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It has been a busy summer for unions, with a couple of lockouts in the Ottawa area alone. Any time there is a disruption that will affect the public, there is a pivotal element that must not be forgotten: the PR of picketing. Unions often get really concerned with the logistics of picketing: where can they picket? How many people? How long? Can they disrupt the work of the employer in any way? How much? Many a picket protocol and injunction are fought on the basis of these issues. And rightfully so. Picketing is a constitutionally protected right, and an integral part of any labour dispute.

But there is more to picketing than the right to be there with a certain number of people. We must go back to the fundamental basis of picketing: Why do unions picket? To get their message across. And while the medium (who, where, and how) of that message are important, it is the message itself that is the most important. And sometimes it gets lost in the arguments about logistics.

Almost every work stoppage, whether a strike or a lockout, causes some inconvenience to the public. And it is in those initial moments, when the public is first inconvenienced and they want to know why, that the PR battle is fought. Once work stoppage has been going on for a week, it is old news and the public is just irritated. That is not the time to try and tell the public about why you are inconveniencing them. It is too late.

Employers, particularly large and sophisticated employers (read: the type who are likely to lock out their employees) often have sophisticated marketing and PR teams. They know the importance of getting the message out there, soothing the public, and making it look like the other side is the bad guy. They are used to branding, and understand how to make almost all of their actions seem reasonable to the public. They will use the bad economy to paint a “poor employer just trying to get by” picture, and fall back on the cliché of greedy unions demanding so much while many don’t even have a job. Without saying the words “those union members should stop complaining and just feel lucky to have a job”, they will plant that idea in the minds of the public, and make the demands of the union seem frivolous and, even worse, gluttonous.

This is why it is so important for unions to get their message out there and early in the process. It is important for them to emphasize that union members are just people, and they are trying to get by, just like everyone else. Explain to the public why the employer’s offer was archaic. Make people realize that in the union’s position they, too, would have told the employer to take a hike. If you are locked out, emphasize that: You are not on strike (or, if you are, you would prefer not to be), you want to work. Make it a message that is comprehensible and digestible for the public. Remember, the details and these issues are clear to you as you have been bargaining about them for months. The public has not been living and breathing these issues, so the intricacies are usually lost on them. Make it a message that is manageable, and that strikes home with people.

It is also important to think about how to get the message out beyond picketing. Picketing is important, don’t get me wrong, but we live in a digital age. PR battles are now fought on Facebook, Twitter and on YouTube. Things can go viral quickly. So in those initial moments, use that power. Have a statement and have your friends share it on their accounts. Remember – or learn – that we live in an age where video is what goes viral. See if other unions will post your material or send it to their members. Get something to your local media, and see if they will post it. This can be done quickly using only a laptop, and if you get the head start in the public PR campaign, this only increases the pressure on the employer. You get your position and message out there, and you can be the reasonable party. You are David to their Goliath. No employer likes to look like a Walmart.

Speaking of things going viral, it is important to remember that negative press is just as powerful as positive press. That video of union members throwing golf balls at the CEO’s car (even if he deserves it) may not endear you to the public. It is worse if some innocent member of the public is caught in the crossfire. That is a quick score for the employer: look at these union members being totally irrational and unreasonable! How can we bargain with them?!? The advice I always give to my union clients: if you would be embarrassed to later look a judge in the eye and tell the story or repeat what you said, then DON’T DO IT. I know it feels great in the moment, but there is a bigger picture here and we have to keep our eye on the prize and stay classy.

Lastly, we think of the PR war in times of crisis, but unions can always garner goodwill from the public leading up to an issue. As much as you are able to, keep the public informed on the progress of bargaining, and start to position yourself early. Plant the seed with the public that your demands aren’t frivolous and greedy; you are just trying to help your members get by, same as them. If you start early, you are starting with an advantage that can be solidified with quick and effective messaging at the beginning of a work stoppage.

So let’s remember the importance of good PR and use that power to our advantage. Public pressure on an employer can be one of the most powerful tools you have in a work stoppage. But to get that public pressure, you have to get the public on your side.

This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2021 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.

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