A Labour & Employment Update
In a recent decision of the Alberta Provincial Court, the Telecommunications Workers Union (the “TWU”) was denied the ability to enforce fines it had imposed on members who crossed a legal picket line in order to work. The Union’s Constitution stated that members could be fined for crossing or working behind any picket line without authorization. The Constitution also allowed the Union to impose a penalty, including expulsion or a fine, if a member was found guilty of an offence.
The TWU commenced strike action in response to a lockout by TELUS. Three Union members, each of whom had agreed to be bound by the Union’s Constitution when they became members, crossed the picket line and performed work for TELUS. The three Union members were tried, found guilty, and fined pursuant to the provisions in the Constitution. They did not pay their fines which resulted in the Union commencing an action against them in Provincial Court to try to collect the fines.
The Court dismissed the claim and refused to accept the TWU’s argument that the fines either constituted a debt or damages for breach of contract. The Court found that while the fines had some of the attributes of a “debt”, they did not fit the definition overall. The Court stated:
"The Provincial Court of Alberta has no jurisdiction to discipline Union members for an apparent breach of the Union Constitution...”
The Court also declined to accept the Union’s damages argument, saying:
"These fines in no way relate to compensation of the union for damage suffered by the union as a result of the Defendant’s conduct. No loss is asserted by the TWU and the fines were not intended or designed to address any loss, if any exists. Calling the fines a debt or damages does not make them so.”
This is not the first time a Canadian court has reached these conclusions. Similar reasoning was used in other cases, including a recent Ontario Superior Court decision. Employers might want to educate their employees about this legal situation because unions frequently threaten fines to shape member conduct, especially during strikes.
This update is a general overview of the subject matter and cannot be regarded as legal advice. Please contact Vicki Giles at email@example.com, Tom Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org, Glenn Tait at email@example.com, or any member of our Labour & Employment Practice Group for advice on this or any other labour & employment law topic.