Think tank proposes labour relations refit

Quebec certification rules allegedly limit investment, growth

A research paper released this month by the Montreal Economic Institute places some of the blame for the current economic woes in Quebec on the ability of unions in that province to certify bargaining units based on a card check rather than a secret ballot. The province is one of five jurisdictions cited in the paper (with federal, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) as permitting union certification based on union membership cards signed by employees alone. All provinces allow certification after votes.

The report stresses what it calls a “level playing field” allowing Quebec companies to compete more effectively with their counterparts in jurisdictions where labour laws do not contain the “relative pro-union bias” those in Quebec display.

An opinion survey completed to coincide with the release of the report shows that roughly 70 per cent of Quebecers support mandatory certification votes and that this rises to 80 per cent among union members.

The report touts secret ballots as “a way of guaranteeing that voters are protected from pressure or intimidation and of ensuring that the vote represents their true opinion. However, several academic studies are cited in the report showing a lower likelihood of certification with voting than with card check. The authors of these studies suggest employer pressure as the most likely cause.

But, the consideration that appears to concern the author is that employees’ decisions to sign union cards “does not necessarily reflect their support for a union but more their fears of being harassed or intimidated by union organizers.”

The nub of the argument seems to be that business investment is being directed away from Quebec because it is seen as having a biased labour relations regime. The current reality may not be that clear: the fall in demand for resources such as metals and lumber, the collapse of the pulp and paper industry, and the abrupt decline in manufacturing have all hit Quebec hard.

And, the research the paper cites as proving unionization depresses earnings and profit comes from the U.S. and may not be valid in the Canadian environment with its higher unionization rates.

Still, it is hard to dismiss the claims outright, though some might prefer “lowest common denominator” to “level playing field.”

Union certification: Developing a level playing field for labour relations in Quebec by Marcel Boyer is available from the Montreal Economic Institute at main/show_publications_en.php? publications_id=245.

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