A picket line too fine

Picketing of private residences in a labour dispute may be legal, but it isn't right
By John Hobel
|employmentlawtoday.com

Editor's note: John Hobel is managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, a sister publication to Canadian Employment Law Today. This editorial is commenting on a recent Alberta court decision, covered in the Nov. 23, 2005, issue. For more information, click on the related articles link at the bottom of this page.

The employment relationship is fraught with emotion at the best of times. Personal lives spill into work and even the hardest working, most talented people can be a chore to manage and work with. It’s all part of human nature. So when it comes to strikes and lockouts — with jobs, homes and the future of the company on the line — it’s no surprise tempers and violence can flare. Yet, amid such acrimony some rules for civility must be found, and leaving people’s families out of the conflict is a good place to start.

Unfortunately, the courts don’t see it that way.

The Alberta Court of the Queen’s Bench has denied a bid by Telus to ban secondary picketing at private residences. This is in line with a 2002 Supreme Court of Canada decision which stated secondary picketing is lawful.

In the Telus case the judge did recognize picketers’ rights have limitations.

The Alberta court noted Telus strikers crossed the line when it comes to involving the families of their targets. Strikers showed up early in the morning, shouted obscenities, planted signs on people’s lawns and wrote “scab lives here” in front of houses.

While the lengthy Telus strike has been bitter, that’s no excuse for creating situations where children are frightened by hostility directed at their homes — their safe havens.

The Alberta court recognized this. Telus strikers are limited to picketing homes between 9 a.m. and 4. p.m., cannot have contact with children, can’t swear and are limited to four picketers at a time. But while the court is seeking to eliminate the fear strikers may cause in children, the judge is walking a very fine line.

What happens if an over-sized pickup pulls up in front of a home, and out pop four burly strikers dressed like characters from a scene in Easy Rider? They position themselves on the sidewalk, and while they remain silent, their presence is ominous. A five-year-old hoping to play outside is more likely to hide under the bed.

Children fear strangers even when they are friendly. Four people who hate your parent can never enter a child’s world without causing distress.

Should managers go over to the homes of union leaders and shout insults? Fair is fair after all, but is this what we want in labour relations?

Unions have other secondary targets they can picket. The Supreme Court also allows strikers to set up outside client businesses of their employer. This right should be enough of a negotiating weapon without resorting to intimidating the families of managers.

The courts may have given unions the right to picket at private residences, but that doesn’t mean they have to use it. The Canadian Labour Congress and the nation’s unions would do well to renounce the tactic.

John Hobel is managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, a sister publication to Canadian Employment Law Today. He can be reached at john.hobel@thomson.com. For more information visit www.hrreporter.com.

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Secondary picketing at private residences OK

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