Some reading on Quebec’s anti-scab law

Hearings began today (finally a reason to watch the National Assembly channel!) into Quebec’s labour laws, specifically the provisions against strikebreakers (scabs). They are prompted by the enduring two-year-old lockout at the Journal de Montréal, and the union’s argument that laws forbidding the use of replacement workers during a labour conflict need to be updated because they only apply to workers who physically enter the employer’s workspace.

An example to illustrate this is a company called Côté Tonic in Quebec City, which has been doing copy editing and page layout work for the Journal de Montréal during its lockout. Stories in Rue Frontenac and La Presse show that the small company did production work during the Journal de Québec lockout and had to fire people after that was resolved, but learned about an impending lockout at the Journal de Montréal before it was launched and even before the end of the labour contract for Journal de Montréal workers.

This information comes out now for a somewhat ironic reason: an employee who was laid off when she took maternity leave complained she was fired illegally. Her complaint was rejected because it was determined that the layoff happened after the Journal asked the company to reduce its workforce. But because labour relations board decisions are public, the dirty laundry comes out into the open.

The union representing locked-out workers claims there are all sorts of fly-by-night operations doing their work in secret, from customer service to page layout to accounting. But they’ve had difficulty gaining evidence about how they work, and under the current law there’s nothing they can do about it anyway.

Also worth reading:

There’s also the Twitter feed of Rue Frontenac’s David Patry, or the hashtag #commissionJdeM. The hearings can also be viewed online, in case you have a few hours to waste.

8 thoughts on “Some reading on Quebec’s anti-scab law

  1. Alex H

    It sort of doesn’t add up to much. The work was outsourced. The rest of the story is amusing but sort of meaningless. The company that took the work hired people when it had work, and laid some of them off when the amount of work went down.

    What is key in this isn’t that the anti-scab law is good or bad, but rather that the work can get done (and done properly) at a fraction of the costs associated with the in house employees. There has to be a balance in any labor situation between what the union wants and what is practical in the world. Because there hasn’t been a balance, you end up with insane work rules, short hours, flex time, and all sorts of other things granted as part of negotiations in the past, when times were flush and grand. But when times get a little tougher or technology changes, It is incredibly difficult to change those work rules and contract terms to reflect where things are going.

    With an unemployment rate hovering near 10%, there are certainly plenty of talented people willing to do the work with fewer restrictions and fewer complex job definition rules.

    Look at it another way: The anti-scab laws are only as out of date as the union’s thinking on the whole thing.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      What is key in this isn’t that the anti-scab law is good or bad, but rather that the work can get done (and done properly) at a fraction of the costs associated with the in house employees.

      On what are you basing your assertion that this is “a fraction of the costs”?

      1. Alex H

        I base it on a bunch of things.

        First and foremost, the newspapers are “old” companies with a very long history of union contracts. Over the years, the union and management have negotiated and it becomes more and more expensive to get the same work done. Also, the employees get more years, more seniority, and see their salaries increase as they go through the various levels / hour counts / time served situation that gives them a higher pay. Then you add in short work weeks (4 days, 30 hours), restrictive work rules, such as set minimum staffing rules (often more than is needed) or not allowing someone who works on one part of the paper to do the same sort of work on another part (and instead, having 2 people working doing 3 hours work each instead of one guy doing a days work), and so on. You don’t even have to talk about sick days, paid days off, long vacations, and so on.

        When a business like the JdeM has been around for so long and your existing staff is very senior and the work rules are very tight, it can be very expensive to do the work in house.

        When you outsource, you are typically getting people working for a lot less, often not in union shops, or in union shops with very broad job categories. You are getting a lot of younger workers, workers who are trying to get job experience or who perhaps feel very happy to have gotten a job in a field they studied for.

        I would really be interested to see what the cost per hours was at JdeM for various jobs that have been outsourced. I suspect your head would spin when you see the actual net hourly cost.

        1. Fagstein Post author

          When you outsource, you are typically getting people working for a lot less

          Typically, but not always. Quebecor’s probably saving money by outsourcing various duties, but we don’t know that for sure, and it’s hard to base an argument off an assumption based entirely on a generalization.

          1. Alex H

            It’s only based on logical conclusions. It is unlikely (almost impossible) for anyone to have better working conditions than those that existed at JdeM before the lockout started. Further, as Cote&Tonic hasn’t existed anywhere near as long as JdeM, it is unlikely they have extremely senior employees collecting large salaries. Further, unless they have work rules and restrictions of job groupings as strict as JdeM had, they are also unlikely to have the same level of total “worker hours paid” to do the job.

            Yes, they are assumptions. But I think it is incredibly misleading to assume the other direction. Perhaps you might want to consider looking at them (and remembering that sadly, they may one day also touch your work).

            Put another way: If JdeM put their work up for bid by contract each year (rather than having in house staff), I am confident that the contract rate would be significantly below what is costs them to have in house employees.

    2. John

      It’s one thing to outsource the work. It’s another for the employer to breach the contract and lock out employees, then create its own in-house agency to provide reporting.

  2. Fassero

    Personally, I don’t think you can call actions that are taken after a contract has expired a “breach” (which has definite legal consequences) as much as it is a bad faith negotiating ploy. I’m a proponent of free(r) markets but, in all due respect, many many newspapers wound up with unionized labor due to bad management, extremely poor (and sometimes unsafe) working conditions, etc. Heck, there have been newspapers that were non-union for the longest time only to unionize due to the actions of acquisitive new management (I recall the Toronto Sun being a more recent example.)

    It’s all fine and dandy to say the workers have it too good and they need to understand the state of the business in the current world. On the other hand, if the business is not what it used to be for so long, how many non-unionized senior administrators have been laid off? Or had their salaries (and expense accounts) slashed? Or their pension funding leveled off or decreased? At some point, if the business is extremely unprofitable, you shut it down. I suspect all this effort to outsource and acquire articles via press agencies (internal or otherwise – Reuters, AP, Canadian Press, etc. are still out there selling stories too which can be translated as needed) is more an attempt to keep senior managers living the glam life than it is about operational profitability (which, best I can tell, hasn’t been showing up in Quebecor’s books the last couple of years, even with the lockout.)

    Frankly, I think the only reason Quebecor has managed to keep this saga going so long is because of public indifference. If enough people got angry with the state of affairs to stop buying into (or tuning into) Quebecor product, this “lockout” would suddenly end itself in hours, not days.


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