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Striking Dominion workers' actions were as peaceful as a Dr. Seuss book, their lawyer says in court

Striking Dominion workers held a rally Thursday morning at the Loblaw distribution centre in Mount Pearl, as Loblaw Cos. Ltd. asked Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court for an injunction to limit the action in front of the facility. Keith Gosse/The Telegram
Striking Dominion workers held a rally Thursday morning at the Loblaw distribution centre in Mount Pearl, as Loblaw Cos. Ltd. asked Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court for an injunction to limit the action in front of the facility. Keith Gosse/The Telegram

The activities of striking Dominion workers outside a Paradise No Frills store earlier this month were no less peaceful than something you might find in a Dr. Seuss Christmas storybook, the lawyer representing the workers told a judge Thursday.

Lawyer Kyle Rees submitted to Justice Valerie Marshall that Unifor 597 members are legally “allowed to cause a little bit of trouble” for anyone looking to cross their picket lines. However, when it comes to their protest outside the No Frills store on Oct. 8 — during which between 75 and 100 workers stood in a line around three sides of the parking lot, joined by rope — Rees said the Dominion employees weren’t causing any trouble at all.

“The activities that were being carried out at No Frills are exactly the kind of peaceful protest the court wants to protect,” Rees said. “It’s the equivalent of joining hands and singing like the Whos at the end of ‘The Grinch.’”

Loblaw Cos. Ltd., the parent company of Dominion and No Frills, didn’t agree. The protest served to intimidate customers and prevented at least a dozen of them from entering the store that day, the grocery chain’s lawyer said. It also represented the start of an escalating strike action at secondary Loblaw sites.

“The behaviour of Unifor members since secondary picketing began Oct. 8 has escalated to the point that as of Tuesday of this week, they’ve now erected fencing barricading entrances to the (Loblaw) distribution centre and they’ve also had a 10x20-foot construction trailer dropped off on the property,” Michelle Willette told the court.

“We respect their right to secondary picket. We just ask that they do so legally.”

“Frankly, if Loblaw and other major corporations are going to continue to tie their wages to the provincial minimum wage, which currently sits at $12.15 (an hour), then it’s incumbent on corporations, it’s incumbent on government to settle for a fair minimum wage that provides a living wage to workers.”

While at Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court the lawyers argued the merits of an injunction Loblaw is seeking to restrict the striking workers’ activities at Loblaw-affiliated sites — including the Mount Pearl distribution centre, three No Frills stores, 30 Shoppers Drug Mart locations, one Wholesale Club outlet and three Your Independent Grocer stores — the workers held a rally outside the distribution centre, calling on the provincial government to step up where it believes Loblaw has failed and vowing to hold strong on the picket lines.

About 1,400 Dominion workers have been on strike since Aug. 22, after rejecting Loblaws’ offer of a $1-per-hour wage increase over three years. The union says Dominion cut more than 60 full-time jobs in Newfoundland last year, and more than 80 per cent of current workers are classified as part time, with limited benefits, no sick days and no vacation, and minimum-wage pay.

“Frankly, if Loblaw and other major corporations are going to continue to tie their wages to the provincial minimum wage, which currently sits at $12.15 (an hour), then it’s incumbent on corporations, it’s incumbent on government to settle for a fair minimum wage that provides a living wage to workers,” Chris McDonald, the local’s lead negotiator, said at the rally.

All 11 Dominion stores in the province have been closed since the strike began, with the exception of the in-store pharmacies.

Last month, Loblaw successfully sought an injunction against the workers after it said they were blocking the removal of trailers filled with perishable food and stopping customers from going into the pharmacies to pick up medication, among other things. The court order prevents the picketers from barricading entrances or interfering with employees or contractors entering the stores. It does allow them to stop people for up to a minute.

Loblaw is now seeking a similar injunction for secondary sites. Willette submitted a number of affidavits from management staff detailing the events of the No Frills protest and the picketing at the distribution centre. Some customers left the parking lot without going inside No Frills, Willette said, with at least one of them indicating, “This isn’t worth the trouble.”

Transport trucks have been blocked from entering the distribution site, Willette told the court, impeding traffic for up to 15 minutes at a time. Union members have told staff, “No trucks are getting in," and ignored the company's willingness to accept a delay of the vehicles instead of a total blockage, she said.

Willette pointed to a video the union had posted on its Facebook page Wednesday, in which workers are seen erecting a fence at the distribution centre. “We are blocking off the warehouse, you know, trucks coming in or out, all day, to send a message to the boss and say we’ve had enough,” workers explain in the video.

“Loblaw recognizes the union’s right to peacefully persuade. It recognizes its right to disseminate information. It also recognizes that its goal is to put pressure on an employer in the context of a legal strike. But we would submit only lawful picketing would be afforded such protection."

Rees noted the video and some of the affidavits had been filed with the court hours before the hearing and past deadline.

“The company wants to infer that there were people who were there to do business with the employer and they were turned away only because they were physically prevented from accessing the location by the union,” Rees said.

Until now, the only evidence Loblaw had provided was that people were approaching the picket line, having a conversation with union members and then leaving, he said.

Loblaw has not provided proof that it has suffered harm as a result of the workers’ actions, Rees said.

He also took issue with the company requesting a court order relating to No Frills in particular, saying that responsibility would rest with the franchise owners. He noted the union had given no indication of plans to picket any of the other Loblaw companies and said it would be a serious problem if the union were “pre-emptively muzzled” without proof.

Loblaw is the franchisor of No Frills and receives royalties from the stores, including the Paradise location, Willette said, telling the court that harm to No Frills will result in harm to Loblaw.

“Loblaw recognizes the union’s right to peacefully persuade. It recognizes its right to disseminate information. It also recognizes that its goal is to put pressure on an employer in the context of a legal strike. But we would submit only lawful picketing would be afforded such protection,” she said, submitting the union’s actions go beyond that level.

Marshall is scheduled to present her decision on the injunction Monday.

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Twitter: @tara_bradbury

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