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Supreme Court refuses to enforce union fines

|Written By Kelly Harris

Canadian courts cannot be used by labour unions to enforce punishment meted out against members who cross picket lines during legal strikes, following a pair of Supreme Court of Canada dismissals.

The court refused to allow appeals of an Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench decision and an Ontario Court of Appeal decision, both restricting labour groups from using Canadian courts to enforce penalties.

The Alberta case, Telecommunications Workers Union Local 202 v. MacMillan, saw the union conduct a trial board against three employees who crossed a picket line during a legal strike. The employees did not attend the hearing and, according to court records, were subsequently, “found ‘guilty’ and fined for ‘cause detrimental to the welfare of the Union’ and for crossing or working behind a picket line. None of the Respondents paid the fine and two were suspended from the union.”

The union took Wayne MacMillan, Robert (Bob) Pinchak, and Cody Gejdos to Alberta Provincial Court.

In his ruling, Provincial Court Judge Jerry LeGrandeur wrote, “the union’s claims were not an action in either debt or damages, that no cause of action arose at common law or by statute authorizing the unions enforcing its disciplinary penalties in a court of law, and that neither the union’s constitution nor by-laws authorized it to seek redress in the courts for an internal disciplinary matter.”

The union appealed the decision to the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench and eventually the Supreme Court of Canada. Both appeals were dismissed. The SCC appeal was dismissed with costs last week.

In the Ontario case, Union of Taxation Employees, Local 70030 v. Birch, there were similar circumstances. Jeffrey Birch and April Luberti were fined by the Union of Taxation Employees, Local 70030 after they violated “the union’s constitution by working during a legal strike.” When the pair refused to each pay fines of $476.75, the union took them to Small Claims Court. The matter was sent to the Superior Court on an agreed statement of facts as a test case.

The test sought a declaration that the Superior Court did not have jurisdiction to enforce provisions set out in a union constitution providing for fines or financial penalties against union member. Alternatively, a declaration that the court did not have jurisdiction to enforce union fines; and, an order dismissing the claims brought by the union against the respondents Birch et al in Small Claims.

The application judge ordered the Superior Court would not enforce the fine and dismissed the union’s Small Claims Court action. The Court of Appeal and the SCC dismissed the union’s appeal with costs.

“They can still suspend, they can impose fines, whether they can collect is another matter,” says Erik Marshall, an associate at Miller Thomson LLP. “It’s quite clear across the country, in various provinces where there isn’t legislation, you won’t be able to [use the courts].”

Neither Alberta or Ontario have anti-replacement worker legislation. Only Saskatchewan has legislation allowing trade unions to levy fines against members who cross picket lines during legal strikes. The fines can total a members’ net pay.