On Monday, an arbitrator awarded Canada Post Corporation damages of approximately $50,000 for an illegal strike by letter carriers that occurred in 2008, first in Edmonton, then in Grande Prairie, and later in Fort McMurray.

The first two strikes did not delay deliveries but the Fort McMurray strike meant no mail delivery in that community for two days. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers was liable because its local representatives led the unlawful actions. The damages amount is significant because the nature of the business made it very difficult for Canada Post to prove any direct losses other than some management overtime, travel expenses and legal fees for getting Canada Industrial Relations Board orders to stop the strike. Canada Post was also unable to prove lost business.

What made it such a large number was the $35,000 which arbitrator Michel Picher awarded as punitive damages. Arbitrator Picher recognized that this was a relatively modest award but, he sent a clear signal to watch out for more next time. He said, “If the amount of punitive damages in the instant case is fashioned at a relatively modest level, it is in the expectation that local Union officers will appreciate the seriousness of their actions and will refrain from such conduct in the future. Should they or other officers at different locations fail to do so, in a future case a more substantial award of punitive damages will obviously be justified.”

There have been several recent arbitration decisions awarding punitive damages against employers for even relatively modest and less blatant collective agreement violations than this. Punitive damages have become a much more common way to try to stop future breaches and to deliver a message that actions are unacceptable. They are a powerful weapon, and it is good news for employers to see them used in combating illegal strike action.