'That's the only tool they have': How Unifor strikers use labour to their advantage

Unifor strikers have employed several different tactics to bolster their job action, including going back to work while continuing to picket the seven Crown corporations affected. That's not unusual, according to Shelagh Campbell, a business ethics, human resources and industrial relations professor at the University of Regina.

Returning to work while strike action continues isn't unheard of: Regina professor

Hundreds of striking employees from the seven different Crown corporations gathered in front of the Queensbury Centre in Regina earlier this month while the Sask Party held its annual convention there earlier this month. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

There was a bit of confusion earlier this week, among both employers and striking employees, as Unifor called for workers to return to work despite continuing job action at seven Crown corporations.

Despite the call for employees to return to work, union members continued to strike. 

It was a move done in solidarity with part-time workers, who were not allowed to return to work by their employers, and with employees of SaskTel, who were locked out. 

Messaging from the union created some confusion as some workers at SaskWater and the Water Security Agency returned to work despite being told to resume strike activities. 

But according to Shelagh Campbell, a business ethics, human resources and industrial relations professor at the University of Regina, returning to work despite being on strike isn't an unheard of tactic.

"All unionized workers have is their labour. That's the only tool they have," Campbell said. "They can withdraw it. That's all the power they've got in the face of an employer that's got other tremendous resources, particularly the public sector employer."

She cited the job action taken late last year by Canada Post employees, which included rotating strikes at different distribution centres, as one example of employees returning to work despite being on strike. 

"That does two things: When those employees are on the job they're getting paid and that's really important to those individuals," Campbell said. "Also, it keeps the employer off balance, so it has an impact on service provided to the public, but not a drastic impact." 

She says this week's message to return to work, and then a reversal of that message was effective and essentially caused SaskTel to lock their workers out.

Different situations call for different tactics

Actions taken during labour disputes vary, depending on the physical set-up of a particular facility. 

This week, employees formed a human chain and tried to block managers from entering a SaskTel call centre.

A similar type of job action might not work at a facility such as a mall, according to Campbell, who says blocking an entrance to prevent other employees and customers from entering isn't feasible.

However, employees forming a picket at the main access point of an isolated manufacturing facility to block managers from entering is legal as long as an injunction hasn't been put in place to prevent that kind of action and the business remains open.

 "This is a very effective tool labour has to raise awareness and to make their point that business has a right to carry on its operations as best it can in the face of a strike," Campbell said.