Northern Exposure

Union ordered to pay punitive damages, employer legal costs following illegal strike

By Lorene Novakowski

Following a Canada Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) ruling that an illegal strike had occurred against Canada Post on two dates in November 2010, the corporation sought damages from the union. The issue went before an arbitrator.


The arbitrator found that:

  • Union officials were present at the activities in question;
  • They must be presumed to have had knowledge that an illegal strike was under way; and
  • They had failed to take any steps, or turned a blind eye, to what was occurring.

The arbitrator noted that under Canadian labor law, a union is liable for damages resulting from an illegal work stoppage when union officials or those in a union leadership role are found to be involved in causing it. Unions also can be liable for failing to take prompt and appropriate action to bring the illegal work stoppage to an end.

The arbitrator followed rulings in an earlier arbitration award between these parties, noting that:

  • Under this collective agreement, given the parties’ history, it must be taken as agreed that the union is liable in damages for its involvement in an illegal work stoppage;
  • Punitive damages can be warranted if the union disregards its primary obligations under the terms of the collective agreement; and
  • An arbitrator has the authority to award punitive damages even though the collective agreement mentions only declaratory relief.

Damages ordered

The arbitrator ordered the union to pay Canada Post $35,000 in punitive damages. He noted that such damages would be more substantial if future illegal strikes occurred in circumstances where the union either failed to take prompt action to stop such action or precipitated the action itself.

The arbitrator also ordered that the union pay the legal fees of Canada Post. They were an expense incurred in responding to the illegal actions of the union, including the actual fees incurred in making the application to the CIRB, to the point where the CIRB’s ultimate decision was issued. The union was ordered to pay just over $29,000 to Canada Post in this regard.

Takeaway for employers

In pursuing damages resulting from an illegal strike, employers should consider pursuing punitive damages and legal fees through arbitration. This may assist employers in recovering as much as possible of the expenses and losses incurred. This should be considered where the labor board that has jurisdiction over an application regarding an illegal strike has no authority to make such an order.

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