Are wildcat strikes actually illegal?

In some of the rhetoric I see online regarding wildcat strikes, I see people referring to them as illegal. I wanted to talk about that usage.

Last October, members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (as well as other workers standing in solidarity) engaged in a work stoppage.

This work direct action was done without the approval (and perhaps knowledge) of the union executive. It was planned and orchestrated by the workers themselves, following yet another announcement of the provincial government planning to lay off thousands of public sector workers, this time in health care.

Unauthorized strikes like this are called wildcat strikes.

Support independent journalism

In some of the rhetoric I saw online regarding the strike, I saw people referring to it as illegal, including elected officials and Alberta Health Services. I wanted to talk about that usage.

Wildcat strikes aren’t illegal in the same sense that stealing a car or killing someone or embezzling money are illegal. 

Here’s some background on the “illegality” of wildcat strikes.

On 12 September 1945, workers at a Ford plant in Windsor, Ontario, went on strike. That strike ended when the union accepted a joint settlement plan 3 months later, which was put forward by the federal and provincial governments, calling for arbitration.

Ivan Rand was appointed arbitrator, and much of his 29 January 1946 ruling had to do with union security, specifically allowing unions to get employers to deduct dues from paycheques (check-off), regardless of whether a worker was technically a union member. 

However, that award came with some conditions, some of which I’ve listed here. 

  1. Every strike by the Ford auto workers must be called by the union through a secret ballot vote, overseen by a government official
  2. Any strike not called by a vote must be repudiated by union officials within 72 hours. Plus these officials should specifically call it “illegal” and non-binding on the members.
  3. Ford workers participating in such a strike could be fined up to $3/day for every day not worked and lose a year’s seniority for every week (or part thereof) not worked. (Not including any actions the Ford company wanted to take).
  4. If the union calls the strike or fails to repudiate it, they could have their check-off suspended for 2–6 months

Now keep in mind that this award was specific to workers at that Ford plant. However, employers and unions have used it as a precedent since then for their own collective bargaining.

As you can see, it’s only illegal in the sense that the union (and the employer, I guess) declares it so. Plus, decades of convention and precedent. Regardless, it’s not illegal in the sense that it breaks a statute in the Criminal Code.

And we should remember that union executives are elected by the workers to represent the workers. Ultimately, the power is in the hands of the workers, collectively. Whether it’s in choosing the union executive, or it’s in organizing a strike without a vote.

You can read the entire text of Rand’s award at the link below:

The Labour Gazette, January–June 1946, p. 129

Support independent journalism

By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

One reply on “Are wildcat strikes actually illegal?”

There has been a great deal of legal water under the bridge since Justice Rand’s award. Modern Canadian labour codes now spell out that a collective agreement must contain an arbitration clause to settle disputes without the stoppage of work. Other terms prevent the old recognition strikes and strikes over contract renewal except at designated times and only following notice, mediation and a strike vote. The provisions are supervised by the labour relations board. There orders can be filed in court and can thus become enforceable.

Comment on this story

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: