Striking N.L. Dominion store workers to sue police for trying to break up picket line

The union representing striking Dominion store workers in Newfoundland and Labrador says it’s suing police in St. John’s after officers tried to break up its members’ picket line last week.

Chris MacDonald with Unifor said the union will file notice of civil claim Thursday evening against the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary for breach of charter rights, negligence, negligent or wilful misrepresentation and for intimidation.

“I think it’s a strong case — there’s no question that we’ve had our civil liberties violated and we’re going to get our day in court,” he said in an interview.

On Thursday morning, nearly 50 workers set up a picket line at Weston Foods bakery in an industrial park near St. John’s — one week after police tried to break up their picket line at the same location and allegedly threatened to arrest striking workers. Weston Foods is a subsidiary of the parent company that also owns Loblaws and Dominion stores.

As they gathered, passing freight trucks blasted their massive horns in solidarity. In response, the workers cheered and hoisted their red Unifor flags. “I think generally the people of Newfoundland realize what we’re fighting for here and realize what we’re up against, which wasn’t just Loblaw, it now appears that it’s also the (police),” MacDonald said.

“You don’t get to call people COVID heroes and then treat them this way,” he said, referring to the fact grocery store employees worked throughout the first wave of the pandemic to help feed the community.

Unifor member Jennifer Green said it was “very scary for everybody” when police arrived at the picket line outside the bakery last week. She said at first police were friendly, but then a larger group of officers arrived and things got tense. The workers had been blocking food trucks from leaving the parking lot.

The union says officers threatened to arrest workers. But Const. James Cadigan said in an interview Thursday that the officers told union leaders to allow the trucks to leave the parking lot or police “would have to enforce the law.”

Cadigan said the union leadership responded that they had no intention of letting the trucks through and that the police would have to arrest them. As of Thursday afternoon, Cadigan said there had been no indication the union had filed any claim in court.

The province’s Dominion employees have been on strike since late August, after they rejected a contract offer from parent company Loblaw Companies Ltd, which included a pay raise of $1 an hour over three years. The decision to strike came after Loblaw, Sobeys and other Canadian retail giants eliminated a $2-an-hour pay boost given to employees at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dressed in a thick parka and a fluorescent reflective vest, Unifor Local 597 President Carolyn Wrice said talks with Loblaw resumed last week and then quickly fell apart after the company presented a new, $1.35-an-hour increase over four years. “Not acceptable, sorry,” she said.

Newfoundland and Labrador Labour Minister Gerry Byrne said on Monday that he had appointed a mediator to help the parties reach an agreement.

Wrice said she was horrified when the police showed up last week, noting that some of the people out that night were teenage workers.

Part of the reason they returned to the picket line a week later was to show they weren’t intimidated, Wrice said. “Obviously we’re not afraid. We’re back,” she said. “And if they try it again, we’ll just do what we have to do.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2020.

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