With the refinery smokestack blazing in the background, locked out Co-op workers – along with unions from across the country – rallied once more on Wednesday. They were emboldened, rather than deterred, by the arrest of Unifor National president Jerry Dias and 13 other Unifor members on the picket line two days before. Flags from more than a dozen unions – from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) to the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) to the Seafarers International Union of Canada – flew as Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), took the mic. Yussuff flew in to speak at the rally and show CLC’s support of the more than 750 workers who have been locked out since December 5, 2019.
Greeting the crowd as “brothers and sisters, friends and comrades,” Yussuff said that CLC would “stand together, fight together,” with Unifor. Yussuff’s presence is significant not only because CLC is the labour organization with which the majority of Canadian trade unions are affiliated, but also because the support comes almost exactly two years after a bitter split, when Unifor – Canada’s largest private sector union – disaffiliated from the CLC. At the time, CBC reported that Yussuff had accused Unifor of severing ties so they could raid other unions for members, an act that Dias denied. But it seems that now, both parties are willing to put the rights of workers before any lingering disputes. “As a labour movement, we know that when an employer gets greedy it destroys the lives of working people,” Yussuff said. “We will have none of it.”
Mark Hancock, the national president of CUPE, who spoke after Yussuff, admitted that the assembled unions were a motley crew. “We’re an odd group,” Hancock said. “[But] we all understand […] we’re all workers.” Hancock added that the actions of the Regina Police Service on Monday night had “created a powder keg.” Tom Graham, the president of CUPE Saskatchewan, who spoke in an interview, agreed that part of the reason CUPE Sask. had made a declaration of support for the locked-out workers was because of the way the situation had “escalated,” especially after the arrests. “We’re not happy with the way any of it is going,” Graham said. “We want to assist in getting public support for this.”
Graham added that Federated Co-operatives Limited’s (FCL) attacks on worker pensions that led to the lock-out weren’t unique. “That’s been the new mantra in the corporate world,” he said. “That somehow the defined benefit pension plan is unsustainable and there’s too much risk on the employer.” Graham said he didn’t disagree that the defined benefit plan that is at the root of this lock-out is a “liability” for the employer, but “they are much better suited to carry that liability,” he said. “Pensions go up, they go down, but over the long term they make money and they are – assuming they’re managed properly – able to pay at the end of the day.
“The defined benefit plan is a good way of doing things. It is not unsustainable,” he added
Conspicuous in his absence from the rally was Dias, who currently faces up to two years in jail if he shows up on the Refinery picket line. But the president of Unifor National said he’s not going anywhere. “Co-op has many gas stations and stores and other facilities that I am going to be spending a considerable amount of time at over the next while,” he told the Sask Dispatch. Dias said that the fight isn’t really about the cost of the defined benefit plan. “This has nothing to do with the costs of the pensions. This has everything to do with breaking the union, and that’s not going to happen under any circumstances.”
Dias is frustrated with the media’s focus on Unifor’s tactics, like the public scrutiny that followed the “Meet the Scabs” video, which showed the names and photos of the scab workers who have been crossing the picket line to work for FCL, mistakenly including the name and photo of one man who had not actually scabbed. The video has since been removed.
Dias said the union’s tactics are not the problem. “When people second-guess our tactics about outing them, I say they should look in a mirror because the issue is the use of scabs in the first place, not us outing them.”
Like Graham, who said the battle is “a labour issue,” Dias said the fight is about more than just justice for members of Unifor 594. “The labour movement understands the importance of this fight because if a company that makes $3 million a day can force concessions on workers, well then the chances of private- and public-sector workers keeping their pensions becomes more difficult,” he said. “Ultimately, we’re dealing with provincial governments that, every second word out of their mouths is ‘austerity.’ So if we can’t keep our pensions with this employer, then we’re going to have one hell of a challenge with the rest.”
“We understand that the laws are stacked against working-class people,” Dias said. “But the simple reality is, we don’t have to accept that.”
Back at the rally, the speakers were united in their support. "When working people are striking and standing up for their rights, Canadians will stand up and defend them," Yussuff said. “We will not be divided.”
Lana Payne, the national secretary-treasurer of Unifor who stepped in to MC the rally in Dias’ absence, also did not waver. “We’re going to hold the line.”