Top Canadian companies were among the sponsors and attendees of Canada’s largest union-busting event, according to photos and documents obtained by Briarpatch.
The anti-union Canadian LabourWatch Association’s most recent conference guided large employers through the process of “remaining or becoming union free.” The speakers included representatives from Honda, Fasken, Pacific Western, A&W, AFIMAC, and others.
For a $1,000 fee, these company representatives – mostly from their human resources departments – packed a Toronto hotel conference centre to learn the tricks of “remaining union-free.” Some of those same companies opted to assist the conference further, counting themselves among its “program committee members.”
What is LabourWatch?
LabourWatch previously made headlines in 2013, when IKEA was accused of directing select British Columbia employees to contact the organization to help them decertify their union while workers were locked out at IKEA’s Richmond, B.C. location. More recently, management at Victoria’s Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) shared LabourWatch material in a bid to dissuade workers from unionizing.
“However, this group’s real intention is to undermine Canada’s labour unions and Canadian workers’ legal right to choose to be represented by a union in their workplace.”
The organization bills itself in part as an “information” body that helps guide workers through paperwork. But it counts among its directors representatives of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, Merit, and other employer groups.
University of the Fraser Valley business professor Fiona McQuarrie wrote of LabourWatch, “The Canadian LabourWatch Association claims that it exists to ‘advance employee rights’ and to provide ‘balanced’ information about unionization in Canadian workplaces. However, this group’s real intention is to undermine Canada’s labour unions and Canadian workers’ legal right to choose to be represented by a union in their workplace.”
The program committee members
The conference’s slideshow, a PDF of which was provided to all registrants, lists the conference’s “program committee” members and their associated companies. They include:
1. Cintas Canada Ltd HR Director Angela Aubry
While the corporate uniform-maker did not respond to requests for comment, its workers are currently unionized in parts of Ontario with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW).
2. Johnson & Johnson Human Resources Head Stephen Dryburgh
The medical technology company did not respond to requests for comment, but Dryburgh’s LinkedIn notes he previously was director of HR at Unilever, where he helped cut “Contingent Labour usage by 40%.”
3. Aecon Group Talent Acquisition Director Dan Gignac
Neither Gignac nor the construction giant responded to requests for comment, but the company’s workers are currently unionized with a number of construction and building trades unions.
4. TJX Canada Human Resources Manager Lana Exley
The parent company of Winners, Marshalls, and Homesense did not respond to requests for comment. But Exley’s LinkedIn page reads she has occupied roles in the department store chain’s HR department since 2006. Her LinkedIn further shows she follows an anti-union blog, the Labour Union Report.
Relatedly, TJX Companies Senior Business Partner Nick Procter counts “union avoidance” among his skills on his LinkedIn page.
5. Amazon Canada Employee Relations Principal Michael Foggia
Amazon did not respond to requests for comment, but last year the company was accused of trying to quash unionization efforts at one of its associate companies, in Ontario.
6. Sleep Country Canada former HR Vice-President Brett Abram
Sleep Country did not respond to requests for comment. But former Sleep Country Canada HR Director Penny Nichols, who held the position from 2006 to 2009, notes on her LinkedIn page that as part of her Sleep Country Canada responsibilities she “Established the right relationship and tone within both unionize and non-unionized work environment. [sic] Always driving the real message when the time is right! Personal advocate and strong proponent of the launch and management of effective union avoidance strategies (ongoing).”
7. AFIMAC Senior VP Operations Jim Rovers
In audio from the conference obtained by Briarpatch, Rovers said, “I’m gonna date myself a little bit, but if you don’t have something like a LabourWatch, people have to revert to tactics from the ’70s and ’80s. And I can sit here and I can say ‘Here’s a brown bag delivered to this guy over here and he’s gonna help us decertify the union’ – the guy who took $10,000 in a brown bag and was never heard from again. If you don’t have a proper means of dealing with it, people revert to more draconian tactics.”
The conference program also lists a number of attendees from the HR departments of large companies.
1. Hudson’s Bay Company HR Divisional VP Noemie Patocka
HBC did not respond to requests for comment. But LinkedIn profiles associated with the company show that it appears to retain Bennett Jones LLP lawyer Sara Parchello as general counsel, who writes that she previously “Advised in obtaining injunctive relief for client whose business was negatively impacted by striking union.”
2. RDJ Bakeries HR Manager Hanen Ouni
RDJ Bakeries did not respond to requests for comment.
3. Sleep Country Canada National Human Resources Director Aman Randawa
On LinkedIn, Randawa wrote she is an “Active member of the National Business Team” and her “Key Accountabilities include: Employee Relations for union and union associates, coaching, talent acquisition/retention and health and safety.”
Previously, the page reads, she served as a HR generalist for National Logistics Services. There, she described her responsibilities, which included “Provid[ing] Orientation for new managers and professional level staff, including providing policy background, overview of organization and HR functions, Performance Reviews, non-harassment training, union-avoidance and safety training.”
4. Reliance Home Comfort Labour Relations Manager Rahim Shamji
Contacted by Briarpatch, Rahim confirmed his work for Reliance Home Comfort but declined requests to comment further.
In a tweet from 2010 that’s since been deleted, Rahim appeared to joke about dreaming of strangling a union steward. Asked about it, he said only “That was before I started at Reliance Home Comfort.”
Asked about the company’s presence at the event, a spokesperson told Briarpatch “Reliance Home Comfort is committed to fostering constructive labour relations with our represented Team Members and Unions. We have no further comment.”
5. Luxottica North America Employee and Labour Relations Senior Manager Rosanna DeVellis
The company did not respond to requests for comment. But a document warning Luxottica to prepare union avoidance strategies, following a campaign to unionize one of its Canadian LensCrafters stores, is available here.
In the United States, Luxottica HR senior manager Rob Shepherd’s LinkedIn notes that he “Developed internal Union Avoidance website from ground up via Wordpress platform, including being part of [a] small content editing team.”
In leaked audio obtained by Briarpatch, DeVellis is heard saying LabourWatch had recently helped the company decertify two Canadian LensCrafters stores.
"If it wasn’t for LabourWatch, our most recent decertifications would not have gotten started.”
Describing her job, DeVellis is heard saying “I’m the senior manager of employee labour relations. So, I do the employee relations – performance issues, harassment cases, all that stuff. And then we have four unionized stores – so I work directly with those unionized stores. I’m the liaison – if the union has a problem they call me, I’m at the bargaining table, and the other part is being proactive to ensure that it doesn’t spread. Because there’s so many of our stores now.”
DeVellis is further heard saying “I know from our perspective, our company, if it wasn’t for LabourWatch, our most recent decertifications would not have gotten started” before confirming those decertifications were at LensCrafters.
“The employees were completely clueless as to how to decertify, I sent them there [to LabourWatch], they got it done,” she continued. “There was someone there to support them because it is a very labour-intensive process, they got a little bit scared of it. They guided them through it, they were there. It would not have happened without LabourWatch.”
“They will handhold the employee through the entire process, they’re phenomenal,” she said. “I’m always here to help out as much as I can, because I can’t do too much – but LabourWatch can do whatever they want with them.”
“What I was saying to John is that we’re coming around again next year at de-cert time, ‘Is there something I can do differently when I send my people to you?’” she added.
6. FGF Brands Team Member Engagement Director Lee-Ann Cunningham
The company, which supplies baked goods to retailers, did not respond to requests for comment.
But back in 2017, the company was brought before an Ontario labour board over allegations by UFCW it carried out surveillance policies “designed to intimidate employees” in ways that violated the law.
7. Skjodt-Barrett Foods Inc Human Resources VP Nick Johnson
Skjodt-Barrett Foods Inc did not respond to requests for comment. But until recently, Johnson’s LinkedIn listed “union avoidance” among his skills.
8. McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Limited Vice President and General Counsel Joel Levesque
Levesque's name is mentioned more than once on the attendance list, without explanation.
While the the company didn’t respond to requests for comment, documents leaked last year in the United States revealed anti-union "tactics, which were discussed by and, at times, coordinated by regional executives of the company, included gathering intelligence from a cashier who attended a union meeting as a mole, circulating names of suspected pro-union workers, and coaching a franchisee on how to avoid hiring union sympathizers," Bloomberg reports.
9. Sobeys Alberta HR Retail Business Partner Darcy Walker; and Sobeys Labour Relations & Integrated Health Management Vice President Andrew Follwell
The grocery store company did not respond to requests for comment. But anti-union material from the company has previously circulated online.
LabourWatch’s history and funding
In audio obtained by Briarpatch, Canadian LabourWatch Association director John Mortimer notes LabourWatch was founded following a meeting in the late 1990s between himself; Roy Ellis, “the retired head of human resources for McDonald’s”; and Paul Ratzlaff, the former head of HR for Walmart. Before LabourWatch’s founding, Mortimer said, “a larger group of employers, about 10 of us, met once a month in either Toronto or Vancouver and conceptualized what it would be.”
LabourWatch’s full list of backers is not available.
“At the end of the day, most years, it’s the special contributions that mainly come from employers that get money to us."
But in audio obtained by Briarpatch, Mortimer notes the organizers are large management-side law firms and employer associations. Some, like the Hotel Association of Canada, have dropped off since the group’s founding, which Mortimer notes led to a decrease in “member dues.”
“At the end of the day, most years, it’s the special contributions that mainly come from employers that get money to us, especially for our special projects like polls and speaking tours,” Mortimer explained. Many of these projects, he said, are typically paid for by “industry associations or law firms.”
Update, December 11, 2020: The article incorrectly identified Fiona McQuarrie as a business professor at the University of British Columbia. McQuarrie is a business professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.