Debate over Unifor video that names, shames N.L. replacement workers

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — A union video that identifies replacement workers who crossed the picket line during an ongoing lockout in Gander, N.L., has prompted a debate over the ethics of naming and shaming such workers.

The minute-long video titled “meet the scabs” was posted to Unifor Canada’s Twitter and Facebook channels on Sept. 6, showing images and names of workers hired as replacements for the 30 D-J Composites workers who have been locked out of their jobs since December 2016.

As of Monday, the Twitter video had more than 700 responses, many of them critical of Unifor’s tactics shaming the workers rather than the employer, with some saying the video amounts to bullying.

The comments even came from people apparently sympathetic to the locked-out workers’ cause.

User (at)DomatoRecord wrote, “As a member of Unifor I am disgusted by this shameful video. We should be lobbying for laws that forbid employers to hire replacement workers. Not going after the workers, who are probably desperate. How could you, Unifor?”

Unifor’s Atlantic regional director, Lana Payne, said the video is one of many ways the union is “stepping up our efforts on all fronts” after almost two years of social media campaigning, letters to the provincial government and negotiations with the American-based employer.

Payne said the ad is a response to the employer’s “escalating tactics” to block the union, including hiring enough replacement workers to match the number of those locked out.

“My responsibility and our responsibility as a union is to defend our members, and that’s what we’re doing,” Payne said.

Payne also questioned why the public has not felt the same outrage for the locked out workers, noting that the provincial Labour Relations Board has found the employer twice violated the provincial Labour Relations Act for failing to bargain in good faith.

“They have spent their savings in order to be able to continue to fight, this is how much they believe in this principle,” said Payne. “They should be able to have a union in their workplace, a pretty basic right in Canada, and yet they have had to fight for that right now for 630 days on a picket line.”

Some of the online debate has focused on Newfoundland and Labrador’s high unemployment rate, expressing sympathy for the replacement workers trying to make a living.

But Payne said there are many jobs available in Gander, and the replacements made a choice to publicly take the locked out workers’ jobs.

“These are communities where everybody knows that these folks are crossing the picket line, and I would argue there are jobs in this town. They don’t need to cross the picket line for employment,” said Payne.

Payne said the members on the picket line did not participate in making the video, and that the union has not heard from D-J Composites since the latest ads.

British Columbia and Quebec are the only provinces in Canada with legislation preventing the use of replacement workers during a strike or lockout. The issue also caught the public’s attention a few weeks ago when workers start striking outside the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

David Doorey, a labour law professor at York University, said studies are inconclusive as to how such legislation affects the duration of a lockout, but said the use of replacement workers in Gander seems to have prolonged the dispute.

“It’s very unlikely that this particular lockout would have lasted this long if the employer was banned from hiring replacement workers,” Doorey said in an email.

Unifor’s video, while unsettling to many, also has legal precedent. In 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that unions have the right to photograph and publish photos of replacement workers.

Tom Cooper, a professor of business ethics at Memorial University, said Unifor’s ads should be considered alongside the ethical considerations of minimizing harm.

Cooper said naming people involved in labour disputes is not a new tactic, but the permanent and public nature of online videos can do more harm than good in a case like Gander’s for the locked out workers’ cause and the replacement workers’ privacy.

“I don’t see this online naming and shaming to be any benefit to the workers in Gander, from kind of a strategic and business ethics standpoint,” Cooper said. “If your strategy is, ‘How do we get this lockout resolved?’, I’m not sure it actually meets that obligation.”

Cooper said while Unifor’s actions are intended to protect their members’ interests and their right to a union, in this case the union seems to be falling short of a higher standard to protect the general population’s rights to privacy and a dignified life.

“I’m not sure in this case they’re meeting the higher standards,” said Cooper.

“They’re about social justice, they’re about human rights, they’re about protecting the rights of individuals, and in this case they’re not doing that. They’re only protecting the rights of one group, which is their members.”

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