How Does the Dispute Between Unifor and Co-op Compare to Past Labour Battles in Sask.?

Written by Bryan Eneas · CBC News · Posted: Feb 06, 2020 5:00 AM CT | Last Updated: February 6

Labour disputes are part of the historical fabric of Saskatchewan.

Regina’s mayor and chief of police are both keeping public safety at the top of their minds in discussions with the union representing locked out employees and their employer. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

It’s been two months since employees of the Co-op Refinery in Regina were locked out, but how does the lockout compare to other labour disputes in the province’s history?

From the Regina Riot, to the 1997 dispute between the Retail Wholesale and Departments Store Union and Pepsi, to the 1999 Saskatchewan Union of Nurses strike, to the most recent dispute between the province and Crown employees, labour disruptions are part of the historical fabric of Saskatchewan. 

Charles Smith, an associate political studies professor at the University of Saskatchewan who contributed to The Canadian Labour Movement, A Short History, reflected on some of those disputes and offered some insights as to where he thinks the current lockout ranks among them. 

“In some ways, it’s very similar to the [Saskatchewan Union of Nurses] strike,” Smith said. 

“You had years of tension building up to this dispute. What makes it different though is it’s a private sector dispute.”

He also compared it to a 1997 strike in Saskatoon, where the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union went on strike against Pepsi. Smith said workers occupied the Pepsi plant as a form of labour disruption.

That led to a Supreme Court of Canada decision on whether or not picketing was freedom of expression, Smith said.

He said he sees some of that rhetoric being used in the dispute between Unifor and Federated Co-op Ltd., with the union saying picketing is should be allowed under freedom of expression.

The dispute, he said, is unique from others in the last decade in a least one sense.

“We haven’t seen this type of militancy from workers in quite a long time,” he said. 

“There’s a whole host of reasons for that. Look nationally, workers are striking less than they used to. Employers have gained a lot more power in the last 20 years in terms of their ability to have capital mobility and move across different zones.”

He said these types of disputes arise when unions and employers alike dig their heels in and become not willing to give up any ground. 

Shelagh Campbell, an associate professor in the faculty of business administration at the University of Regina, agreed there hasn`t been this level of militancy from a union in recent history. 

She noted it’s been a long time since there has been police intervention, as well as national and international support for workers on the picket lines in a labour dispute like there has been currently. 

Campbell said the dispute between Unifor and Federated Co-op Ltd. also represents something symbolic in Canadian labour relations. 

“It certainly started as a very local issue, with a local organization and a local workforce, and over time, as the conflict has escalated, we have seen that this has now come to represent more fundamental issues in the labour movement,” she said.

She said the dispute between the two parties is very similar to many other disputes provincially and nationally in Canada in the last few decades where pensions were a sticking point.

Campbell said it`s is also about power, the ability of either party involved to have an effective voice and impact on their negotiations, and their relationship in a system of regulations and law.

Campbell said the union’s message is that their power is “hollow” or not very effective if the employer can operate as if things were normal — as Co-op has done by bringing in replacement workers.

She said that from the employers perspective, their tactic seems to be using the law as framework, which has happened through injunctions and calling on police to enforce court orders. 

Campbell also said this is one of the first — if not the first — labour dispute that has an important climate aspect to it. 

“Because we’re talking about the petroleum industry and because there has been some indication in some of the communication that the future is uncertain in terms of demand, long-term, for the products from the refinery… this might be one of, perhaps, what might be increasingly difficult conflicts in that industry in terms of labour relations,” she said.

She said the conflict between Unifor and Co-op is similar to many other labour disputes that have happened in Saskatchewan and Canada as a whole.

Where it differs is that this is a dispute in the private sector. She said many of the disputes in Saskatchewan’s history are public sector disputes.

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