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A tale of two picket lines: Workers and just transition

By: 
Brian Champ

February 26, 2020

Unifor Local 594 members at the Co-op refinery in Regina, Saskatchewan were locked out by their employer, Federated Cooperatives Limited (FCL), on December 5th after the union garnered almost unanimous support for strike action. This was after the contract negotiations broke down because FCL wanted to make deep cuts to pensions. The union members have taken a stand for their future as retirees and have displayed a militancy that has not often been seen in recent labour struggles. 

On January 20th Unifor National President, Jerry Dias, joined the line with members of his executive and other Unifor members to stop scab labour from going in, a very dangerous prospect in an oil refinery, not to mention a union-busting move. “Rogue corporate executives at Co-op have picked a fight with our entire union,” said Dias. “We will continue to escalate job action and do whatever it takes to protect our members’ pensions from corporate greed.”

That same day the Regina police attacked the picket line, in a failed attempt to force scabs through, and fourteen union members were arrested, including Dias. These were to enforce politically motivated injunctions granted by the courts to force through the picket lines. And by defying the injunctions, Unifor has incurred a $100,000 fine.

But this has only enflamed the struggle. 


After the police failed to break up the line, union members erected fencing and used disabled cars as barricades against further police attacks. 


After being released, Dias said “Since the arrests last night, our members are flying in from across the country in droves to get here to Regina, because they’re not going to watch the police bully and push around our members”.


International and cross-union solidarity has been strong, with support from the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL), the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union (SGEU), the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions (CFNU), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Seafarers’ International Union of Canada (SIU Canada). The president of SIU Canada, James Given, relayed a message from the International Transport Workers Federations (ITWF), which represents 12 million workers in almost 700 unions around the world: "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. 11 and a half million union members are now focused on Regina."


The union also called for a boycott of FCL retail outlets, which operates throughout the prairie provinces, including pickets delaying vehicles at the fuel storage facility in Carseland, Alberta.

Unifor Local 222 member Rebecca Keetch, who worked at the GM Oshawa plant up until it closed at the end of last year, agrees, "The struggle at the refinery is certainly a breath of fresh air. The spread of wider labour support is also a very welcome development. Solidarity can only be truly built when we share the burdens and struggle together. I do not feel any bitterness towards the National in regards to their support of the workers there. The circumstances are slightly different as the company has locked those workers out. The big difference is that the National is responding to a clear, worker driven, contractual fight. The part that actually causes me deep bitterness is that the auto industry gave up the defined benefit pension plan for new hires without a fight of any sort. I am proud of the workers at the refinery for taking a stand but how much stronger could that position have been if Unifor had already been militantly fighting to maintain DB pensions in the workplace instead of allowing them to simply be negotiated away for the next generation in auto?"


Co-op strike and the climate

For climate activists this struggle also has a significance, given that by preventing normal operation of the refinery, the production of new supplies of gasoline and other refinery products has been stopped for the time being by workers' strike action. This shows the power of organized workers to stop production of carbon emissions during strikes involving fossil fuel infrastructure. 


Obviously, the driving force for this particular struggle is to defend pensions that were already won in previous struggles, and the strike committee has not explicitly made any climate action demands. Nevertheless within every union, and Unifor is no exception, more and more members are concerned about the climate crisis and the futures that their children will be facing. Many see that continuing business as usual with ever increasing carbon emissions is not an option and are aware that scientists are warning of the collapse of ecosystems that is already starting to happen if we don't reverse course. Of course many unions including Unifor have  members that work in industries that either extract carbon from the ground, work in gas powered automobile manufacturing plants or work in oil refineries or other fossil fuel infrastructure facilities. The workers are aware that these industries are destructive and need to change, but they will be unlikely to support taking action if it means the sacrifice of their jobs. So it's significant that Unifor, along with many other unions include calls for a just transition for workers from declining or phased out industries to good jobs.

This applies not just to workers working in the dirtiest industries, but also a massive expansion of public service jobs in education, health and social work fields that are already low carbon jobs. But if we really hope to have a livable future, we need to stop extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels. This means massive investment in building retrofitting, renewable energy production, low carbon public transit and the de-carbonization of agriculture and more. The truth is the money is already there, in the form of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry of tens of billions of dollars, both directly and indirectly in the form of infrastructure: this money could be invested in developing the sustainable economy, and mitigating the climate crisis. And more money could be diverted from the military as well. The problem is that powerful economic and political forces make immense profits from these industries and have used every trick in the book to resist the transition. And the three main political parties seem beholden to these industries, cheerleading pipelines and new tar sands strip mines as job creators, even though there would be many more climate jobs in a just transition.

Last September Unifor had a Just Transition Conference in Saskatoon, where these ideas were discussed. Gavin McGarrigle, Unifor Western Regional Director in the opening remarks to participants, said “So much of the discussion so far has simply been about targets and about reducing emissions—workers are often an afterthought. That’s wrong. We must fight to be at the very centre of these discussions and fight for good jobs for all going forward.”. The conference went on to discuss the climate justice framework that makes up the Green New Deal, how to build political pressure on governments and the NDP to champion the just transition and the importance of linking up with Indigenous struggles: that building meaningful relationships with Indigenous groups is a must and that unions should join in opposing resource grabs that ignore land and title of First Nations.

These are all important discussions, and it's crucial that unions engage in them to move forward, but there was an important element missing from the conference that could have made the just transition more concrete, raising the level of political discussion on the issue of the climate to a whole new level. This element was the Green Jobs Oshawa campaign, led by rank and file workers and grassroots community labour activists, including Rebecca Keetch, which argued that the closing Oshawa GM plant should be nationalized under workers control to produce goods for the sustainable economy, such as electric vehicles.

Green Jobs Oshawa

Since the 1970's, the leaders of global capitalism have pushed a neoliberal agenda, that opposed regulation of capital and investment in public services. This supposedly would improve the operation of the economy and lift everyone up in the process. In reality it's increased the pressure on people to make ends meet, and the economy is still prone to crisis. Even after being bailed out by the Canadian government in 2008, In November 2019, GM announced they would close the Oshawa assembly plant, a closure that happened at the end of last year. 


But this announcement sparked a walkout by the workers in the plant, which was quickly wound down by the union leadership saying they would get a deal. A grass roots campaign to nationalize the plant under workers control to manufacture products for the green economy was proposed by rank and file Unifor Local 222 workers and Durham Region Labour Council activists. The Green Jobs Oshawa campaign began, raising awareness through petitions, meetings, actions and media. Through this campaign, workers articulated a program for the just transition in Oshawa in a concrete way that many other workers could relate to. 


At the Ontario NDP convention last May, resolutions were submitted that called for just transitions for workers in GM Oshawa and one of these was adopted by the convention, though not endorsing or acknowledging the Green Jobs Oshawa campaign. It's weak language called on governments "to explore alternative forms of ownership, including a new vision or a publicly owned facility that could produce green vehicles and/or any other product that meets public need in order to face the climate crisis and transition to a green new economy".

Sadly, the NDP campaign in the 2019 election ignored this important struggle, which could have been dynamite in an era of economic uncertainty and fear and anger about the inaction on the climate crisis. This could have meant a concrete NDP Just Transition platform in the October federal election, but this was not to be.


Student climate strikers who heard of the campaign overwhelmingly supported it, as did many climate action and climate justice groups. Rebecca Keetch was one of the rally speakers at the November 29th Global Climate Strike in Toronto and was well received by the thousands in attendance. 


Mirroring the attitude of the NDP, the Unifor Local 222 and national leaderships did not champion this proposal widely instead accepting a deal that only preserved a handful of jobs. Just as the pension battle could have started in a stronger position if auto industry pensions had been fought for a decade ago, the very existence of a Green Jobs Oshawa campaign driven by the national union executive at the same time as the ongoing picket line battles in Regina, could have linked this picket line battle to the climate crisis, enabling a union discussion on a concrete proposal for a just transition to a green economy for Co-op Refinery workers.

As Rebecca Keetch from the Green Jobs Oshawa campaign puts it: "I understand there is a balancing act in maintaining jobs in an industry in decline, such as auto when the corporations seem to have all the power, but that is why campaigns like Green Jobs Oshawa become so important. If Labour isn’t working to transform our society we will forever be losing ground and in this time when the stakes of climate justice and social justice are so very high we must continually be acting transformatively."

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