Labour debate rages in Quebec

Replacement-worker ban should go: Montreal Economic Institute
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/25/2011

Rather than make Quebec’s replacement-worker ban even stricter, the provincial government should do away with it altogether, according to employer groups.

“We’re already concerned that it even existed and now they want to strengthen it. That concerned us even more,” said Louis Fortin, an HR consultant and researcher at the Montreal Economic Institute.

The government committee on labour and the economy held a two-day hearing in February on a private member’s bill to change the replacement worker provisions in Quebec’s 34-year-old labour code to take into account the effect of new technology, such as the Internet and teleworkers.

Quebec and British Columbia are the only two North American jurisdictions that ban the use of replacement workers during a strike or lockout, said Fortin.

“Having that legislation doesn’t allow us to necessarily attract more investment in the province of Quebec. It’s something that scares off some employers,” he said.

The Quebec Employers Council reviewed six different independent studies of work stoppages across Canada and found the replacement workers provisions in the code don’t reduce the number of stoppages or days lost due to stoppages compared to other jurisdictions, said Yves-Thomas Dorval, president of the Quebec Employers Council.

In fact, these provisions have a negative economic impact, he said.

“There is a lower level of investment in companies in Quebec compared to other jurisdictions in North America and the reasons are directly related to the labour relations laws in Quebec,” said Dorval.

The private member’s bill was proposed as a result of a lockout of 253 employees that has been going on for more than two years at the Quebecor-owned Journal de Montréal. The union representing the workers, the Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux (CSN), told the committee the newspaper has only been able to continue to publish during the lockout by using content from the QMI News Agency, which is also owned by Quebecor.

The current replacement workers provisions don’t cover replacement workers outside of an establishment affected by a strike or lockout, a fact Quebecor is exploiting to prolong the lockout, said the union.

CSN would like to see the provisions amended to take into account replacement workers who telework or other technology that doesn’t require replacement workers to be physically on-site, such as the QMI writers and editors.

“Crossing a picket line, physically or virtually, is a disgraceful and despicable act,” said Daniel Boyer, secretary general at the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ).

As such, the definition of a workplace has to be expanded beyond the bricks and mortar definition, he said. And that new definition should also give ministry of labour investigators the ability to go to an employer’s place of work as well as any other location where the work of employees on strike or lockout might be accomplished, said Lucie Levasseur, vice-president at FTQ.

“For example, the Journal de Québec or Montréal, it could have been the courthouse or a sports centre, where brief professional activities take place,” said Levasseur.

But the replacement worker provisions were set up, for the most part, to protect workers from violence on the picket lines and don’t apply to teleworkers, said Dorval.

“The government should not change anything regarding the replacement workers provision in the labour code,” he said. “If they have to change it, they should remove it and not reinforce it.”

So far the Quebec Labour Relations Board and two courts have upheld Quebecor’s use of QMI content to continue publishing the Journal de Montréal during the lockout, said Fortin.

“The employer has been negotiating in good faith with the union over the past couple of years,” he said.

Also, it’s unfair to base any changes to the code on such an anomalous conflict, said Dorval. In Quebec, only about two per cent of collective bargaining ends up in a strike or work stoppage, said Dorval.

“That says the labour relations environment in Quebec is very good,” he said.

Strengthening the replacement workers provisions in the code would be a clear signal to companies not to invest in Quebec because the labour environment is more restrictive for employers and they could be “held hostage during negotiations,” said Dorval.

Quebec’s labour code ‘an anomaly’

Even without the replacement workers provisions, Quebec’s labour code is an anomaly compared to most other jurisdictions and Fortin said he would like to see several aspects of the code updated.

Quebec is in the minority of Canadian provinces and European countries that allow for certification without a secret ballot vote, which means employees could be pressured into signing a union card, said Fortin. In the United States, a secret ballot is required unless the employer voluntarily recognizes the union.

Quebec’s labour code also allows collective agreements to require all employees to belong to the union or risk losing their jobs. This practice is banned in the majority of U.S. states, 47 European countries and Australia, said Fortin, who co-authored a Montreal Economic Institute paper titled The Quebec Unionization Model: Correcting the Anomaly.

Under the Quebec code, all employees in a unionized workplace must pay union dues, regardless of whether they’re members of the union. Also, those dues can be used to finance any union activities.

“We believe union dues should be used to represent employees at the bargaining table and to defend employees when it comes to grievances and arbitrations,” said Fortin. “We don’t think that unions should be spending union dues on things like environmental issues (or other social and political causes).”

In the U.S., Europe and Australia, this practice is banned or restricted so dues can only be used for activities connected to collective bargaining.

Other changes to the labour code Fortin said he would like to see include allowing employers the same freedom as unions to communicate with employees during a certification drive and requiring a union to file an annual report to the government detailing all of its financials.

However, Quebec’s Liberal government is in a tenuous position and probably doesn’t want to make any changes that would ostracize the labour movement or prevent new investment in the province, said Fortin.

“I don’t know if they have a great appetite for the recommendations that are going to come out of the committee,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the end, after all is said and done, the labour code remained unchanged.”

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