Report from the picket line: Working people stand together in Fredericton

Written by Abram Lutes and Norm Knight on December 9, 2018

New Brunswick union representatives and Fredericton workers and students joined an early morning picket in solidarity with postal workers at the Fredericton postal plant on Dec. 6, 2018. Photo by Iain Brannigan.

In the early hours of Dec. 6, union workers from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the New Brunswick Federation of Labour (NBFL) and their supporters, including the Friends of Public Services group, the Communist Party, and a milieu of community members, gathered at the two entrances to the Canada Post distribution centre on Waggoners Lane in Fredericton.

The picket was organized to protest the federal government’s back-to-work legislation that ordered striking Canada Post employees back to work with heavy penalties if they did not comply. The picket blocked delivery trucks carrying mail and parcels to the centre, a tactic to continue putting pressure on Canada Post to negotiate with its employees despite the legislated order.

“The media has outlined it as a CUPE protest, so I’ve been saying well no, it’s more than CUPE there,” said Patrick Colford, President of the NBFL, “there were community allies, other unions, students were there. It’s larger than just one organisation…I’ve been calling them solidarity pickets or community actions.”

“The government is wrong when they say they can just use a legislative pen to write off a constitutional right,” said Simon Ouellette, Communications Representative for CUPE New Brunswick, “they rarely pass laws that force the employer to negotiate fairly with workers. It only goes one direction.”

The picket is not merely about supporting the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) but also about the right to strike in Canada. “The back-to-work legislation that was introduced is taking away Canadians’ rights,” says Colford, “not just union rights but workers’ rights for all Canadians.”

Since the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan SCC 4, [2015] 1 S.C.R. 245, the right of workers to collective bargaining and to withhold their labour through striking has been considered a part of the Charter of Rights of Freedoms section 2(d), freedom of association.

While complying with the back-to-work legislation, which took effect Nov. 27, in order to avoid hefty fees and jail time for their members, the CUPW has said that “all options are on the table” to fight the legislation, including taking the government to court for violation of the Charter.

In the meantime, however, the picket lines are maintained by others. The back-to-work legislation includes stipulations which prevent Canada Post workers from participating in any protests or pickets.

The Dec. 6 morning began by successfully turning around several incoming trucks, with many drivers happy to comply with the picketer’s chants of “nothing in, nothing out!” Wooden palettes were placed across the entrances, and behind them picketers brandished union flags and raised fists, a gesture of labour solidarity. Fires were lit with kerosene to keep the assembled protesters warm, and spirits were maintained by singing labour songs like “Solidarity Forever” and variations of Christmas songs. While picketers were instructed to allow postal workers to pass the line, many postal workers instead preferred to wait in their vehicles or go home but did not cross the line.

The situation on the line became tense when Canada Post management, and shortly afterward police and firefighting services, arrived. Firefighters extinguished the makeshift fires on the line on the grounds that they were not contained in fire barrels, sometimes to the cajoling of picketers, who reminded the firefighters that they, too, were union workers and might be affected in future by back-to-work legislation.

The Fredericton Police argued that the picket was illegal because it was “obstructing traffic” and instructed picketers to make way for an outgoing parcel truck or face arrest. Picketers reminded police that the picket was only obstructing the Canada Post parking lot, not a public road, and thus could not be considered to be obstructing traffic.

“The police were professional,” remarked Ouellette, “I can’t say it’s been the same everywhere.”

Police attempted to escort a large parcel truck out of the facility but were blocked by picketers, who chanted and sang The Internationale and modified versions of O Canada as they held the line. Despite threats of arrest and being run over, picketers held their own and the police and the van eventually desisted in their attempt to push through.

“There’s a real problem when you have peaceful, nonviolent protestors being arrested for standing up for rights that are protected under the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” noted Colford, referencing the arrest of six protestors in Halifax at a similar picket line.

Canada Post spokesperson Jon Hamilton told the Fredericton Daily Gleaner, “We can confirm individuals were illegally obstructing the movement of mail/parcels at our plant in Fredericton between approximately 5 am and 8:45 am AT.”

However, ‘secondary picketing’ without a permit is not illegal in Canada so long as it does not obstruct public roads or military infrastructure Despite this, Canada Post has labelled the picket in Fredericton and other locations as “illegally obstructing” their facilities.

“Employers have a very negative view of what you might call solidarity pickets,” said Ouellette, “they’re trying to change the laws, so you can only picket your own workplace, but when that right has been taken away [from CUPW], what other options do you have?”

Despite the hostile stance of Canada Post and the government, as well as police repression, the labour movement and its allies in the youth and community movements is going to continue to demonstrate against the legislation, says Colford: “It’s very important for Canadians to stand up. We have the right under the Charter to peacefully protest, and that’s exactly what happened in Fredericton, and, quite frankly, will continue to happen all around this country until Canada Post and the Canadian government get Canada Post back to the table.”

Abram Lutes is a student activist and a member of the board of directors of the NB Media Co-op. 

Norm Knight writes on labour and environmental issues for the NB Media Co-op. 

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