Most people dream of flying south this time of year. But earlier this winter, I flew west — straight into the teeth of the cold Saskatchewan winter.
I booked my plane ticket when I heard that more than a dozen Unifor members, including their National President Jerry Dias, had been arrested and charged while walking their picket lines outside the Co-op Refinery in Regina.
As President of a public service union that represents folks who work in Ontario, why did I go to another province to support private sector workers who belong to another union?
Because as has been extensively reported in the media I’m one of vast array of working people from across the country who are rallying to support these workers.
It is a watershed moment. This lockout captures almost perfectly the struggle that all workers face: employers in both the public and private sectors with the growing power to force us to accept less even when our country is richer than it’s ever been before.
The power of the employer in Regina is frighteningly clear. Despite the fact that they make $3 million a day, they’re trying to force their workers to accept deep concessions to their pensions.
When the workers refused, the employer locked them out and started spending a fortune on flying in replacement workers by helicopter.
And then when the workers and their leader tried to picket the refinery, police and ultimately the courts were used as the employer’s agents. Dias was arrested and, even though he hasn’t been convicted of anything, he is now prohibited from walking his members’ picket lines.
That’s right: the police released Dias, but through direction from above made it a condition of his release that he not attend any of the refinery picket lines. In other words, the company achieved its real goal — disrupting lawful picketing — without the inconvenience of producing evidence, a trial, or a conviction.
How can Dias do his job as his members’ democratically elected leader when he can’t even take part in their job actions without fear of serious legal reprisal?
This lockout is an outrageous overreach by an employer bent on concessions without reason. And now we have an even more outrageous overreach by those directing the police, to intervene in a private labour dispute.
As the Regina police chief has publicly said there have been a number of homicides recently in Regina that are demanding the attention of his officers. Instead, officers are taking time away from work that would actually help their community in order to empower a big, successful company to make even more money at the expense of its workers.
Clearly, this is a civil dispute so why is this employer turning to the criminal justice system when there are remedies available in the civil courts. Aren’t the criminal courts busy enough?
If the Co-op is allowed to get away with this in Regina, prepare for unscrupulous employers across the country to use the same tactics on their workers too.
Your pension. Your benefits. Your wages. Your employer could come for any of them, or all of them at once.
And if you say no and find yourself on a picket line, will the local police be directed to come for you, too?
Here in Ontario, OPSEU has always had a good relationship with the province’s police forces. I don’t want to see them pushed in the same direction that they’ve been in Saskatchewan, and that’s one of the reasons, as workers, we are saying no more.
We are standing together to draw a line in the snow.
On one side of the line are the ever-more powerful forces pushing to maximum profits at all costs. Forces so powerful that they’re able to use the police and the courts as their own agents.
But on the other side of the line is a force that’s even more powerful: workers standing together in strong unions like OPSEU. We put people, families, and communities first. Then. Now. Always.