As Weston Foods Canada Ltd. prepares to argue in court for another injunction against striking Dominion workers, the workers have announced their plan to take legal action of their own — not against their employer, but against the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.
The union representing 1,400 Dominion workers who have been on strike for the past 10 weeks plans to file a statement of claim against the police in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court next week, alleging RNC officers committed a “significant overstep of police authority” when they showed up at a picket line late Tuesday night.
The Unifor Local 597 members had set up a picket line outside Weston Foods in Mount Pearl, preventing trucks carrying product from leaving the site in an effort to pressure their employer to go back to the bargaining table. The bakery is owned by George Weston Ltd., which also operates Dominion’s parent company, Loblaw Cos. Ltd.
Chris MacDonald, lead negotiator for the striking workers, said during a news conference Friday that between 30 and 50 RNC members in tactical gear arrived on the scene after midnight, marching toward the workers in a line and threatening arrest.
“You had officers parked all around the area,” MacDonald said, pointing to videos posted on social media. “You had another officer with a loudspeaker that was announcing that they would be coming in within five minutes if we did not disperse and the (police van) is right behind him. That’s the kind of intimidation we’re talking about here. It wasn’t a scene where they were trying to de-escalate, as they talk about, it was clearly an escalation caused by them on legal picketers standing in a driveway.”
Lawyer Kyle Rees, who represents the union members, told reporters he will file a statement of claim against the RNC on Thursday, claiming the rights of the union and the workers were breached when the picket line was shut down, and they suffered damages as a result.
Lawyers Rosellen Sullivan and Erin Breen will join Rees in the civil case.
“It’s a very important case. The union felt it deserved the attention of two separate law firms to come at this from very different angles,” Rees explained.
RNC 'responded effectively'
The RNC said the suggestion that officers used tactical equipment at the picket line is incorrect, and it was the public order unit, a team trained in crowd management and de-escalation, that attended the picket line. There were less than 30 officers present, a police spokesman told The Telegram.
RNC Insp. Alex Brennan spoke on VOCM’s "Open Line" call-in show Thursday, saying police had received numerous calls from businesses owners in the area of the bakery, employees and members of the public regarding the picket line before officers attended it Tuesday night. Police spoke with representatives of the union during the day on Tuesday, he said, but it became clear the workers would not comply.
“I think we responded effectively, starting with a small number of officers and engaging and assessing the responses we were getting,” Brennan said. “I think it looks a lot more in the photos, but I think our numbers were minimal and I think were certainly distant enough to be able to achieve what we needed to achieve.
Calling the police “charter guardians,” Brennan said the RNC’s presence at the picket line had nothing to do with a request from Loblaws to take action.
“We want to ensure that all people, whether they’re part of the two parties or anyone else around, can enjoy their charter of freedom and rights and we really need to be balanced and focused in terms of our activities,” he said.
The RNC declined to comment on the union’s statement of claim when contacted Friday.
On Monday, Loblaws Inc. was granted an injunction against the striking workers, preventing them from illegally picketing at the supermarket giant’s distribution centre in Mount Pearl. The company was denied a broader injunction banning the workers from peaceful pickets at its affiliate businesses.
“It should have been clear that the blockade of trucks in the manner undertaken by the pickets at the distribution centre was illegal,” Supreme Court Justice Valerie Marshall said. “The blockades at the distribution centre could not be characterized as merely peaceful persuasion."
Rees declined to comment on how the workers’ activities at the Weston bakery site differed from those undertaken at the distribution site, but noted the issue at hand was not whether the bakery picket line warranted an injunction.
“It’s about the police response, as though a very serious law was broken under the Criminal Code, whether that response was proportionate and reasonable, and the union says that it wasn’t,” Rees said.
Negotiations break down
Next week, Weston Foods will make an application to the court for an injunction similar to the one ordered for the distribution centre, arguing the striking workers’ behaviour has gone beyond a peaceful legal picket line.
The court has recognized strike action as an important expressive activity and has established that workers have the right to peacefully protest and to stop people from accessing the property for a limited period of time, providing them with information and asking them to respect a picket line.
Loblaw and Unifor Local 597 went back to the negotiating table briefly on Thursday, but talks had broken down by Friday morning after they failed to come to an agreement.
MacDonald said the company had not made any improvement to its initial offer of a $1-per-hour wage increase over three years, and workers would head back to the picket lines. Morale is still high, he said.
Members of the provincial NDP caucus have voiced their support for the workers, and the Progressive Conservative caucus issued a statement of solidarity with the workers on Friday as well.
“Frankly, I think our members are still feeling good,” MacDonald said. “They’re frustrated at their employer. They know the union is fighting hard, they know the public is supporting them. By and large we’ve heard no negativity toward the union in the province. Loblaws hasn’t realized that yet, but hopefully they soon will.”
Tara Bradbury reports on the courts and justice system in St. John's