The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down a portion of Alberta’s privacy legislation, saying it violates a union’s right to free speech. The heart of the matter is the union videotaping workers crossing picket lines. The courts have indicated it is fundamentally an important part of a union’s freedom of expression in the context of a labour dispute.
The devil is always in the details. For the past 25 years I have assisted clients in the management of labour dispute situations. I truly don’t believe videotaping anyone crossing or just standing on a picket line is the real issue. Quite often videos or pictures are uploaded onto social media with the individuals crossing the picket lines along with their name and personal information such as phone numbers and home address. In addition to this, these individuals are branded as scabs. I’m not sure how a manager who has little choice whether they cross a picket line or not, is a scab. They are obligated to go to work. These videos and photos have little to do with free speech and are more often than not designed to create fear and intimidate those crossing. Union members seeing these videos and photos often become enraged and begin to target these individuals at home, hockey arenas and in the general public. Management has to protect its workers from potential threats and violence under various health and safety legislation. In the past, there has been success in having videos and photos removed from the Internet because a line was crossed.
During a dispute last year in Ontario union members photographed and videotaped management and salaried personnel daily as they were transported across picket lines. Management was advised not to videotape or photograph pickets on the line as it would inflame union members and add unnecessary tension. Despite our recommendation, a senior member of management elected to take videos of threats being made. A bus crossing the picket line was surrounded and blocked by union members until it was agreed that management would no longer take video and photos. What is good for the goose should be good for the gander. Management should and must have clean hands. How they deal with striking employees is as important as a company’s brand and relations can be harmed if they mistreat workers who are on strike.
Now that the union has won the right to video tape and photograph those crossing picket lines, they too must ensure that this is not abused. Emotions run very high during protests and strikes and I would encourage both sides to develop some ground rules in advance to ensure rights of workers are not trampled on, as well as protecting the safety and security of those being photographed.
If tomorrow a video is posted on Facebook identifying someone as a scab and then a hard-core activist elects to take action, what will be the fall out?