said the dispute was taking away from valuable police resources, particularly in light of a recent spate of homicides in the city.
It’s evident that unions are losing their bargaining power and overall influence in the private sector, said Larry Savage, a professor in the Department of Labour studies at Brock University.
The overall share of workers represented by unions in the private sector is less than 20 per cent, Savage said. Some, such as Charles Smith, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, put that number closer to 14 per cent. The two co-authored the book Unions in Court: Organized Labour and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Automation and outsourcing of jobs have played a role in unions losing power, but Savage said the single greatest factor is higher income inequality throughout society.
Unionized workers are perceived by some as working in an “island of privilege,” he said, leading to a trend of “reverse class resentment.”
“That creates a dynamic where very profitable companies can pit union members who have pension and benefits against other working class people who don’t have those rights.”
Savage said he’s found the torrent of vitriol and hatred spewed toward the union on social media somewhat surprising.
He added that the length and intensity of this lockout is more reminiscent of strikes he saw in the 1970s and ’80s.
“I think what we’re seeing is that people are rising up and saying no to employers who now are taking advantage of the political and economic moment to try and drive down compensation, benefits, entitlements and pensions,” Savage said.
“I do wonder if 2020 is gonna be the year of the revival of labour disputes.”
In recent years, the labour movement has not exactly been united, especially after Unifor left the Canadian Labour Congress in 2018.
According to Smith, that created a lot of resentment and bad blood. He said that when police in Regina decided to move aggressively against the picketers, it “unified the labour movement in a way that I have not seen in over a decade.”
“It also takes on a very special flavour, because it’s oil and gas workers,” Smith said, noting the sector is an important emblem of the western working class economy.
The industry is sacred in Western Canada, and Smith noted that politicians who have crafted their political brand around defending the oil and gas industry haven’t been very supportive of the unionized workers.
He pointed to Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who was vocal in his support of the yellow vest movement and what Smith called its muddled message of pro oil wand gas, with some anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment thrown in.
“He was quick to criticize anybody who spoke out against (yellow vesters) as not defending workers. Here’s an opportunity to defend workers and he refuses to do that,” Smith said.
The eventual outcome of this dispute could signal that either the labour movement in Canada has reached an impasse, or that it’s on the verge of a sort of renaissance for workers’ rights.
“I think it’s sort of ramped it up,” Smith said. “To a degree that the unions are like, ‘If we don’t draw a line in the sand now, what’s the purpose of these workers having a union?’”
Back on the picket line in Regina, Skulski seems uncertain how or when this dispute will end.
But he’s prepared to play the long game. At the very least, the dispute has deepened his appreciation for his union.
“Just hanging with the guys is good,” he said. “When I go home and I’m starting to get down, I just come here and it brings me up again. I’m starting to feel better and better every day.”