Gormley: Co-op refinery labour challenges the rule of law


Unifor’s 315,000 Canadian members have been no match for Western Canada’s two million Co-op members.

John GormleyLiam Richards / Saskatoon StarPhoenix

“The rule of law is a fundamental pillar of our Canadian democracy. When did the right to protest turn into the right to illegally impede the lives and livelihoods of law-abiding Canadians?”

— Premier Scott Moe

Even though the premier was commenting on illegal pipeline protests that blocked Canadian railways, ports and even a Legislature this week, the parallel to the Regina Co-op Refinery (“CCRL”) labour dispute is undeniable.

More than 700 refinery employees, members of Unifor, gave notice in early December that they were going on strike. As the law permits, the company locked them out.

Unlike public sector strikes involving taxpayers’ money and often essential services, most of us don’t have a dog in the hunt when a private dispute breaks out between an oil refinery and its staff. Pay, benefits, pensions, working conditions and the number of union jobs in play are not our concern.

Labour law is clear on the rights of picketers. They can communicate their position to the public — which might involve briefly detaining vehicles and pedestrians — but they cannot obstruct access to people and property or prevent an employer from protecting or operating its business.

Just days after the dispute began, Queens Bench Justice Janet McMurtry found that the union’s picketing “was unlawful as the apparent purpose of some of the picketing was not to disseminate information to the public, or to solicit support of the public, but to intimidate replacement workers and others from entering CCRL facilities.”

She issued an order that the union could not block access to the refinery but could briefly delay trucks trying to enter and leave. The Justice also noted — quite presciently (and incorrectly as it turned out) — “that, in any event, the police are responsible for enforcing breaches of the criminal law.”

A few weeks later, Queens Bench Justice Timothy Keene found seven deliberate violations of the court order by the union — during five days in December — and fined Unifor $100,000 for contempt of court.

All of this happened before Unifor set up barricades around some Co-op gas bars, cardlocks, even a home centre and other properties. Then, between Jan. 20 and Feb. 7, the union, along with hundreds of Unifor activists shipped in from around the country, completely shut down access to the refinery by erecting barricades of fencing, vehicles, trailers and trash.

Beyond some arrests the night of the refinery barricading, the Regina Police Service publicly refused to remove the barricades, enforce either the criminal laws of mischief or Justice McMurtry’s court order, which the police chief repeatedly called “a civil matter.”

From a huge economic hit on innocent fuel truck drivers, to gas shortages and the world’s worst public relations campaign, Unifor’s 315,000 Canadian members have been no match for Western Canada’s two million Co-op members. The only thing that would have upped the ante on this clown circus would have been for Unifor to go after Gainer the Gopher.

For a third time, the court intervened when Queens Bench Justice Neil Robertson reviewed 24 affidavits detailing more than 100 separate allegations of deliberate contempt of the court’s earlier order and found that the original $100,000 fine “had no apparent effect in restoring respect for the court’s authority.” This week he levied a new contempt of court fine of $250,000 and amended the original court order to permit the refinery to remove any obstructions, with the police “authorized to assist.”

Federated Co-op and Unifor will eventually negotiate an agreement; they’ll now be assisted by the redoubtable Vince Ready as a special mediator. But the harm to this union’s image will not be remedied so fast; nor will the reputational hit to the Regina Police Service be so easily cured after the RPS refused, as the old British adage goes, to be a “servant of the law.”

John Gormley is a broadcaster, lawyer, author and former Progressive Conservative MP whose radio talk show is heard weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on 650 CKOM Saskatoon and 980 CJME Regina.