Quebec mechanics end 3-year labour dispute in debt

Employees must pay back portion of funds received during lockout

After a years-long labour dispute, mechanics in Quebec are back to work — and working at paying off their debts.

Employees represented by the Syndicat Démocratic des Employés de Garage du Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean (SDEG-CSD) were locked out by a group of employers for 35 months. Following their return to work, the 350 employees — including mechanics, service advisors, car washers and parts persons — will now begin the process of paying back a portion of the financial support they received during the labour action.

“The workers received $400 per week,” said Gilles Prudhomme, union representative for the Centrale des Syndicats Démocratiques (CSD). “It’s not common to see that level of support during a dispute for such a long time.”

The CSD provided $225 per week while the local SDEG-CSD contributed $175 per week. That additional $175 per week was provided through the union’s acquisition of a $3-million bank loan and the employees have five years to pay back the funds from that loan.

The contract eventually reached by the union and employer group will expire in six years.

“That’s good,” Prudhomme said, “because if we had a short contract, we would have the same situation happening with the employers putting people on the street again.”

Prudhomme said the workers’ determination throughout the lockout inspired the union to stand its ground and led to an agreement with significant wage increases.

The contract includes wage increases of two per cent for the three years of the dispute, a wage increase of three per cent for 2016, a wage increase of 2.3 per cent through 2021 and a wage increase of three per cent in its final year.

While a number of employees returned to work on Jan. 25, some still require the union’s support as the employers gradually recall workers. Under Quebec law, the affected garages were unable to operate without unionized employees and, as a result, the workers will be recalled only as demand for services increases.

Strike and defence funds were created for these very circumstances, according to Barb Dolan, director of Unifor’s strike and defence fund.

“Through the Rand formula, unions collect dues from unionized members. A portion of those dues go directly into the strike and defence fund. We have a strike and defence fund policy which sets out the guidelines on when strike or lockout pay commences and how long it lasts,” Dolan said.

“It would last for the duration of the strike or lockout, but there are some situations where you may have a strike or lockout and you reach a settlement but the return-to-work date isn’t the same for everybody.

"There are provisions in our strike and defence fund where, if a person doesn’t return to work from that strike or lockout, they can still receive strike support for up to 28 days.”

This support of employees during their period off work is a critical aspect of the union’s structure, she said.

“It’s not a lot of money, but the purpose of the strike and defence fund is to assist our members when they’re in that position because no union ever wants to put their membership in a position where they have to just accept whatever the employer puts in front of them, or whatever kinds of concessions, because there’s no finance,” Dolan said.

Knowing that a strike and defence fund is the only safety net workers can rely on during a labour dispute is something that weighs heavily on union leaders, according to Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

“When a dispute is triggered, there is always an understanding that you don’t have any control over when the dispute will be settled,” Yussuff said.

“In every occasion that there is a strike, it’s always seen as the last resort. Before you can access the right to go on strike, you must exhaust every possible option to try and reach a tentative agreement without disruption. It’s always seen as a last resort because once you’re in the dispute and you’ve made the decision to withdraw your labour, it’s really difficult to wake up the next morning and say, ‘We made a mistake.’ It is a serious thing.'”

If these disputes drag on for months or even years, as it did for the mechanics in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, the strike and defence fund is crucial support for not only the employees who, by virtue of withdrawing their services, are no longer on the payroll, but also their families and communities, he said.

Larger unions may have funds capable of sustaining a significant number of workers for a long period of time, but smaller organizations may be limited in their contributions to employees.

“For smaller unions, it’s quite a challenge,” Yussuff said.

“They may be limited in their contribution and then they are highly dependent on solidarity support to maintain some support for workers.”

SDEG-CSD benefited from solidarity support from unions including the United Steelworkers and the Fédération Québécoise de Dynamophilie. This support, Prudhomme said, along with the bank loan, allowed the union to persevere.

“We didn’t back off,” he said. “Now we need to look at the situation and work to bring the employees back and to avoid living through that situation again in six years. We have six years to build a good working relationship between the employer and workers and union.”

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