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Court Singles Out Union Instigators

The fact that there may be misconduct on union picket lines during a labour dispute should not surprise anybody. What may be surprising is that certain individuals may be present for the express purpose of inflaming the situation.
A recent example of a labour dispute which ended up in front of the B.C. Supreme Court demonstrates the extent to which these union tactics cross the boundary between the acceptable and the downright offensive.
The members of the Canadian Office & Professional Employees Union (COPE), Local 378, were on strike against their employer, Hertz Canada Limited. The striking employees were employed at Vancouver International Airport and at a service centre in nearby Richmond and were picketing at both locations.
As a result of the conduct of certain individuals present on the picket line, Hertz ended up applying to the B.C. Supreme Court for an injunction restraining the union’s activities.
Hertz complained that, in roughly a 3 month period, it had to call in the RCMP to assist approximately 60 times as a result of picket line activity. Hertz complained that certain picketers’ behaviour was vulgar, sexual, abusive, and foul.
Particular individuals were accused of truly obscene, aggressive, and intimidating behaviour. Their alleged activities included yelling obscenities, particularly at female management employees of Hertz.
I won’t set out the foul language verbatim, but my young sons would say there was a whole lot of use of the “f-word”, the “b-word”, and the “a-word”. Hertz’s management employees were justifiably offended and intimidated by these union instigators.
An example of COPE’s intimidation tactics was a newsletter containing a photograph of one management employee “showing her as beheaded with blood dripping from her neck”.
Certain of the union instigators were alleged to have aggressively approached management employees, including threatening to “take you out” accompanied by extremely vulgar sexual threats. On another occasion, a picketer was alleged to have approached a manager’s vehicle and “made an obscene sexual gesture by simulating masturbation”.
The picketing members’ alleged conduct included the obligatory blocking of vehicles entering and exiting the Hertz premises. It allegedly progressed to the point of a union member slapping the vehicle of a female manager with a picket sign.
Most of the union conduct complained of by Hertz management employees was not disputed.
Hertz’s evidence was that one of the main instigators was a paid picketer and was not a Hertz employee at either of the struck locations.
The Court reviewed all of this various misconduct, noted that the management employees were “sorely provoked” by the picketers’ aggressive and intimidating behaviour, and concluded that there was “a serious risk of harm to Hertz employees” at the picketed locations. As well, the union’s conduct had driven away customers or potential Hertz customers and had irreparably harmed Hertz’s business reputation.
The Court stated that the COPE members’ actions constituted unlawful intimidation, harassment, and obstruction. In relation to the individuals accused of instigating this conduct, the Court agreed that COPE had “used a tactic of having a particularly aggressive person inflame the picketing”.
The extent to which the Court was offended by the conduct of certain COPE members was reflected in its comment that the union’s conduct was “antithetical to a civilized society” and that it was “shockingly inappropriate”.
Not surprisingly, the Court granted Hertz’s application for an injunction to restrain the union’s offensive conduct.
This union’s name may be the Canadian Office & Professional Employees Union, but there was certainly nothing “professional” about the behaviour of the instigators they utilized.
Robert Smithson is a lawyer in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, or to view past “Legal Ease” columns, log onto