The varied union toolbox

Advocating in and out of the spotlight

Lockouts have been a big subject in prairie labour news in the past few weeks, as Tim Hortons workers at the Winnipeg Lombard location and Co-op Refinery workers in Regina were locked out of their place of work by their employer during the course of bargaining between employers and unions.

Andy Spence, a union representative with the Workers United Canada Council, the organization that unionizes Tim Hortons’ Lombard employees, says that before the lockout, the union had been bargaining with the franchise owner, JP Shearer.

“We’d been going through bargaining for a few months,” Spence says, “and we got to a point when they weren’t moving on wages at all, and so we made a decision to talk to workers and tell them that they weren’t moving.” Spence says they went to a strike vote, which the workers supported.

Spence says the union gave the strike notice on Dec. 18, 2019, which, according to the collective agreement, allows strike action two weeks after the notification. The next day, Shearer responded with a lockout notice, which also takes two weeks to implement. A lockout is the practice of an employer barring employees from their workplace until agreeing to terms.

On Jan. 2, 2020, when strike action would have been legal, Spence says the workers did not take action, but they were locked out the next day. After a week of support from other unions, the public and students, the lockout ended on Jan. 10, 2020.

Spence says labour organizing and action in the context of large franchises is “not easy to do, but it’s achievable” if employees reach out to unions for support.

“It’s not easy to get a wage increase and ask your employer by yourself, but when you’re unionized, you get the right to collective bargaining,” he says. “One of the things that this does is it raises the issue (of rights for minimum-wage workers).”

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that there are these jobs where the wages never increase (unless the minimum wage is raised by the Province), and people are depending on them to survive. The only way they can get raises in these jobs is unionizing and fighting for it,” he says.

Not all unions are able to use the same tools when put under stress by employers. Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union (MNU), says the MNU is “bound by our collective agreement, so we are not in a legal position to strike. We need to work within the confines of our collective agreement.” According to their website, a collective agreement “is a written, binding contract between the union and the employer, which specifies the terms and conditions of employment.”

Jackson’s two years as president have been stressful, as cuts and consolidation have put a lot of pressure on the acute nursing shortage Manitoba is facing, leading to increased voluntary and mandatory overtime for nurses.

“Most people don’t understand what it’s like to go to work and work a shift and not be allowed to go home until you’ve worked two shifts back to back,” she says. “The general public doesn’t really understand the implications of that.”

The MNU has been undertaking campaigns to speak out on the issue and support the official opposition’s Bill 205, the Restricting Mandatory Overtime Act, which would phase in limits on mandatory overtime.

Tensions in the Co-op Refinery strike in Regina escalated on Jan. 20 when Regina police arrested 14 picketers, including the Unifor union’s national president Jerry Dias. Regina Police Service chief Evan Bray accused workers of “essentially holding the city hostage,” while Dias claimed the police acted “like thugs.”

Published in Volume 74, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 23, 2020)

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