Edmonton

Alberta's longest legal lockout in 2 decades is ending. Now what?

June 28 marks the two-year anniversary of the lockout at Cessco, a steel fabricator on Edmonton's south side. Under Alberta law, the lockout must now end. It's still unclear what the future holds for the remaining picketers and the company.

June 28 marks 2nd anniversary of lockout at Edmonton steel fabricator Cessco

Arno Schulz, seated at right, and and a handful of fellow picketers still station the entrances and exits of the Cessco compound. (Stephen Cook/CBC)

For two years, Arno Schulz has picketed outside the Cessco Fabrication and Engineering Ltd. compound on Edmonton's south side.

"I just think this is sad that any person would do this to somebody," Schulz, a boilermaker by trade, said last week.

"If I treated my dog like this, I'd be put in jail."

Specializing in manufacturing pressure vessels and other large components for the petrochemicals industry, Cessco was established in Edmonton in 1948, just a year after the Leduc No. 1 oil discovery. The company is owned by Ontario-based Canerector Inc.

Cessco's large compound occupies more than two city blocks along 99th Street, south of 75th Avenue.

About 35 workers were locked out on June 28, 2020 after negotiations broke down between the company and Boilermakers Local 146. The union initiated strike action the same day.

Picketers say there haven't been replacement workers at the facility since around January. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Tuesday marks the two-year anniversary of the dispute. At 730 days, it is the longest legal work stoppage in Alberta since at least 2000, according to data from the provincial government.

Under Alberta law, the lockout and strike must now end. But how that will play out — what the future holds for the remaining picketers and the company they worked for — is still unclear.

What happens next will depend on how Cessco wants to proceed, union representative Casey Worden said in an interview at the picket line.

"Our hope is that they'll realize that the lockout didn't really serve a great purpose business-wise, and that they should get their experienced employees back in here and make this place a success," Worden said.

Cessco issued a statement to CBC News on Monday.

"This outcome did not reflect our goals for this negotiation and has severely hurt our enterprise," the statement said.

"No one party is responsible for the extreme length of the strike and lockout and it is a function of the deadlock on various terms which neither the impact of a strike, nor of a lockout, were able to resolve."

The company is "between projects at the moment" but plans to continue fabricating in the future, it said.

"Cessco currently has no work assignments that would enable reinstatement," the statement said. "However, in the event that work becomes available, Cessco is committed to dealing with its workers fairly."

This outcome did not reflect our goals for this negotiation and has severely hurt our enterprise.- Cessco, in a statement.

Bob Barnetson, a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University, said the two-year mark demonstrates that the employer couldn't apply enough pressure to get workers to accept its last offer.

"It also means the union was unable to apply enough pressure to get the employer to move to a place that the union could accept," Barnetson told CBC News.

He suggested that amendments to the Alberta Labour Relations Code may have limited the effectiveness of picketing.

Bill 32 — which was passed roughly a month after the lockout began — prohibited unions from blocking or delaying anyone from crossing a picket line.

The legislation also required unions to seek permission from the labour relations board to picket a second site.

"What's left is basically standing around in the cold," Barnetson said.

The Cessco case should be concerning to labour activists in Alberta, Barnetson added.

"That the union has not been able to bring the employer to the table and get a conclusion for two years should raise some pretty serious concerns about the effectiveness of traditional picketing."

Negotiation breakdown

The most recent collective bargaining agreement between Cessco and the Boilermakers local expired in 2018. Negotiations followed for the next two years.

Jeff Burns, a 23-year Cessco employee, was involved in those talks.

"We weren't trying to take the company down the road where they would fail," Burns said from the picket line. "We were trying to be successful for both parties."

Points of contention centred on pay, pensions and seniority language.

A man wearing sunglasses stands in front of a building.
Jeff Burns, a 23-year Cessco employee, was involved in talks between his union and the company before the workers were locked out. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

When workers were locked out, a few crossed the picket line. Replacement workers were brought in. Fierce confrontations followed between picketing union members and replacement workers.

In the fall of 2020, after reports of physical confrontations between picketers and replacement workers, and about a van trying to force through picketers, the labour relations board issued guidance on picketing at the Cessco site.

Cessco was required to have all vehicles stop for five minutes on entering or exiting when picketers were present. A two-metre barrier between vehicles and picketers was instituted. Picketers were directed to allow vehicles to pass without contact after the five minutes had expired.

Today the Cessco yard is quiet.

Beyond the few remaining picketers, who say they haven't seen any replacement workers in months, there are few signs of activity at the site.

The 64-year-old Schulz, who was a supervisor at Cessco, is among the remaining half-dozen stalwarts who show up to picket at the plant's entries and exits. Drivers on 99th Street sometimes honk their horns as they pass by.

We have some things in play — the game isn't over yet.- Jeff Burns

Schulz and the other remaining picketers have decades of work experience but are only earning strike pay.

"The individuals you see out here today have stuck this out from Day 1, because we can," said Burns.

"Any of the members that were going to be significantly burdened financially were able to pull slips within the local and secure themselves some work and an income that they can live with."

When the lockout began in 2020, about 30 unionized workers took up pickets. (Boilermakers Local 146/EndOurLockout.org)

The Alberta Labour Relations Code dictates that a strike or lockout ends two years from the date it began. At that point, an employee can request to be reinstated in preference to any employee hired as a replacement.

However, the code also states that nothing requires an employer to reinstate an employee where there is no one performing the same or similar work, or there has been a suspension of operations.

Burns said he's not worried about what comes next.

"We have some things in play — the game isn't over yet," he said. "They may think it is but we're not going away that easy."

A man wearing sunglasses holds a sign that says End the Cessco Lockout.
Arno Schulz, a boilermaker who was working as a supervisor before Cessco locked out its employees, says he may "pack it in" after the lockout ends. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

For Schulz, the end of the lockout may also mark the end of his more than four decades with Cessco.

"I was so close to retirement that chances are I will just pack it in," he said. 

He's already applied for his pension and is confident it will be unaffected but for the two years he has not made contributions.

He said he could never have imagined events would play out like they did.

"This is not right to do this to the working person," he said. "All the years that we've given them, it doesn't make any sense to me."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Cook

Reporter

Stephen Cook is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. He has covered stories on a wide range of topics with a focus on policy, politics, post-secondary education and labour. You can reach him via email at stephen.cook@cbc.ca.

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