On Tuesday night, striking Dominion workers and union representatives were threatened with arrest during what they describe as a peaceful picket outside of Weston’s Bakery in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland.
A secondary picket line had been set up outside of Weston’s Bakery since early Monday morning. Previously, workers had a secondary picket happening outside of Loblaw Companies’ distribution centre, but Loblaw was granted an injunction that prohibited striking workers from picketing at that location. So, workers and union representatives moved the picket to Weston’s Bakery — also owned by Loblaw Companies.
When the picket at Weston’s Bakery began, members of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) police force were in contact with picketers and Unifor representatives. According to Unifor’s chief negotiator on this file, Chris MacDonald, the police expressed an understanding that the picketers were being peaceful, safe and had a right to enact delays. The picket line blocked delivery trucks from exiting the bakery site for two days.
“[The police] were wanting us to let the trucks out, and we told them that we would deal with any injunction or legal matters that were going to be dealt with in the court,” said MacDonald.
No such injunction was filed, but police still showed up on Tuesday night, demanding workers disperse because they were blocking a public roadway — a criminal offense.
MacDonald disputes this, saying the picket line was occurring on private property, not a public road or highway.
“All they were doing was walking a legal picket line. We had every right to be there,” said Carolyn Wrice, president of Unifor Local 597. Wrice was also on the line that night.
Constable James Cadigan, the media relations officer for the RNC, acknowledged that picketers were on private property.
Blocking vehicles from the parking lot from accessing the public highway is still considered blocking a public highway, Cadigan said.
The first time the police showed up, there was some back and forth between them and MacDonald, until it came to a head. Picketers were told that anybody who did not move off the line would be arrested. MacDonald, Wrice, along with other Unifor representatives and a handful of striking workers, joined arms and sat down on the picket line in response to the threat of arrest.
“My adrenaline was pumping,” said Robert Peddle, a striking Dominion employee who has worked for the Loblaws-owned grocery store for 40 years.
Peddle was audibly emotional as he spoke about the experience of mentally preparing to be arrested. He was considering the consequences one faces once arrested, but said it was something he was completely willing to do in support of the strike.
At that point, the police officers left, but returned shortly after with more officers and several police cruisers blocking off the entire road. With megaphones, they demanded the picket line disperse, and repeated the threat of arrest for anyone who did not move.
It was then that the picketers decided to comply, fearing that they would be barred from continuing to picket throughout the rest of the strike.
MacDonald said the bargaining unit is in touch with Unifor’s lawyers to see how they might be able to respond.
In a press release, the RNC said its focus with the parties involved in the strike action is “education and safety.”
When asked how threatening arrest is in the interest of education, Cadigan said “part of education is understanding the jeopardy.”
“So if you don’t know what the legal, you know, ramification of your actions are, then you know, you’re not able to make an educated decision,” he said.
As for what changed between Monday morning and Tuesday night for the police, Cadigan said the delays the picketers were imposing on delivery trucks extended beyond a measure of reasonability. Levels of reasonability are decided on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Where injunctions are in place, the judge who grants them can give more specific indications of reasonableness by way of causing delays.
“Injunctions provide, essentially, pretty specific guidelines for a certain area. So essentially, by this area not having an injunction, it makes it a public space,” said Cadigan.
Despite gaining one injunction against the striking workers, Loblaw lost dozens of other requests for injunctions it filed with the courts. Unifor and its members are currently maintaining 11 picket lines at different Dominion store locations in Newfoundland.
Wrice said Unifor had sent out a group of people on Wednesday to see how picketers were feeling in the wake of Tuesday night’s confrontation.
“It’s been peaceful all along. So last night, for the RNC to get involved? Shameful. Shame on them,” said Wrice.
Peddle said he is taking a few days off from picketing to rest and recover. But when he does return, he said his experience with the police has only strengthened his resolve and encouraged him to continue the fight.
Chelsea Nash is rabble’s labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.
Image: Stephen Weppler/Flickr