Opinion

Unifor's 'Meet the Scabs' video is pointlessly cruel: Robyn Urback

The obvious intention was to intimidate, which, ironically, sounds an awful lot like how big companies treat employees when they attempt to unionize.

Sure, it got attention. But I suspect it's manifesting more as loathing for Unifor — not sympathy for workers

About 30 workers at D-J Composites in Gander, N.L., have been locked out of their jobs since December 2016. The aerospace manufacturer, which is headquartered in Augusta, Kan., is using replacement workers. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

If you chisel away at my calcified, capitalist heart, you'll find a small, resiliently tender spot where I am genuinely sympathetic to the members of Unifor Local 597, who have been locked out of their jobs in the small town of Gander, N.L., for nearly two years.

In that time, the province's Labour Relations Board has twice found their employer, U.S.-based aerospace company D-J Composites, guilty of bargaining in bad faith. There have been no repercussions for the company.

I also understand the anger among Unifor members, with D-J Composites hiring replacement labour to do the work of locked-out employees. These locked-out employees were essentially neutered the moment those men and women crossed the picket line — they lost virtually all of their leverage, power and influence.

It's not fair. And Unifor members are absolutely justified in feeling outraged.

What is not justified, however, is Unifor Canada using its own vast resources, influence and power to identify and target those who, for whatever reason, have chosen to offer scab labour. Yet that's precisely what it did when it posted a video to its Twitter and Facebook accounts last week, inviting viewers to "Meet the Scabs."

Unifor identified — both by name and face — these replacement workers, using pictures scraped from social media and also seemingly surreptitiously taken at the job site.

The tone of the video was menacing, threatening, and its message undeniable: These people are bad. Here are their names. Go forth and…?

The union has said the release of the video is part of Unifor's efforts to step up pressure on D-J Composites to put an end to the lockout. The company has twice been found guilty of violating labour laws. (CBC)

The video might be defensible from a legal perspective. In 2013, the Supreme Court affirmed an Alberta appellate court decision that allowed a union to photograph and record people crossing the picket line during a 2006 labour dispute at the Palace Casino in Edmonton.

In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Alberta's privacy law was too broad and "imposes restrictions on a union's ability to communicate and persuade the public of its cause, impairing its ability to use one of its most effective bargaining strategies in the course of a lawful strike."

Unifor's "Meet the Scabs" video could likewise be permitted as a lawful bargaining technique dispatched by a union during a prolonged strike.

And there is no doubt that this video has been extremely successful in garnering a degree of national attention toward what would have otherwise been — and indeed has been — overlooked as a small-town labour dispute. But that attention comes at the expense of all sorts of other important things, including Unifor's reputation, its leaders' humanity, and its targets' safety and security.

Plenty of tactics that are legal are also grossly unethical. This is one of them.

Organized thuggishness

Had any other organization, company or powerful group posted a video with this sort of doxxing — that is, public identification of individuals in order to provoke a mob response — it would've been considered bullying and harassment.

Yet Unifor — which has basically shrugged off the death threats its targets have received since the video's broadcast — would have us think this thuggishness is somehow righteous because it is coming from a union. It is not.

In their own defence, Unifor's directors have noted that naming and shaming scabs has long been a preferred union tactic during labour disputes. And that's true. But "long-standing" is not a synonym for "virtuous." 

What's more, the labour disputes of the past — even the recent past — existed in a different climate than today, where, with just a name, you can easily track down someone's location, family, kids and contact information. You can harass them between bathroom breaks.

It is also true that many people in Gander already knew the names of the people crossing the picket line. But Unifor — equipped with vast financial resources and immense reach — plucked the issue out of the town of 12,000, and broadcast their identities to an audience of hundreds of thousands. The obvious intention was to intimidate, which, ironically, sounds an awful lot like how big companies treat employees when they attempt to unionize.

While there might be a power imbalance between a U.S. aerospace company and a few dozen Gander employees, there is also a power imbalance between the largest private-sector union in Canada and the seven individuals it targeted for crossing the picket line, most of whom — again ironically — were women or people of colour.

A few of the people identified in the video have since spoken out, including one woman who said she took the job because she was in debt and needed to feed her four kids. I imagine other "scabs" would have similar explanations; after all, how many people would choose to take a job for which they have to pass locked-out employees every day if they felt they had other decent options?

That's what Unifor's "Meet the Scabs" video misses: The fact that these people are humans, with families, homes and other responsibilities, who probably experienced a rush of hot panic the moment they saw their names and faces on a video blasted across the country.

It's hard to truly understand the visceral fear that comes with this sort of exposure unless you experience it.

Maybe you think these men and women deserve it for doing a bad thing. You can think that. I think we all ought to try being a bit kinder to each other.

With this video, Unifor forfeits the moral high ground. Sure, it was successful in attracting national attention. But I suspect much of that attention won't manifest as meaningful support for the locked-out workers. Rather, it will come in the form of loathing and disgust for Unifor Canada. And deservedly so. This was pointlessly cruel.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at: