Union v. union

Alberta Court of Appeal tosses out $12,500 judgment against UFCW after one of its local presidents bad-mouthed the Teamsters

The Alberta Court of Appeal has overturned a decision that awarded the Teamsters union $12,500 in damages from the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW). The UFCW is hailing the ruling, which it says upholds a union’s right to communicate with its members.

A lower court had awarded the Teamsters damages after the president of UFCW Local 401 made derogatory comments about the Teamsters in a letter to members of the UFCW local.

Edmonton versus Calgary

This case involved different unions representing workers at the same employer. The UFCW was the certified bargaining agent at the Edmonton location of MacDonalds Consolidated Ltd. while the Teamsters represented workers at the Calgary location.

The unions had separate collective agreements with MacDonalds. The Teamsters hammered out an agreement in 1999 after 15 days of negotiations. The UFCW started its collective bargaining with MacDonalds earlier, in 1998, but a ratified collective agreement was not reached until July 2000.

UFCW Local 401 sent regular updates to its members informing them of the status of the bargaining during the “long and protracted” negotiations.

Letter critical of Teamsters agreement

On Nov. 23, 1999, Doug O’Halloran, president of UFCW Local 401, sent a letter entitled “Bargaining Update.” It contained remarks the Teamsters union thought were inflammatory.

In the letter (which is reproduced in full at the bottom of this article), O’Halloran was critical of the collective agreement between MacDonalds and the Teamsters. He said the deal was “substandard” and “quick and easy.”

He was critical of the Teamsters apparent unwillingness to enter into joint negotiations when dealing with MacDonalds. He said the deal at the Calgary location meant the UFCW didn’t have much leverage in hammering out a deal in Edmonton and that the Teamsters had strengthened the company’s position against the UFCW.

“Your bargaining power has been undermined,” he said. “Unfortunately, the rights of good workers in Calgary have been compromised.”

Union communication is qualified privilege

The lower court ruled the UFCW had defamed the Teamsters. It ruled the letter was protected by qualified privilege but that the malice in the letter defeated the privilege. The Court of Appeal agreed that communication between a union and its membership is undoubtedly qualified privilege.

But it didn’t agree with the lower court’s assertion that essentially any evidence of malice destroyed qualified privilege.

The Court of Appeal said that, on a privileged occasion, the defendant is presumed to be acting in good faith and is free to publish defamatory and untrue words about the plaintiff. That puts the onus on the plaintiff to prove the defendant was not acting in good faith.

“In other words, the (Teamsters) must establish that the (UFCW) acted in bad faith or had malicious intent,” the court said.

The Court of Appeal said the Teamsters had failed to establish the UFCW acted in bad faith or with a malicious intent.

“The (Teamsters) failed to establish that the (UFCW) were acting otherwise than with a sense of duty in a bona fide desire to protect the legitimate interests of their union,” the court said. “The limits of the duty and interests were not exceeded.”

The court’s view of malice and qualified privilege

The Alberta Court of Appeal made the following comments about qualified privilege and malice:

•The defence of qualified privilege is not absolute.

•If actual or express malice is the dominant motive for publishing the statement, the privilege is defeated.

•If the occasion is shown to be privileged, not all statements made on the occasion will be protected by privilege.

•A statement which is not reasonably appropriate in the context of the circumstances existing on the occasion will, if defamatory, not be protected by the privilege. A statement will not be reasonably appropriate if it is the product of indirect motive or ulterior purpose or if it conflicts with the sense of duty or the mutual interest that the occasion created.

•If the defendant is acting in accordance with a sense of duty, or in a bona fide desire to protect his own legitimate interests, knowledge that publication of the statement will have the effect of injuring the defendant is insufficient, standing alone, to destroy the privilege.

The UFCW’s reaction

Doug O’Halloran, president of UFCW Local 401, said he was relieved with the court’s decision. He said that, as president of the local, he had a duty to communicate the state of negotiations with the concerned membership.

“It is unfortunate that union dues of UFCW Local 401 and Teamsters Local 987 were wasted in court when the money could have been better spent fighting employers who continue to attack the living standards, wages and benefits of hard-working union members,” he said in a press release in the wage of the decision.

For more information see:

Teamsters, Local 987 v. U.F.C.W., Local 401, 2005 CarswellAlta 1091, 2005 ABCA 263 (Alta. C.A.)

O’Halloran’s letter to UFCW Local 401 members

Below is the text of the letter O’Halloran sent to members of his union local. The portions in bold were contested to be defamatory to the Teamsters.

Dear Union Member:
Re: Bargaining Update

As you know, we are currently in the process of negotiations with your employer with a view to concluding a new union contract.

Bargaining has now involved 39 days of face-to-face meetings with the company. Until recently, the company has been quite willing to debate and consider, in detail, our positions. Twenty-five important contract language changes have been tentatively resolved. More bargaining dates are scheduled after Christmas.

We are now approaching a critical phase of bargaining. Two main
factors have come into play.

Firstly, the Teamsters Union has settled at the distribution and trucking centre in Calgary. Frankly, the deal appears to have been ‘quick and easy.’ ... We know that many of you have seen it. It is substandard. ...

Efforts to reach the Teamsters’ Calgary local in recent months have gone unanswered. There is no surprise here. In past negotiations, they have also shown no serious interest in joint bargaining strategies. ...

The concluded Teamsters agreement has clearly resulted in a less cooperative attitude among company negotiators and guaranteed the employer a functioning distribution centre for four years. The company undoubtedly feels that they are in the drivers seat. Your bargaining power has been undermined. ... Unfortunately, the rights of good workers in Calgary have been compromised. ...

The second factor at work in current bargaining involves the actual content of the topics we are now focussing upon. They are the critical ones: job security, distribution of hours, scheduling, production standards, wages, benefits, among others. Obviously, we have reviewed these issues already; but at some point in the new year, we will be exhausting our arguments with the company.

This will put the ball in your court! Our job is to argue, convince, debate, and offer evidence to the company in support of your demands. At some point though, when we have run out of arguments, our job is to provide you with the opportunity to flex your collective muscle. You can reject an unacceptable offer. You can initiate steps towards a strike.

The opportunity for you to take a great deal of control over your working future is coming soon. We are working to put you in a situation where your choices will be very clear. We will be there to provide our every support for the options (no matter how difficult) you may [choose] to pursue.

On a final note, we would like to wish you and your loved ones a very happy holiday season. It will not be interrupted by a change to the labour relations situation. We have made no effort to attempt to push this matter to a head before Christmas. Safeway is a multibillion dollar company able to easily absorb short term losses even during peak seasons. Further and as we have said, the Teamsters settlement in the South has augmented the company’s power. ...

The potential for increased tension and insecurity of the situation in the New Year is very high. The crunch is coming. But in reality, the insecurity is no greater than what your employer offers you every day. No matter how hard you work or how inadequate your pay is, they will not guarantee that your workplace will be there next week!! There can be no greater insecurity than that.

Doug O’Halloran
UFCW Local 401


cc: Jack McMorran
Tom Hesse
Micky Runcer
Al Olinek

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