In the depth of a Canadian winter, a picket line at an oil refinery in Regina captured the attention of trade union activists across Canada. The Federated Co-operatives Limited Co-Op Refinery locked out 730 members of Unifor Local 594 on December 5, intent on continuing production using scabs. The union’s picketing forced the Co-op to use helicopters to transport supplies and scabs into the refinery until court injunctions limited the union’s picket line presence.
On January 8 Unifor responded by making a call for hundreds of union members across Canada to travel to Regina and join the picket lines. When those members arrived it did not take long for matters to escalate and Unifor National President Jerry Dias, Western Region Director Gavin McGarrigle and a dozen other Unifor staff and activists were arrested on Jan 20. CLC President Hassan Yussuff and a group of Canadian labour leaders flew to Regina in a display of solidarity that would have been quite unexpected a week before.
It was not the first time that Unifor’s actions have put Canadian labour in focus. Since its founding in 2013 a disproportionate share of public attention and trade union debates have been in reaction to this new Canadian union. Much of the discussion about Unifor has been over its political influence, the NAFTA renegotiation, the campaign against General Motors and, among trade union leaders, its withdrawal from the CLC in 2018.
The dramatic picket line showdown in Regina was not Unifor’s first mass mobilization or defiance of conventional restraints on union militancy. Notably there were three similar actions over the past two years at a salt mine in Goderich, Ont., a public health clinic in Thunder Bay, Ont. and at an aerospace facility in Gander, Nfld.
Each relied on hundreds of activists in dramatic actions that pushed well beyond the boundaries of “legal” picketing, lasting days and weeks until resolutions were reached. Each involved an almost unlimited commitment of resources by the national union to support relatively small groups of workers. These actions were extraordinary in recent Canadian labour relations and within Unifor they were powerful solidarity building events.
Unifor’s impact, profile and controversies are an enigma to some, but not to those familiar with its origins and foundational mission. In December 2011 the idea of a new Canadian union was set out in a hard-hitting assessment of the state of the Canadian labour movement, A Moment of Truth. The “truths” that labour had to face up to were extensive, profound and threatening including declining private sector density and share of wealth, new political hostility and aggressive attacks by employers, and paralysis and dysfunction of some labour centrals. One of those truths stands out today: “(the) failure of the labour movement to significantly restructure with the ability to initiate and lead powerful campaigns…”. The answer to these challenges, the paper argued, had to be “a new kind of unionism.” Two years later a new union, Unifor was created with a mandate, structures and resources to implement that vision.
I am not suggesting that Unifor on its own can single-handedly transform the larger movement. What is important about Unifor is that it is the first modern, Canadian union to set out on a project of union renewal in such a comprehensive way. As Canadian labour activists and more importantly as whole unions break with outdated, broken models of organizing, representation and politics, they will inevitably go over much of the ground that Unifor has walked through, but also go in other new and important directions.
Ranking high on this agenda must be an ability to leverage and extend the power of organized labour to the majority working class for whom collective bargaining continues to be largely irrelevant. Posing this question immediately turns discussion to the need for a thorough going social unionism that extends well beyond the limits of traditional craft and industrial unionism.
The truth is that there is little interest or capacity from most of Canada’s unions to organize and represent workers in low density sectors, or in small workplaces. About 30% of workers and about 90% of all workplaces have 19 or fewer employees — practically ineligible for unionization, as the Ontario Changing Workplaces Review concluded. How will these workers ever understand the solidarity that the members of Local 594 feel today?
In Canadian terms, the Co-Op Refinery is not a small workplace, with over 700 workers. However, the entire Canadian unionized oil sector today is a shadow of the industry of the past, numbering less than 10,000 workers in all, and the Co-Op is a stand-alone operation in a sector dominated by vertically integrated global companies like Suncor and Exxon (Imperial). Unifor’s mass mobilization in Gander at DJ Composites was on behalf of just 30 workers locked out — and largely forgotten for a year and a half. The encirclement and closure of the Port Arthur Health Centre (Thunder Bay) secured a contract for 65 women, employed by local doctors. The blockade that stopped scabs from entering or leaving the US owned Compass mine in Goderich evened the playing field for 340 miners. These workers already were organized, but when their struggles unexpectedly became the cause and focus of the entire national union it sent a broader message of how a union and collective action could change outcomes in their small communities and workplaces.
Mass mobilizations such as these do not become part of a union culture easily or without supporting structures and a clear mission in which large numbers of members see themselves as a social movement. To some extent the Regina picket line may seem like old style unionism. But I argue it is a new kind of unionism for a new economy and working class. To the extent that it is a protest against a rogue employer, its lasting impact will be limited. To the extent that it sets another precedent and standard that Unifor members and others understand as solidarity that can be there for them also, it is movement building.
The show of solidarity from many CLC affiliates and leaders also signaled that there may soon be discussions on the underlying issues that led to Unifor’s withdrawal from the CLC. That also would be a welcome outcome of the Co-Op Refinery struggle and perhaps facilitate a sorely needed assessment of where Canadian labour finds itself today and whether it can find the way forward “to initiate and lead powerful campaigns” of solidarity on a regular basis that would support large and small groups of workers that need it most.
Fred Wilson, “Unifor’s Mass Mobilizations and the Future of Canadian Labour” Canadian Law of Work Forum (March 2 2020): https://lawofwork.ca/unifors-mass-mobilizations-and-the-future-of-canadian-labour/
For readers interested in the New Union Project and the creation of Unifor, A New Kind of Union, Unifor and the birth of the modern Canadian union, was published in 2019 by James and Lorimer and Co., by Fred Wilson, with forwards by Jerry Dias and Peter Kennedy and an afterword by Jim Stanford.