Union members from Canada and around the world were represented on a Regina picket line Wednesday as leaders from the nation’s largest unions came to the city to show support for locked-out Unifor Local 594 workers.
Representatives from more than a dozen unions joined the picket line/barricade outside the Co-op Refinery Complex on Wednesday afternoon, flying flags and holding placards. Local labour, including the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU) and the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) were in attendance, but so too were national and international unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Canada Labour Congress (CLC), and even the Seafarers’ International Union of Canada.
Seafarers’ president Jim Given came to landlocked Regina to throw his union’s weight into the dispute. Before heading here, Given got a text from the general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITWF) Steven Cotton. The ITWF represents 667 unions around the world.
“He said, ‘well you bring a message from me, and you bring a message for our 12 million members of the ITF. We know what’s going on here,’” said Given. “11 and a half million union members are now focused on Regina.”
Hassan Yussuff, president of CLC which represents more than three million Canadian workers, spoke of the need for solidarity.
“As working people we understand that fundamental gains have been made when we stand together and fight together,” he said.
On Monday night when police arrested 14 people at Gate 7, three City of Regina trucks and a front-end loader came to the CRC’s Fleet Street entrance. During the rally Lana Payne, Unifor’s national secretary-treasurer, said the city workers refused to take part in any action that would disrupt the picket line, prompting a chant of “solidarity,” with English and French inflection heard throughout the crowd.
“Those workers are members of CUPE,” said Payne.
Mark Hancock is president of CUPE, Canada’s largest union representing more than 700,000 people.
He said he heard Monday night that “shit had hit the fan here in Regina,” adding the police had done something horrible, creating a powder keg. “Arresting Jerry (Dias, Unifor’s national president) and all of those Unifor leaders, activists, was incredibly stupid,” he said, calling on the Regina Police Service (RPS) to apologize.
Dias and 13 others were charged with mischief and set to make their first appearances in a Regina courtroom on Feb. 26.
Speaking earlier this week, RPS Chief Evan Bray defended the move, saying the police must ensure public safety and uphold the law. “Is it legal to completely barricade a business in our community?” he asked. A judge’s contempt of court decision released Wednesday as the rally was underway answered that question with a no.
During Wednesday’s rally, Payne described police as being on scene with “SWAT teams and tear gas.”
RPS spokeswoman Elizabeth Popowich said members of the crowd control unit were on scene and while they did bring riot gear (like a shield), that equipment was left in the vehicles.
“The embellishments that have been offered are simply not true. There was no SWAT present. There was no tear gas anywhere in the vicinity,” Popowich said.
She said this is not the first time people have “exaggerated or deliberately misled people with respect to what we do.”
Payne led the rally in-lieu of Dias, who is barred from attending the picket line under his release conditions.
“Free Jerry!” shouted a Quebec Unifor member, eliciting laughs from the crowd of hundreds gathered.
“He faces two years in jail if he was to show up here today, that is the conditions of his release,” said Payne, prompting the pickets to cry out “shame” and “welcome to Canada.”
On Tuesday evening, following the hostilities of Monday, the barricade felt more like a party than a fight. Police were not present on Fleet Street as pickets danced, ate hotdogs and set up a small badminton net near cars with flattened, or no tires at all.
To Yussef and Hancock the struggle at Regina’s CRC — where the key sticking point is pensions — has become a symbol for working people across Canada fighting for “dignity,” as Yussef put it.
“This fundamental fight about pensions is going on across this country, especially with private sector unions and public sector unions,” said Hancock. “If they take away pensions in the private sector, we in the public sector know they’re coming after ours next. This is a fight for the whole labour movement”
Yussuf said the provincial government has a legal and moral responsibility to get the two sides back to the bargaining table. Premier Scott Moe and Opposition leader Ryan Meili, who attended the rally, sent letters this week urging as much.
— with files from Austin Davis