Union Bringing Picketing Home to Management

Managers of unionized operations can usually rest assured picketing activities will occur at sites where union members actually perform work. Recently, however, there have been more frequent instances of union members picketing at managers’ homes.

A recent instance resulted in the employer going to court to obtain an injunction to block the picketing. It involved Telus and the Telecommunications Workers Union during a recent labour dispute in Alberta. Union members took the normal picketing behaviour to a new level, demonstrating at homes of managers and of union members who continued to work during the labour dispute.

Union members wore signs (bearing the slogans “TWY Locked Out” and “Telus Scab Lives Here”) and walked on the sidewalk outside the homes. They chanted “scab”, shouted profanities, and yelled things like “You’re stealing my job”. Some of the picketing commenced as early as 5:20 in the morning.

The picketers wrote “scab”, “shame”, and “Telus scab lives here” on the sidewalk and road outside the homes. In some instances, picketers planted signs in the lawn and left brochures on cars.

There was also some more serious conduct such as throwing eggs at people’s homes and telephoning a home and speaking to a child. One picketer was seen hanging over a fence and peering into the back yard.

In finding, generally, that picketing at employees’ homes is permissible, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench relied on a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision. That 2002 decision stated that secondary picketing of this type is legal unless it involves some form of tortuous or criminal conduct. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects free expression unless its limitation is justified. Since picketing is a form of expression, secondary picketing can only be limited where doing so is in the interest of protecting third parties.

Here, Telus argued the picketing of employees’ homes amounted to intimidation, inducing a breach of contract, and interference with economic relations.

The Alberta Court determined there was no intimidation of Telus employees because all employees who had experienced picketing at home continued to work. Similarly, the Court found there was no evidence the performance of any contract had been hindered by the picketing because the conduct didn’t cause any employees to breach their contract with Telus. The Court also concluded there was no evidence Telus had suffered suffered any economic loss resulting from the picketing.

The Court did find that certain of the conduct was unlawful. Shouting and swearing, hanging over fences, horn honking, staking signs into lawns, picketing in the early morning, egging homes, and telephoning a child all amounted to a private nuisance.

The Court recognized that, although location is not the determining factor, the fact that picketing occurs at private residences adds a contextual dimension to the analysis. In effect, conduct which would have been acceptable at the employer’s business premises may be more offensive if it occurs instead at a private residence.

The Court allowed the picketing at the Telus employees’ homes but imposed some restrictions on the union members’ conduct. Among other things, they were limited to picketing between 9a.m. and 4p.m., could have no contact with employees’ children, had to stay at least 5 feet away from any entrance to the residence and could not trespass, and had to refrain from excessive noise.

The reasoning behind this decision is consistent with the recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada. Nonetheless, I expect the prospect of picketers showing up at private residences is one many people will find offensive. It is one thing during a labour dispute to face picketers at a place of business. It is another thing entirely to have to deal with them at home.

I don’t think anyone, union or management, would want to be subjected to this sort of treatment at home. Regardless of how civil the picketing conduct may be, it seems to me that intimidation is the only real purpose of demonstrating at a person’s home. I have to wonder if it is only a matter of time before the courts clamp down more tightly on such tactics.

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