On June 5, 2008, in Bouchard c. Syndicat des salariées et salariés de General Dynamics (CSN) usine de St-Augustin,1 the Court of Québec allowed in part an action for $50,000 in damages brought against the Syndicat des salariées et salariés de General Dynamics (CSN) usine de St-Augustin (the “union”), ordering the union to pay $10,000 in moral and exemplary damages for intentional injury to the plaintiff’s reputation, dignity and honour.
Determined to challenge a new management policy seen as impinging on the work of the vicepresident, occupational health and safety and representative of the union in prevention matters, the members of the union executive chose to vent their wrath on the plaintiff Cyril Bouchard, a foreman perceived as authoritarian whom they considered responsible for the new policy.
Their personal rebuke directed at the plaintiff began with the issuance of a memo portraying him as “a little (Hitler Bouchard)”. The memo was posted on the union’s bulletin boards for a period of about twenty-four hours. Then, cartoon-style images of a character dubbed “Cyril Rictus” were put up in the same locations. The images, complete with captions containing coarse language attributed to the subject, remained posted for close to a week. Lastly, some twenty self-adhesive stickers depicting the same character, this time without the captions, were distributed to some of the union members. The stickers subsequently appeared in various places, such as on a tool box, a personal vehicle, a directional sign on the company’s industrial site, and the door of the union office.
The Court found that the actions directed at the plaintiff by the union officials were taken in a deliberate attempt to cause injury to the plaintiff’s dignity, honour and reputation, rights which are protected by section 4 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.2 It ordered the union to pay the plaintiff $3,000 in moral damages, a modest amount in keeping with the fact that the actions had not resulted in the plaintiff being off work or having to consult a health professional and that the distribution of the memo and the cartoon images had been limited to the workplace. However, an amount of $7,000 was also awarded by the Court as exemplary damages, in an effort to deter the union from future personal attacks on employer representatives.
This decision reaffirms that the immunity from civil prosecution enjoyed by union leaders and representatives only goes so far. While union officials, in their dealings with an employer, are afforded a certain protection against disciplinary or other measures needed to allow them to discharge their duty to defend the interests of the employees who are union members, that immunity cannot be used to justify the deliberate infringement of fundamental rights. The decision is also a reminder that disciplinary action is not the only solution that can be envisaged when it comes to ensuring that the fundamental rights of the employer’s representatives are respected. A damage suit, commenced by the individual who has been the target of a union attack, may also be an appropriate way of proceeding.