Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

Smile for the camera: a union has the right to film you, so that it can intimidate you later

This week the Supreme Court of Canada issued a ruling that a trade union has the right to videotape people who cross a picket line.  Why?  Because the union has the right of “expression” under the Charter of Rights, and that expression includes publicizing who does things it doesn’t like. 

I would respectfully disagree with the Court.

Picketing is a highly protected activity in Canada.  The Courts have seen that the power to picket – to “communicate” a point of view, as they so genteely describe it, is integral to a union’s ability to get what it wants from other parties in labour disputes, and apparently, to coerce individual employees into staying off the job, even when those individuals desperately want to work.

In the new ruling, the Court notes very casually, at paragraph 36, that picketing can legitimately be used to “put pressure” on parties to settle a case.  That includes “pressure” which would cause discomfort or intimidation to individual employees, customers, etc who might cross the line, I guess.    The Court doesn’t say intimidation is okay, it only permits intimidation.  See the difference?

No, you don’t, because there isn’t a difference.  Permitting – indeed, facilitating – union intimidation is what the Court means to do with this decision.  There can be no doubt at all.   What can “pressure” be in this context – the filming of people as they conduct their business – other than that those filmed will somehow later be embarrassed, or worse, by those doing the filming?   We know what it means.

But okay, let’s accept the court’s premises: (1) that picketing is a form of “communication” (2) aimed at intimidating people with un-named consequences (“pressure”) if they cross the line and (3) that such intimidation is protected expression under the Charter.    Even then, the decision here is still wrong, if not as a matter of policy then as a matter of logic and law.

Having the right to “express” information or opinion about something, is not the same thing as having the right to collect that information.   The purpose of the picket line videotaping was to collect information, for later use to “pressure” people (the court’s word, again).   Where does this right to collect stop?  Can a union compel me to remove my burqa, if I wear one?  Or my ski mask?  Must I show my driver’s license, to enable the union to collect what it needs in order to pressure me later?

The issue in this case is not whether the union has a right to express what it legitimately knows or thinks, but whether the union has the right to extract from unwilling sources what the union wants to know, for later tactical “expression.”

You might think that the big banks have too much money.   Your right to express opinion (or “fact”) does not, unfortunately, permit you to enter their vaults and count the cash.    Alas, it would appear that your rights of “expression” do not rate, compared to those of a trade union gaining economic advantage through intimidation.

My advice: before you visit the bank, form a trade union.


3 comments on “Smile for the camera: a union has the right to film you, so that it can intimidate you later

  1. Bill Calvert
    November 22, 2013

    A lot of intimidation can occur on and around picket lines, by both the parties to the dispute and by third parties such as police agencies and the general public. Police will certainly videotape any sort of confrontation involving their personnel; and there are so far as I know no restrictions on videotaping by the public. Of course any such video can be selectively edited to support a given perspective. Unions should have the right to their own videotapes of these situations, if only to provide their own perspective on events.

    A picket line is a public political expression; so is crossing one. If you aren’t prepared to be filmed crossing a picket line, don’t cross it at all.


    • davidkeithlaw
      November 22, 2013

      Having seen what intimidation can mean close-up, I am not so sanguine about the theory behind union rights on a picket The problem for individuals crossing the picket line, is that they’re making an economic choice, a personal choice – not just a “political” choice.
      line. Being filmed in that location is very simply to let the person know she will be identified and held accountable.

      In most Canadian jurisdictions now, the police do nothing at picket lines: they watch, they never intervene they avoid any kind of violence because they don’t want a repetition of the ugly scenes which occurred in the past between police and strikers. Police will witness illegal acts, including trespass, and do nothing in order to avoid those kinds of confrontations. That is probably sensible of them but it means that trade unions have a strong incentive to push the line as hard as they can. The court decision of last week simply emphasizes that unions’ rights to bargain for their members are more important than individual rights, and certainly property rights.


      • Bill Calvert
        November 22, 2013

        Individuals who choose to cross a picket line to work, i.e. as strike breakers, have made their economic choices long before. They have chosen to work in a union shop, and they have chosen to accept the wages and benefits the union has negotiated for them. Crossing the picket line is a public political statement of their disavowal of the union, which the union has every right to document. A video record should also serve to ensure that strike breakers are not physically assaulted by other union members, to the benefit of both parties.

        Video is nothing more than a record of a public act. In and of itself, it is harmless.


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This entry was posted on November 20, 2013 by in the workplace.
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