Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Complaint over “Mafia-esque” union Xmas cards resolved

An unfair labour practice complaint, alleging Christmas cards sent by a union to the employer’s bargaining team amounted to “Mafia-esque” intimidation, provides insight into the unexpected impact that Alberta’s restrictive picketing laws may have on union pressure tactics during bargaining.

Alberta’s picketing laws

In 2019, the United Conservative Party (UCP) formed government in Alberta. In the summer of 2020, the UCP passed Bill 32: Restoring Balance in Alberta’s Workplaces Act (2020). This act substantially restricted picketing activities by:
  • rendering it illegal to obstruct or impede someone from crossing a picket line,
  • requiring a union to seek Labour Board permission to engage in secondary picketing, and
  • allowing the Labour Board to determine the conditions of any secondary picketing.
These changes effectively rendered legal picketing ineffective and effective picketing illegal. This, in turn, reduced the ability of workers and unions to exert pressure on the employer to move at the bargaining table (which was the intent of the legislation).

Christmas card “intimidation”

Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) served notice to bargain in the spring 2020. By the late autumn of 2021, the employer had not yet provided its monetary proposal and bargaining was stalled. The union began applying pressure in order to generate movement. For example, it filed a bargaining in bad faith complaint with the Labour Board. This proved predictably ineffective due to delay in getting the matter to hearing in a timely way.

The union also began experimenting with the alternative strike tactics that it had developed, in part, because of Alberta’s restrictions on effective picketing. These tactics included choking-off revenue by applying reputational pressure. The first effort was a 12 Days of Christmas meme campaign based on the song “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.” Members tweeted these memes at the employer and its bargaining team.

At the end of the online campaign, the most popular meme was then made into a Christmas card. Copies of the card were mailed to homes of the university president and bargaining team co-chairs. In January of 2022, the employer filed an unfair labour practices complaint, alleging the cards were intended to be intimidating, an implicit threat to the safety of the employer’s representatives and their families, and were a “Mafia-esque” tactic.

In April of 2023, the union and the employer settled the unfair. In this settlement, the union agreed, in future, to collect personal information in accordance with Alberta’s privacy legislation (which it is legally bound to do in any case). The union also “acknowledged that those who received the Christmas Cards and members of their families felt that they had been intimidated and harassed.” This settlement is, I think, best read as saving the union the financial cost of the hearing and saving the employer the political cost of losing.


The UCP’s changes to Alberta’s labour laws were intended make it more difficult for unions to exert meaningful pressure on employers via picketing that disrupts operations. The desired effect was to attenuate unions’ abilities to make meaningful contract gains.

These changes do not, however, eliminate the need for workers and unions to exert pressure on employers during bargaining. That doesn’t mean these picketing restrictions have no effect on union power. Rather, they just push unions to (1) develop alternative tactics and/or (2) ignore the law and take whatever punishment that entails.

On the surface, mailing Christmas cards to the boss was a very mild alternative pressure tactic. Yet, it triggered a very strong response from the employer. This reaction may have been an effort by the employer to generate some pearl-clutching and internal dissent within the union membership by equating the union with the mob. Or it may have been designed to generate litigation to trade away against the union’s bad faith bargaining complaint.

The tenor of the employer’s complaint, though, suggests real outrage. (I recognize these explanations are not mutually exclusive.) The memes and cards may have driven home for the recipients that collective bargaining can have real world consequences for bosses (just like it always does for workers). It may also have highlighted that the government restricting traditional picketing activities increases the likelihood that unions will expand their tactics to include applying pressure directly on bosses.

While the overall effectiveness of this sort of pressure tactic remains unclear, the employer’s over-reaction to the Christmas card complaint certainly suggests that bosses intensely dislike even the mildest personal pressure and are surprisingly easy, according to their own complaint, to intimidate. This, in turn, tells unions that they should continue to explore this space.

There is significant room to escalate these forms of personally targeted pressure while still staying within the bounds of legal leafletting activity. And the nothing-burger settlement of the employer’s unfair suggests the cost to the union of using these tactics is low.

-- Bob Barnetson

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

AU management is so stupid. By overreacting as they did, they revealed their weakness, and how easily they can be rattled. I expect that any legitimate and competent union would exploit that weakness in the future. Had I been advising management, I would have counseled them to suck it up quietly. Idiots!