Saskatchewan

Sask. premier, NDP leader urge both Co-op and Unifor to return to bargaining table

Unifor members served a strike notice in early December. They have been locked out of the Co-op Refinery Complex since Dec. 5.

The messages come after tensions escalated Monday between the union and the oil refinery

Unifor said they had to put up the fences to protect their members. (Fiona Odlum/CBC)

Premier Scott Moe and Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili have waded into the labour dispute between the Co-op Refinery Complex in Regina and locked out Unifor workers. Both say they are encouraging the two sides to come together at the bargaining table.

"This ongoing and escalating conflict is causing problems for the workers, for that business, for the economy in Regina and the province," Meili told reporters in Saskatoon.

"It's causing folks to have concerns about safety when we're talking about such an important and and high-level facility," Meili said. 

In his reply to Meili, Moe agreed the dispute, which entered its 48th day on Tuesday, should be resolved at the bargaining table. An Occupational Health and Safety inspection was completed at the Refinery earlier this month, he said, and no contraventions were issued.

Minister of Labour Relations and Workplace Safety Don Morgan said in a statement that the ministry encouraged both sides to resume bargaining.

Tensions escalated Monday evening when dozens of Regina Police Service members were dispatched to the scene and arrested union members for mischief.

"I also reinforced the government's expectation that any action taken during the ongoing labour dispute be lawful and peaceful," Morgan's statement said.

"While our government is concerned with the increasingly aggressive tactics being used in this labour dispute, we are encouraged by the Regina Police Service's diligence in upholding the law and keeping the peace."

Arrests made, charges laid

Fourteen people — including Unifor national president Jerry Dias — are facing charges after the latest escalations in the dispute.

Unifor 594, which represents about 800 workers at the refinery, issued a 48-hour strike notice in early December. Workers were locked out on Dec. 5, 2019.

In December, after picketers blocked trucks from entering the refinery, a Regina judge issued an injunction stating picketers could block trucks for a maximum of 10 minutes

Unifor says the injunction only applies to Unifor 594 members and does not apply to the national body. This week workers set up barricades at entrances to block people and trucks from entering the refinery. Dias said it was done by workers from other locals.

The refinery said on Monday that the blockades were illegal and a "bullying tactic."

Police went to the barricades Monday and read an order calling for the picketers to remove the barriers or face legal consequences.

Regina police took photographs and stopped at the entrances in the morning on Monday, Jan. 20. They returned and arrested 14 people for mischief later that day. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Over the course of Monday afternoon and evening 14 people were arrested, charged with mischief and later released. Eight were from Ontario, four from B.C. and two from Regina. Unifor national president Jerome Dias — known as Jerry — was one of them.

Dias said Tuesday that police had been aggressive and that he had never seen a police department behave how they did. 

"There's one common role amongst the police. It's to ensure that situations do not escalate. This is not what happened last night," Dias said. "It was clear that the sole purpose that they were there was to escalate the situation."

Jerry Dias, left, and Scott Doherty. Dias was taken into custody by Regina police on Monday as picketers watched tow truck drivers dismantle blockades set up by the union. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Regina Police Chief Evan Bray said at a news conference Tuesday that Unifor has the right to protest and the Refinery has the right to operate their business.

"The reality is that we have two sides in a labour dispute that each have rights and are very vigilant to protect their rights," Regina Police Chief Evan Bray said. 

He said police need to step in when one side crosses the line and affects the rights of the other. 

Bray said the mischief charges were not related to the court injunction. He said what happened Monday was, "a complete disregard for the law." 

"I'm so proud of the officers that were on scene for the professionalism, the respect, the patience and the integrity that they held at the scene," he said. "They took a lot and gave very little back."

A video has been circulating of Dias' arrest. Bray said the arresting officer didn't know who Dias was at the time and treated him with respect. 

The head of Canada's largest private sector union was taken into police custody in Regina on Jan. 20, 2020. Unifor national president Jerry Dias and 14 others were arrested, according to Regina police 0:55

"I don't know what he wanted. I don't know that gentleman at all. I know that sometimes if you give a person a fur coat they think they're King Kong. And at the end of the day nobody's above the law," Bray said.

Dias said he was arrested by "an incredibly aggressive policeman" and has been ordered not to go within 500 metres of the Refinery. 

"My father has an old saying you give somebody a fur coat and they'll think they're King Kong,"  Dias said, using the same language Bray had in the earlier news conference. "[The officer] was determined he was going to get in my face."

Jerry Dias said the police only escalated things on Monday night at the picket line. (Charles Lalande/CBC)

Dias said he spent seven hours in a cell at the police station. He said the police kept him for longer than other people arrested at the picket because of who he was.

"This is a situation where the mayor and others need to get directly involved because you can't have the police acting as thugs," Dias said. 

Mayor Michael Fougere said there's a lot of anger and emotion in the dispute. 

"I'm appealing to the members of Unifor to understand the issue of public safety is actually critical as they go about their business," Fougere said. 

Chief Evan Bray said there are two sides to the labour dispute and the police service will remain impartial but uphold the law. (Cory Herperger/CBC)

Bray said more arrests could happen as police gather video and other evidence. 

Dias said Unifor will pay the legal fees of anyone arrested. The 14 people charged Monday are all scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 26. 

Dias said more Unifor members are flying in from around the country to support the Regina members as a result of the arrests.

Bray said police are going to maintain the law. 

"Let's not ignore the fact that when we fly people in from other provinces — they have no vested interest in our community or community safety," Bray said. "Their role is to come here and to cause challenges that are going to hopefully force them to get back to the bargaining table."

Unifor members put up more fences at the refinery after the arrests. (Fiona Odlum/CBC)

On Tuesday morning, Unifor members put up fences and placed cars as barriers to block the entrance to the refinery. Some of the cars had their tires slashed to make them harder to tow away. Other vehicles have no tires and are on jacks. 

Unifor said they had to put up the fences to protect their members. CBC has reached out to the Co-op Refinery Complex for comment. 

Bray said police are assessing their response at every turn and putting together a game plan. He said he hopes the two sides can come together at the bargaining table and find a solution.

"Right now both sides are essentially holding our city hostage," Bray said. "I don't think it's fair for the taxpayers of our city."

The dispute mainly comes down to pensions. A previous deal included a defined benefit pension for workers. Now the refinery is moving toward a defined contribution plan. 

The union says this amounts to taking away workers' pensions. The refinery says it is trying to remain competitive. 

With files from Fiona Odlum and Bonnie Allen

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