Three months into the messy labour dispute between Regina’s Co-op refinery and its locked out workers, a city councillor is hoping to call on the provincial government for binding arbitration.
Andrew Stevens, who represents Ward 3, said it’s possible the current special mediation effort could fail and he thinks there needs to be a Plan B. He has a notice of motion going to city council Wednesday requesting that his colleagues support making an official ask to the Saskatchewan government.
“It’s an offensive reality that we’re witnessing,” said Stevens, also an industrial relations professor at the University of Regina, citing the arrest of Unifor’s national president in Regina on Jan. 20 and subsequent calls by Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL) for union bosses facing charges to serve jail time. “That’s actually what brought a lot of labour organizers and activists to Regina.
“This is not doing us any justice in this city.”
The lockout began on Dec. 5, after mediation over pension security concerns broke down. Picketers, accused of stopping vehicles from entering the refinery, were slapped with a court order not to hold them up. The union not only flew in its big bosses, but other workers from across the country, and set up blockades. At other Co-op service stations across the prairies, barricades went up as well.
While the union insists it’s ready to bargain, FCL said it will only do so if all of the fences come down.
“It’s clear based on how this dispute has unfolded that the employer has the upper hand,” Stevens said, adding he thinks FCL is prepared if the dispute continues.
Adding to the power imbalance is the perception that FCL has the support of the city, said Stevens, who is in favour of anti-replacement worker legislation.
The city approved FCL’s temporary worker camps at the outset of the dispute. While Stevens said it followed protocol, he’s hearing from people that the city has taken a side.
“Whether it’s real or not, the appearance is we’re siding with FCL and the Co-op refinery,” Stevens said.
He noted Regina Police Service, which has had “an incredibly measured” response, is also coming under fire.
Certain activities, such as cordoning off 9th Avenue, on which the refinery is located, and ticketing parked cars, is “making it increasingly difficult for legal picketing to take place,” Stevens said.
It’s not just Regina’s reputation that’s at stake. Economically, the city is taking a hit as well, Stevens said.
University of Regina economics professor Jason Childs said although there is a slight boom in hotel room bookings and rental cars, the 700 or so workers who would normally be shopping in their city are having to drastically curb their spending.
He estimates their strike pay to be approximately one third of their regular wages.
“Is this a good thing for Regina? I really don’t see how it can be a net positive for the local economy,” Childs said.
While the workers themselves are probably scaling back, those working in businesses impacted by the fiscal restraint are also going to be losing out, Childs said.
“You need to understand not just what is happening, but what would have happened if the lockout hadn’t occurred,” he said.
Stevens said his motion is also intended to raise awareness of the overall and growing cost of the labour dispute to the city.