Dead rabbits on their doorsteps. Spouses being stalked; their pictures taken in their yards and communities. Bomb threats that police kept secret.
In short, the six month lockout of hundreds of refinery workers has taken its toll on union members.
These workers once operated the Co-op Refinery Centre in Regina. This refinery belongs to Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL)—a company that made record profits in the past two years. In both 2018 and 2019, the business witnessed nearly double its yearly average in earnings since 2008.
The co-ops workers, represented by Unifor, were locked out after voting to strike in December. Contract negotiations had soured after the company insisted on getting rid of a 100 percent employer funded pension plan, and endeavored to cut employees' savings plan.
Over the past three weeks, Unifor’s picket lines have been getting regular visits from the RCMP. The RCMP have been taking photos, documenting license plates, and requiring workers to produce ID.
This is all a part of what the RCMP calls an investigation into “mischief.”
“It continued last week. We were out of town in four different locations and the RCMP showed up again doing the same thing,” Kevin Bitman, an unpaid local union president told The Post Millennial.
“Everyone’s just trying to get their job back and get back to work. What this does is that it adds another level of fear.”
No charges have been laid against these workers who were protesting outside refineries owned by FCL. Yet, RCMP officers that visited these pickets have threatened to arrest union members, citing injunctions that do not cover the grounds where the union was present.
“They definitely shut a few of our picket lines down with the threat of charging people with mischief,” remarked Bittman, who had worked full time at the co-op before the lockout. Bittman’s members spend a lot of their time at pickets trying to educate passing drivers on their dispute and to encourage the boycott of FCL.
“Only a cell phone call away from ignition time”
The RCMP and local police has previously been criticized for keeping a bomb threat against locked out co-op workers secret. A letter forwarded to Regina’s Mayor and Saskatchewan's Minister of Justice in February claimed to be sent on behalf of local farmers.
Angered by blockades around the refinery that had been set up by Unifor, it reads: “We farmers have always had issues with beaver dams on our land - and we know how to get rid of them with some special products - that usually blow the dams in all directions. You can even get this type of material at the local Cabelas.”
“We have already setup some special mixes - and have them set in place at some of these gates, pallets and gates may start flying. Only a cell phone call away from Ignition Time.”
The letter called for police to “get rid of the Unifor Assholes.” It claimed to know the residences of “certain people[s] dwellings.”
Unifor members were not told of the bomb threats or that their addresses had been threatened. Over the weeks that Unifor had its blockade up, children and family members had constituted the hundreds of people in attendance.
In its regular Freedom of Information requests, Unifor found out about the bomb threat two and a half months after the police forwarded the letter to the Mayor and the Minister of Justice.
Although the police were in regular contact with Unifor, they failed to bring up the letter in that intermittent period. No one is yet to be arrested in connection to the threats.
“It was pretty concerning,” said Bittman. “I definitely wouldn’t have been at my house, living in my house or would have taken some precautions knowing there was a bomb threat against me.”
The blockades, that ran through January and February, were an attempt to prevent the functioning and profitability of the Co-op refinery. The company had hired replacement workers, informally known as “scabs,” to keep the plant running. This practice is illegal in some provinces, like BC, because of the undue advantage it gives to employers in labour disputes. These new workers, unlike their predecessors, are also not certified with the same level of training, raising safety concerns—especially following a recent uptick in oil spills into Regina’s wastewater system along with other hazardous incidents linked to the Co-op.
Union members have been plagued by other forms of harassment. “It’s all out of a book some of the stuff that’s going on,” says Bittman. He described at least one of his members have opened their door to find a dead rabbit laid out in front of their steps.
Family members that have become active on social media because of their locked out loved ones, have reported being followed to their house and video taped in their neighborhoods by private eyes.
“When we call the police and say someone’s following us, they say it’s not against the law to follow us and to take pictures of us when there is no expectation of privacy in public… I’m not sure what it takes before the government steps in and fixes this but I hope nobody dies before it happens. ”
A spokesperson for the RCMP confirmed with The Post Millennial that they have visited each picket site set up by Co-op workers in their investigation into mischief.
When questioned as to whether the RCMP had received any recent complaints of mischief, the spokesperson responded, “Any time there’s a picket there’s a potential for a mischief charge or the potential for a mischief investigation. That’s what we’ve been conducting.”
Asked further if this meant that the RCMP shows up at every union’s picket line, the spokesperson responded, “At every picket line that’s ever been set up? Oh no. It depends if there’s a potential for any kind of unrest. Any type of breaches of peace. Any type of problems… So that’s our objective. Keep the peace and make sure that everyone is safe, everyone can be heard, the picketers can be heard, and the businesses can still run their business.”
“Because,” he chuckled earlier in conversation. “You’ve been well aware what Unifors tactics have been. Right?”
“The RCMP answers appears to follow an old stereotype of ‘union thugs,’” responded Ronni Nordal, a Regina-based labour lawyer. “Do the RCMP conduct a ‘possible mischief investigation’ every time a group of people gather for a common cause?”
“The RCMP is bound by Charter and its actions can not breach the fundamental freedoms including freedom of association and freedom of expression,” She added, referring to the kind of legal recognition the Supreme Court has given to pickets. “The threat of mischief charges has a chilling effect on the exercise of fundamental freedoms. Rights that can not be exercised are not rights at all.”
According to Nordal, reports that RCMP are demanding picketers to provide identification and swarming lines with marked RCMP cars as part of a mischief investigation, is “unprecedented” in her experience. It should be of “public concern” that the RCMP is not requiring a reasonable basis to ground a mischief investigation, but appears to be simply running with past complaints from employers and others who are opposed to the pickets.
For Bittman, police and politicians have not helped enough to curb a common mentality out West that workers do not have a right to picket.
The company's tactics
To help handle the lockout the company has hired Afimac. In 2015, a local Halifax union president described Afimac as “known union-busters” who “use intimidation and coercion” at a “high cost to the ratepayers” (two million dollars over two months in that particular instance).
In 2013, a negotiator representing workers in Newfoundland outlined Afimac’s tactics, stating, “They’re following our members around the city. Trying to provoke argument, continuously. Trying to goad our members into violating the court injunction. They spend all their time, two people in a van… Consistently in their faces, filming them… But it’s all from the perspective of intimidation. They won’t use that video for anything.”
In a 2017 presentation on Strike preparation, Afimac explained its advice to companies surrounding law enforcement: “Make sure that you have some type of plan in place or meeting with them. Bring them into the planning process prior to an event happening. At what point you do that, well [that] would be determined by your relationship to that agency.”
In February, the premier of Saskatchewan, Scott Moe, appointed an independent mediator to help end the dispute between the union and FCL. The mediators report, released late March, recommended that Unifor accept to move away from a pension fully-funded by their employer. The report also suggested that a clause around minimum staffing be eliminated and union members be more flexible in their work assignments.
Unifor voted 98 percent in favour of this report. FCL did not accept the report in full, continuing the lockout.
“Right now we’ve actually offered the company everything that they’ve asked for and the only thing that we request is that they don’t fire 100 people. What we had going into this bargaining is pretty much toast,” said Bittman who’s been at the refinery for 23 years.
“The hardest part for people is that a company you work for is this ruthless.”