Independent workers seek strength in numbers

Montreal trucker strike puts spotlight on treatment of contingent labour force.

In late October and into November a strike by 1,200 truck drivers all but shut down the port of Montreal and left hundreds of millions of dollars of goods sitting on the waterfront.

The Quebec government waited 10 days before passing special back-to-work legislation, though the truckers ignored it.

Like most labour disputes the protestors were angry about poor pay and bad working conditions.

But what made this strike so compelling was that the truckers were not employees of any one company but a collective of independent truck owner-operators, angry that their request for the negotiation of a collective agreement had been refused by the shipping companies that use their services.

Though the experts agree it is important not to read too much into the strike in Montreal, some say rumblings can be heard — enough to raise a few eyebrows — from contract and temporary workers who are tired and don’t want to be treated like contract workers anymore.

While the rise of the “permanent temporary workforce” has been widely heralded as a sign of the entrepreneurial nature of the new economy, there is a large number of workers who are self-employed or working on contract not by choice but because businesses have made them contract workers to save money by paying them less and providing them fewer benefits, said Mark Leier, a labour historian at Simon Fraser University.

To be sure a large number of people who are self-employed are so by choice. But many contract workers feel left out of the economic boom of recent years.

What’s more, the labour codes that dictate employment standards in each province effectively ignore independent workers. The institutions that are in place do not reflect the realities of the new economy, said Bob Hebdon, professor of labour relations at McGill University.

It’s not easy organizing independent workers just by the very nature of their independence: it’s tough to get everyone together and communicate with them and therefore difficult to make decisions or arrive at a consensus.

“In some sense we’re back in the ‘30s here, it’s like a recognition strike,” he said of the truckers walkout in Montreal.

Eventually contract workers who feel they have nothing to benefit from their provincial labour codes will demand either better treatment from employers or else changes to the labour codes to better protect them, added Leier. He is skeptical employers will be willing to make those kinds of changes, and so it could well be unhappy employees aligned with unions anxious for new members, who will agitate for changes.

Alice de Wolff has researched the issue of contingent work for the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Toronto Organization for Fair Employment. She said labour contracts need to be changed to better reflect today’s working world.

Just over one-half of the workforce is in some kind of contingent work and there has been a 40 per cent increase in self-employment between 1989 and 1998, said de Wolff, adding that most of these workers are earning very little money and are in danger of falling out of the social safety net.

“The unions are definitely beginning to pay more attention to this,” she said. They are beginning to try to organize independent workers and are likely to be very active in the fight to change the labour codes to extend greater protection for those workers.

Late this summer, the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CNTU) won what it thought was a major victory in a struggle to unionize independent truckers. Ultimately the victory hinged upon the definition of what is and is not an employee under the Quebec Labour Code.

On Sept. 12, a Quebec labour commissioner ruled that 50 truck owner-operators who worked for Montreal shipping company Transport Huppe, were employees of the company, not contractors as defined by that province’s labour code, and therefore had the same rights of other employees including the right to unionize.

But rather than a victory, the decision was only the first volley in a much nastier battle that began in earnest with the walk-out on Oct. 22, when 39 trucking companies refused to negotiate an industry-wide collective agreement with the truck-drivers that would cover salaries, pensions and health plans.
Pickets went up while the companies awaited a ruling from the Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB).

On Nov. 2, the government passed back-to-work legislation that included fines as high as $125,000 for the union and individual fines between $1,000 and $125,000 a day for each day they stayed out. However the union and most of the truckers dug their heels in and refused to budge even after the CIRB dealt their cause a further damaging blow a few days later. The CIRB ruled against the CNTU because the union had failed to prove it represented the majority of the truckers with the companies in question. It also found the independent truckers are not employees as defined by the federal labour code.

It is very important not to draw too many conclusions from the Montreal truckers strike since it was a product of very specific circumstances, said Noel Mallette, professor of labour relations at the University of Quebec at Montreal. However, he also said that unions are almost certain to look to the contingent workforce for new members.

“The unions have to go after dependent workers or they will disappear,” he said. Dependent workers are a very narrowly defined category of contract worker that does all his work for one employer, essentially disguised employees.

However, he does not believe unions will be successful in attempts to change labour codes or organize independent workers.

But Marc Benoit, a partner with the Montreal office of the law firm McCarthy Tetrault, said the strike could potentially have a huge impact on employers that depend on temporary or contract relationships because it could eventually lead the Quebec government to consider the definition of employee under the labour code, as happened with the Transport Huppe case. And an event like this puts the problems of those arrangements out at the forefront which could eventually force the government to at least consider amending the labour code.

“(The CNTU) is trying to expand the definition of what an employee is,” said Benoit.

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