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Flare-ups on the picket lines: Who’s responsible?

By Jeffrey R. Smith (jeffrey.r.smith@thomsonreuters.com)

Work stoppages are usually pretty unpleasant situations. They’re a product of failed negotiations that not only create an untenable contract situation, but conflict between an employer and its employees. What if things start getting out of hand? How much leeway should picketing workers get in terms of their conduct?

The right to picket and demonstrate is a democratic right and it’s also recognized as a human right. It’s perfectly legal for striking workers to march outside a workplace with signs, singing songs, chanting and holding rallies. But do they have a right to go farther than that? And should non-employees be permitted to picket, particularly if they are hired to do so?

When employees of a Vancouver outlet of rental car chain Hertz went on strike early in 2010, sentiments deteriorated quickly. There were reports of harassment of Hertz management and non-union employees, as well as customers, by workers on the picket lines. This included sexual taunts, vulgar language and threats. It got to the point where Hertz obtained a court injunction against the union so striking workers would stop this kind of behaviour.

It came to light that a couple of individuals on the picket line — some of the most notorious for unruly and harassing behaviour — weren’t Hertz employees as all, but were in fact paid picketers. One of them was accused of hitting a manager’s car and making sexual comments and threats to female and male manager’s, as well as illegally blocking the entrance and exit to the workplace.

Strikes can turn into messy situations and sometimes strikers can develop an increased courage that comes with being part of a group, perhaps to the point of a mob mentality. While the right to demonstrate during a work stoppage is legally protected, who should be responsible if picketers cross the line into illegal activities, the union or the individuals? Should paid picketers be legal, particularly since they may be used, as in the Hertz case, to inflame the situation?

A lot of times it might just be easier for both sides in collective bargaining to just hunker down until they reach an agreement, no matter how far apart they may be.

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publicaiton that looks at workplace law from a business perspective. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.

Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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