Source: Bryan Eneas/CBC

The heroic struggle of Regina Co-op refinery workers has ended in defeat. On June 22, Unifor announced that members of Local 594 voted to ratify a tentative agreement with the Co-op Refinery Complex.  This will return 730 workers to their jobs after a lockout of nearly seven months that marked a turning point for the class struggle in Canada. 

Despite a face-saving “return-to-work” agreement that protects workers from being fired based on their roles in the lockout, the final agreement is effectively the same deal that members rejected in April, offering concessions on nearly every front. Yet for all the attempts of refinery owner Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) to crush the union, Unifor 594 has lived to fight another day. The union has been bloodied, but not beaten.

The fight to defend pensions

The dispute that prompted Co-op to lock out its employees on Dec. 5 lay in the company’s efforts to move refinery workers from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution pension plan. As Fightback noted in an earlier article, the move towards defined-contribution plans—which, unlike defined-benefit plans, are dependent on the fund’s performance in the market—has been part of a growing trend among bosses in recent decades. Capitalists favour defined-contribution plans because they require fewer obligations to their workforce, while workers take on far greater risk.

Co-op supposedly offered refinery workers the option of switching to a defined-contribution plan or retaining their defined-benefit plans, but this “choice” was illusory. Should workers have chosen the latter, they would have been required to start contributing money towards their own plans. Throughout the ensuing lockout, every offer from Co-op maintained the basic demand that workers begin contributing to their own pension plans. In essence, this demand would entail transferring risk and the burden of paying for pensions from bosses to workers, amounting to an effective wage cut.

In its press release announcing ratification of the tentative agreement with Co-op, Unifor stated: “The new collective agreement maintains the defined benefit pension plan and the company matched employee savings plan for existing workers. Wage improvements in the new collective agreement match the National Pattern.” Yet if union leaders hoped to satiate their members’ appetite for good news, these statements amount to rather thin gruel.

The hard truth is that the final agreement includes all the concessions on pensions that Co-op had previously demanded. Under the terms of the agreement, Unifor members will begin contributing four per cent of their earnings toward their pensions immediately after ratification. Those contributions are set to increase to eight per cent as of Feb. 1, 2022. The following year, employee contributions could rise to 9.75 per cent of wages or higher.

The agreement also includes an 11.75 per cent wage increase over four years, matching the minimum standard set by the National Pattern. In other words, these wage improvements amount to the bare minimum based on industry-wide bargaining standards. With refinery workers now contributing an increasing part of their wages towards their pensions, there is no avoiding the fact that the new agreement represents a net transfer of wealth from workers to bosses.

Unifor reports that 89 per cent of members voted to approve the tentative agreement. This figure represents the same percentage of members who voted to reject the company’s “final offer” in April, identical to the tentative agreement in all its essentials. The only difference is the “return-to-work” agreement, which protects members from termination based on their actions during the lockout through an accelerated process to deal with claims of wrongful dismissal.

Adding insult to injury, Co-op announced less than a week after ratification of the agreement that it would be temporarily laying off approximately 100 refinery workers. The company cited effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for its decision: specifically, self-isolation measures leading to reduced demand for its products, as well as the need for physical distancing in the workplace. Strangely enough, Co-op exhibited no such concern for physical distancing during the lockout when it flew in hundreds of scab workers to live in crowded camp housing. Workers and occupational health experts warned at the time that the scab camp could serve as a serious incubator for spreading COVID-19 in the community.

Bosses take the gloves off

The lockout of Unifor 594 members saw an intensification of the class struggle to a level not seen in Canada for decades. The vicious response of the bosses and the state has shattered illusions that the kind of labour struggles seen in the 1930s were a thing of the past. State repression, and the use of reactionary thugs to intimidate workers, is now the new normal. With the economic downturn sparked by COVID-19 paving the way for a crisis of capitalism even more severe than the Great Depression, the experience of Co-op refinery workers offers a glimpse of the titanic labour struggles to come.

The decision of the company to impose a lockout itself underscored the lengths to which the bosses were willing to go to attack workers in order to increase their own profits. Co-op management locked out refinery workers less than 48 hours after Local 594 members voted to strike if necessary against the rollback of pensions. Three days later, the company began crossing picket lines by flying in scabs and supplies via helicopter. It also launched a propaganda campaign characterized by brazen lies, falsely describing Unifor members as being on strike and accusing them of wanting to “shut down the Western Canadian fuel supply.”

Soon the state intervened to support the bosses. A judge issued an order on Dec. 24 restraining Unifor from impeding traffic moving in and out of the refinery. In an historic demonstration of militancy, refinery workers defied the court injunction. Jan. 20 saw a significant escalation of the conflict as police violence erupted against locked-out workers. More than a dozen Unifor members, including national president Jerry Dias, were arrested for enforcing the picket.

The arrest of union leaders marked a watershed moment not just for the Co-op lockout, but for the class struggle in Canada as a whole. No major union leader had been arrested on a picket line in Canada since 1979. Fightback in the past has often criticized the timidity and class collaborationism of labour leaders as represented by the likes of Dias. But dialectically, the sharpening of the class struggle led things to turn into their opposite. The arrest of Dias and other Unifor leaders forced them, against all their habits and inclinations, to take a more militant stance by defying the law. Dias announced that Unifor members would not obey the court injunction against hard pickets.

Advances and retreats

In the days that followed, workers outside Regina set up blockades in support of Unifor 594. These included a fuel storage facility in Carseland, Alta. and a fuel station in Weyburn, Sask., both owned by FCL. Hundreds of Unifor members flew in from across Canada to join the refinery blockade in Regina.

As the movement grew, FCL and the state intensified their efforts to undermine it. A Regina judge ruled that Unifor was in contempt of court and imposed a $100,000 fine against the union for defying its court injunction against impeding traffic in and out of the refinery. Then Dias announced that Unifor would comply with the injunction on the sole condition that FCL return to the bargaining table. The advance of Unifor leaders in pledging to defy the law, followed by their retreat by declaring that they would accept the injunction, marked the first instance of a pattern that would define the remainder of the lockout.

Co-op interpreted the offer of Dias as weakness, and as the saying goes, weakness invites aggression. Renewed bargaining stalled out after less than a day and Unifor members restored their blockade, but Co-op used the brief opening of the blockade to restock supplies for the scab camp and move fuel out of the refinery. It was only after the blockade was restored that Unifor lead negotiator Scott Doherty revealed that the union had offered Co-op additional concessions, in the form of workers contributing six per cent of their earnings towards pensions. Co-op in response only demanded more concessions, such as the elimination of certain union positions at the refinery.

In February, Co-op increased its pressure on the union. Lawyers representing the Co-op refinery asked a Regina judge to impose a $1 million fine on Unifor 594 and to jail two of its leaders if the union did not comply with the December court injunction. It also sought daily $100,000 fines if the union continued to defy injunctions. In perhaps an even more threatening gesture, FCL CEO Scott Banda began to extend friendly overtures to United We Roll—a group associated with the far-right Yellow Vest Canada movement, whose members had threatened to run over Unifor members on the picket lines. Meanwhile, Regina police did their part to attack the union by harassing workers on the picket line, taking down barricades, and removing warming shelters and bathroom facilities that Unifor had set up to help its members hold the lines in the bitterly cold Saskatchewan winter.

Were there any further doubt about the state’s hostility to the working class, in May the revelation emerged that Regina’s mayor and police had received a bomb threat in February, through an anonymous letter threatening to blow up Unifor blockades if police didn’t dismantle them. Unifor 594 was never warned about this threat.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe also made clear his class loyalties in early February when he offered to appoint a special mediator—but only on the condition that Unifor take down its blockades. On Feb. 6, Unifor released a statement outlining a plan to quickly return their members to work through the appointment of a special mediator if bargaining did not result in a deal in seven days. Banda and FCL dismissed this offer out of hand.

Union left isolated

Source: Unifor

In the face of all this pressure and continued police harassment, the resolve of union leaders began to waver. At last they took down the blockades and on Feb. 12, Moe appointed special mediator Vince Ready to assist in negotiations between Unifor and Co-op. Unifor publicly welcomed the appointment of Ready and, upon the completion of his report on March 22, accepted the mediator’s recommendations. This itself was a mistake, as Ready’s proposed settlement contained many concessions. And yet union leaders were shocked when Co-op rejected those recommendations and demanded even more concessions. Yet again, weakness invited further aggression.

By this time, Saskatchewan had reported its first case of COVID-19. The spread of the pandemic and the economic downturn that followed led to skyrocketing unemployment in Canada. Unifor correctly noted in its press release that Co-op was “using the COVID-19 crisis to leverage even more concessions from oil & gas workers.” In these conditions, and with the lockout entering its fourth month, concrete support from the wider labour movement could have transformed the situation by giving fresh energy to refinery workers and putting additional pressure on Co-op through tactics such as solidarity pickets or declaring a hot edict on all FCL products.

Unfortunately, such actions never materialized. Unifor had called for a consumer boycott of all FCL products as early as December, but this consumer tactic is only useful if it is an auxiliary to wider labour action. Had labour groups across the country declared a hot edict, in which no unionized worker in those organizations would touch any property owned by FCL, power would have been directly in the hands of workers. The operations and profits of FCL would have faced a more severe impact in a shorter time. But in the end, no union or labour federation at the provincial or national level declared a hot edict.

Left largely to their own devices, the refinery workers courageously attempted to maintain the struggle for nearly three more months after Co-op rejected the mediator’s recommendations. In May, Unifor 594 members set up a secondary picket line at the Co-op Foam Lake Cardlock. They picketed around the province at FCL bulk fuel plants, card locks and gas bars. In June, members picketed the FCL headquarters in Regina.

Yet in the absence of concrete support from the broader labour movement and NDP—and with the unwillingness of union leaders to continue defying injunctions—Unifor was reduced to asking the premier to legislate them back to work under the terms recommended by the special mediators. Looking to Scott Moe to save workers was always a doomed strategy. The Moe government had made clear through its actions during the lockout that it sided with Co-op and was willing to wait out the workers and starve them into submission. Furthermore, appealing to Moe—like the union’s call to appoint a special mediator—had the effect of taking power away from the workers.

Predictably, Moe refused to put forward legislation to end the lockout. The contrast with other sectors is hard to miss. In November, Moe urged Ottawa to consider legislating striking CN workers back to work. The use of back-to-work legislation has now become routine in Canada, with premiers and prime ministers reflexively using such laws to crush strikes as soon as they threaten to become effective. But in the case of the Co-op lockout, Moe preferred to sit back and watch Unifor 594 be crushed by their employer. Let this serve as an answer to those who hold illusions in the state as a neutral body. The Co-op lockout has shown once again that the state represents the interests of the ruling class: the capitalist class.

By the time the lockout entered its seventh month in June, Unifor leaders saw few options. Finally, lead negotiators signed the tentative agreement with Co-op giving the company all the concessions it had asked for, which was later ratified by the membership. After more than half a year of bitter class struggle, the refinery lockout was over. While the bosses celebrated, workers swallowed the bitter pill of defeat. 

Role of the NDP

The NDP could have played a significant part in bolstering the struggle of the refinery workers. In the end, however, the federal NDP offered ineffectual action, while the provincial NDP outrageously offered no action at all.

The role of the provincial NDP was unambiguously shameful. Under leader Ryan Meili, the Saskatchewan NDP refused to support anti-scab legislation in the middle of the lockout. David Forbes, the party’s labour critic, said that the Sask. NDP planned to engage in “consultations” on the issue and wanted to ensure there were no “unintended consequences.” Such mealy-mouthed equivocation in a scenario where workers were fighting a desperate struggle for their livelihoods, and in the face of vicious repression from the bosses and the state, cannot be viewed as anything less than a betrayal and a condemnation of Meili’s leadership.

One could not ask for a better explanation for the general lack of enthusiasm towards the NDP. If workers cannot depend on the party to support them when their backs are against the wall, why should anyone be surprised when workers do not support the NDP?

The need to escalate

One of the most important elements in winning a strike or lockout is leadership. In the case of the Co-op lockout, the role of the workers’ leaders was contradictory. While the heroism of rank-and-file union members sustained the struggle over nearly seven months, objective conditions pushed the union leaders towards more radical actions than they wanted to take. For the first time in many years in Canada, a union was willing to defy an unjust law meant to break the workers.

However, Unifor leaders then backtracked and offered up concessions. It was only the intransigence of Co-op management that forced the union leadership to restore the blockades. Throughout the struggle, Unifor leaders made mistakes that resulted in a zig-zag policy: advance followed by retreat; bold militant tactics followed by offers of concessions. This ebb and flow underscores one of the key lessons from the lockout: the need for a consistent, militant strategy by the workers’ leadership.

Ultimately, what was needed to win this lockout was escalation with the help of the broader labour movement. Unions and labour federations could have mobilized their members to create a massive blockade with thousands of people, not just members of Unifor. Sympathy strikes could have put massive pressure on FCL and energized workers across Canada, recognizing that the fight of the refinery workers to defend their pensions was a fight of the entire working class.

By bringing in workers not directly involved, the movement could have become a broader political struggle. In this way, it might not only have ended the lockout on terms favourable for Unifor 594—but increased class consciousness and made workers more aware of their own power. It could have inspired workers to fight back against attacks in other sectors, to go on the offensive against the bosses, and even to build general strikes to bring down unpopular governments.

The lack of such concrete measures to widen the struggle can be laid at the feet of the right-wing leaders of unions and labour federations, who lacked the perspective and will to escalate the fight. But as bosses ramp up their attacks against workers in the future, such ineffectual labour leaders will be pushed aside. The growing militancy of rank-and-file workers, exemplified by the members of Unifor 594, will inevitably find its reflection in a new generation of radical labour leaders.

Live to fight another day

The experience of the Regina Co-op lockout is reminiscent of the 1984-85 miners’ strike in Britain. Like the refinery workers, the miners struggled heroically against state repression. Like the refinery workers, they fought and lost. But it is better to fight and lose than to lose without fighting at all.

At the end of the day, despite its defeat, Unifor 594 is still standing. The union-busting efforts of FCL and the Co-op refinery failed. The events of the last several months have burned themselves into the consciousness of refinery workers. It has also provided vital lessons for the working class in Canada as a whole: on the nature of the capitalist state, the need to defy unjust laws, the importance of militant leadership and a consistent strategy; and the need to escalate and widen labour struggles.

Workers must study these lessons to prepare for future battles in the class war. If we learn these lessons and apply them, we can not only live to fight those struggles—we can win them.