Court okays picketing of employers’ clients

"Secondary picketing" is ruled by Supreme Court to be generally lawful

Secondary picketing is now legal. A recent decision handed down by the Supreme Court of Canada stated that secondary picketing — workers can picket businesses and other sites not directly involved in labour disputes — is generally lawful.

The Court ruled 9-0 last month citing that “union members must be able to exercise their rights to freedom of expression like any other citizen or group.” While secondary picketing is legal, workers must refrain from intimidation, property damage or criminal behaviour, said the Supreme Court.

This decision was the result of a dispute between Pepsi-Cola Canada in Saskatchewan and its unionized workers. Pepsi workers were locked out of a Saskatoon plant in 1997. In response, workers picketed retail outlets carrying Pepsi products, urging staff not to accept deliveries from the company. A Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench judge ruled that workers could only picket at Pepsi’s main building, but the workers appealed the decision. They claimed their rights to freedom of expression were restricted by not being allowed to picket at other Pepsi locations. The Supreme Court upheld Saskatchewan’s appeal court decision in early January.

Within days of the Supreme Court ruling unions were taking advantage of the opportunity. Workers at the Lafarge cement factory in Bath, Ont. (near Kingston) have been on strike since early December claiming LaFarge’s overtime demands are excessive. The plant has continued to produce cement with the use of replacement workers, which has left workers on strike infuriated and eager to embrace new tactics. Late last month, after hearing of the Supreme Court’s decision, striking workers, members of the Communication, Energy and Paperworks Union (CEP), put up pickets at a hospital construction site in Cobourg, Ont. where LaFarge cement is being used. The union hopes the picketing will put more pressure on the company to settle the dispute.

“The secondary picketing gives us some rights to go beyond that work site in the context of LaFarge and let the world know that there is a dispute going on back at Bath,” said Brian Payne, CEP national president. “Highlighting the issues will make people think twice before they deal with LaFarge or purchase LaFarge products.”

Eric Batten, CEP national representative said although they’re not too thrilled with picketing a hospital site, they chose the location for a reason.

“When you slow that type of work down, it’s a community hospital, it affects the total community and that’s got to put pressure on LaFarge,” he said.

The strikers on-site have not received much support from members of the Teamsters Local 230 and other unions working on-site, yet they have still managed to delay the work. Four picketers have been stopping LaFarge trucks carrying cement and talking to them for about 15 minutes before they pass the picket line, and after they have delivered the cement.

David Guptill, vice-president of human resources at LaFarge, said slowing down the trucks even for 15 minutes has the potential to shut down the entire operation because the liquid concrete can harden in the trucks making it no longer usable. But Batten said that’s not the intention.

“We’re not looking for a shut down, we just want to delay the work...there’s no question that type of slowdown costs money.”

However, the cost of the slowdown may not fall on the shoulders of LaFarge, but on the Northumberland Health Care Centre.

“I’m concerned that the hospital won’t be finished on time and that will cause major problems for us if it isn’t,” said Joan Ross, CEO of Northumberland. “We’ve used every inch of available space in the present facility and will incur additional maintenance costs if it continues.”

It doesn’t benefit anyone when a third party is forced into a labour dispute that doesn’t directly involve them, said David McDonald, a lawyer in the employment department at the firm Fasken Martineau DuMoulin.

“There is a cost and the third party is affected and we’ve got to accept that in a free and democratic society and to an extent that’s true...but I don’t think (increasing costs for third parties indirectly involved) benefits anyone,” he said.

McDonald said the problem with the Supreme Court’s decision is that there is no clarification of what is acceptable secondary picketing and what is not, which leaves the unions to set their own guidelines.

Guptill agrees. The court’s ruling has not clearly defined what is illegal activity, he said.

“We believe that CEP carried the picketing beyond what is reasonable and we’re in the process of pursuing legal means (through the Ontario Labour Relations Board).”

Other legal challenges could follow since it’s unclear what limitations the provinces can put on secondary picketing in their own labour legislation.

It can also potentially damage the relationship between unions and employers.

Every incident that occurs during a strike can impact the long-term relationship, said Guptill. Both sides have to exercise restraint and good judgement so there is minimal damage.

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