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Her Husband Was Locked Out. She Was Forced to Cross His Picket Line

Unions are seeking change to end ‘loophole’ that forces some workers to violate a labour principle.

Zak Vescera 14 Dec 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Trade unionists have a golden rule: never cross a picket line.

But last month, Colleen Lopez-Anhofer didn’t have a choice.

Lopez-Anhofer, a contract telecommunications worker, was ordered by the BC Labour Relations Board to do work for Rogers Communications Inc. after it locked out its employees in the Lower Mainland.

For Lopez-Anhofer, it was personal. Her husband, Ron Anhofer, was one of the workers who had been locked out.

“It’s the worst feeling in the world,” said Lopez-Anhofer. Suddenly, she was spending the morning supporting her husband and his co-workers as they walked the picket line — then, in the afternoon, she was being forced to do their jobs.

Lopez-Anhofer’s family had suddenly been dragged into the middle of what she calls a “loophole” in British Columbia’s labour laws, which usually guarantee union members the right to refuse to work at a picketed worksite.

But earlier this year, a BC Labour Relations Board decision created an exemption to that rule when it comes to federally regulated worksites in industries like telecommunications.

Lopez-Anhofer’s union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 213, is now mounting a legal challenge to overturn that precedent. And the BC Federation of Labour, the umbrella group for B.C.’s unions, wants to change the legislation entirely.

“As a union rep, this decision just seems to be a whole number of flavours of wrong,” said Robin Nedila, the IBEW 213 assistant business manager. He argued it put union members in an impossible quandary, pitting them against their colleagues and — in this case — their spouses.

“It kind of sunk in with me that, wait a minute, this is going to divide households here,” Nedila said.

Tugboats and Steelworkers

For 20 years, Lopez-Anhofer has worked in telecommunications — fixing telephone cables and power lines.

Lopez-Anhofer is one of very few women in the business, and she’ll tell you bluntly that it hasn’t been easy.

“It took me 20 years to gain the respect of the men who work in this industry,” Lopez-Anhofer said.

One of those men was her husband, Ron Anhofer, who had worked in telecommunications since he was 19.

Last month, Rogers locked out Anhofer and 300 of his colleagues after negotiations broke down with United Steelworkers Local 1944.

Workers took to picket lines. But the company kept business going by hiring strikebreakers, a controversial practice the federal government has tabled legislation to ban.

The company also hired contractors. In the Lower Mainland, most of those workers are represented by IBEW 213.

Normally, unionized workers in B.C. don’t replace striking or locked-out workers. The province’s Labour Relations Code specifically allows workers to refuse to cross a picket line without it being considered an illegal strike.

But last year, the BC Labour Relations Board made a decision that created an exception to that rule.

In 2022, striking tugboat captains and engineers in North Vancouver paralyzed one of the country’s largest shipyards after hundreds of unionized welders, electricians and other union workers refused to cross their picket line.

The company, Seaspan, sought an injunction, arguing the second group of workers was engaging in an illegal strike.

The company’s logic was that the tugboat captains represented by the Canadian Merchant Service Guild were regulated under the federal labour code.

But the other unionized workers were regulated under the provincial labour code.

Because of this, Seaspan argued, the provincial labour code’s rules around honouring picket lines did not apply.

Seaspan lost its first bid but later won the case on an appeal. By that time, the tugboat strike had already ended.

But a powerful precedent was created. If a provincially regulated worker refused to cross a federally regulated picket line, it could be declared an illegal strike.

Seaspan celebrated the win. At the time, a company spokesperson said the decision “ensures that provincial employees who are not on strike will not have to lose pay due to federal picket lines, as Seaspan experienced with the CMSG strike last fall.”

But unions worried it would lead to situations where workers could be pitted against each other.

That’s exactly what happened to Lopez-Anhofer and IBEW 213.

Telecommunications is a federally regulated work sector. But in the Lower Mainland, contractors whose workers are represented by IBEW 213 are under a provincial certification.

Shortly after Rogers locked out its workers, a telecommunications contractor applied for an injunction to the Labour Relations Board arguing IBEW 213 members were engaging in an illegal strike by refusing to work for Rogers.

That company, RMI Communications Inc., was successful, and the board ordered IBEW 213 members to work.

For Lopez-Anhofer, it was infuriating. She felt she was being made to work against her own interests, since she believed some of the issues the Steelworkers were fighting over could have implications for her and her colleagues.

It was personally difficult, too. Lopez-Anhofer said some Steelworkers members didn’t understand why IBEW 213 couldn’t respect the picket line. “They would just come up to my face and ask why I was working in that area,” she said.

She said she felt stuck in a legal loophole — or, as she put it, a “load of crap.”

“It literally made my husband sick to his stomach,” Lopez-Anhofer said.

A legal challenge

The Seaspan decision was controversial. Relatively few workplaces are shared by both federally and provincially regulated workers. But in the small number that are, the decision’s implications were significant.

“To suddenly hear that they have to become a scab and be ordered across the line — it’s infuriating,” Nedila said.

IBEW 213 is now launching a legal challenge of the board’s decision, Nedila said, with a goal of overturning the Seaspan precedent entirely.

No date or venue for such a hearing has yet been set. But it would likely be held first at either the Labour Relations Board or the B.C. Supreme Court.

The federal government has already introduced legislation that would ban strikebreakers in federally regulated workplaces. But Nedila said his union believes that ban may not apply to provincially regulated workers.

RMI Communications Inc., which is headquartered in Langley, did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But IBEW 213 says it understands the company intends to fight its application.

Meanwhile, BC Federation of Labour president Sussanne Skidmore says the federation wants to fight on a different front by lobbying for changes in the Labour Relations Code.

The legislation is due for review next year, and Skidmore says one of the federation’s priorities will be ensuring unionized workers have the right to respect picket lines whether the striking unions are federally or provincially regulated.

“The description of where the legislation doesn’t protect the workers’ rights is drawn out in the legislation, so that’s something we’re going to be pushing hard on to try and get that fixed,” Skidmore said.

“A picket line is a picket line, and you don’t cross that picket line.”

The lockout that triggered the affair has ended. United Steelworkers Local 1944 reached a tentative agreement with Rogers on Nov. 17.

Lopez-Anhofer just hopes it never happens again.

“If you think about it, we’re all family trying to protect each other,” she said. “It’s what we’re trying to do.”  [Tyee]

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