In a decision handed down Monday by the Commission des relations du travail, Quebecor Media and the Journal de Québec were found to have illegally used scab labour to replace locked-out and striking workers during the 15 months they were on the picket lines.
The decision is a huge victory not only for the Journal de Québec workers’ union, but for journalist and other unions in general. It sets a precedent for what qualifies as “workplace” in Quebec law, extending its definition beyond the physical building where offices are located.
For those unfamiliar with the story, editorial workers at the Journal were locked out in April 2007 after negotiations on a new contract were stalled over the issue of convergence (having journalists do multimedia jobs). Immediately, press workers went on strike, and the Journal was left with just over a dozen managers to put out a daily newspaper.
Shortly after the labour conflict began, we started hearing about news content providers that appeared out of nowhere: Keystone Press, a photography agency, and Agence Nomade, a wire service. In addition, reports that news conferences in Quebec City started seeing reporters from “Canoë”, which is Quebecor’s web portal and shares content with its newspapers.
The union complained that this was essentially scab work. The decision finally got resolved after the conflict ended, even though the issue had become moot by then (the Journal fought to get the issue dismissed after the labour conflict ended, but the union pushed to get a judgment).
Among the findings in the judgment (50-page PDF) concerning the scab labour:
- Keystone Press, dubbed a scab company by the union, tried unsuccessfully to pitch its freelance services to the newspaper until the day after the lockout, when it was contacted by the president of Sun Media. Up to that point, the photography company had no office in Quebec, but had three photographers in the region the next day, taking photos of news events. The Journal would ask Keystone to cover specific events, and would then have exclusivity over the photos for a 36-hour period. Keystone in turn signed agreements with its photographers (in English) which paid them a set rate per hour of work. The commission singled out Geneviève Larivière, Antoine Leclaire and Pierre Gauthier as scabs.
- Ferron Communications, a PR company, was hired by the Journal to provide news articles. It hired two journalists, Bernard Plante and Dominic Salgado, to cover news for the Journal. This continued until about June when the Journal found this method of operation too expensive.
- Canoë, Sun Media’s web portal, had no journalists in the Quebec City region before the labour conflict (for that matter, it didn’t have much of a news operation at all – it was an aggregator of Quebecor’s newspaper and TV content which it would throw online). A few weeks after the lockout began, they put out ads looking to hire journalists in the region on a temporary basis. The group of journalists inluded Plante and Salgado, as well as Geneviève Riel-Roberge, Hubert Lapointe, Marc-André Boivin, Reine May Crescence and Mélanie Tremblay.
- In August 2007, all these journalists were told they were working not for Canoë, but for a company called Agence Nomade. This company, a wire service, was actually an idea by Quebecor CEO Pierre-Karl Péladeau. It was ostensibly setup by Sylvain Chamberland, one of PKP’s friends, to compete against Presse Canadienne (Canadian Press’s French equivalent). It offered its content exclusively to Quebecor Media (including TVA, 24 heures, Journal de Montréal, etc.). Because Nomade retained no rights to its content, Canoë and Quebecor could pretend it was theirs. Again, the Journal would “ask” that certain events be covered, and Nomade would “decide” what it would cover based on that. Journalists would file to Nomade, who would forward texts to Canoë and the Journal.
- Despite these changes, the journalist scabs would always present themselves as being journalists for Canoë.
- The journalists, who had to work exclusively for Nomade (and hence, Quebecor and hence, the Journal de Québec) as scabs on repeating short-term contracts got a salary equivalent to $40,000 a year for their troubles.
In the end, the judgment came down to three questions:
- Were these journalists working for the Journal? The commission ruled that no, they were not. They weren’t being paid by the Journal, and were not taking orders directly from the Journal.
- Was the Journal using the services of these workers to replace locked-out workers? The commission ruled that yes, the Journal was actively making use of these workers’ services to replace their own. They assigned stories and photos which were then filed directly to them for use in the newspaper. Though technically the scabs were working for Agence Nomade, which in turn worked for Quebecor Media, the work they were doing was mainly for the benefit of the Journal.
- Were the journalists at the workplace of locked-out workers? This one was where the commission broke new ground. The idea of workplace wasn’t an issue in the days of factories with big pieces of equipment. You couldn’t work as a scab unless you were on the premises. But journalists with the Journal did most of their work outside the building, and so the commission ruled that wherever they did their work, either at the courthouse or at news conferences or at the National Assembly, these scabs were at their workplace.
What this means
Two unions are going to be very happy with this news: the union representing journalists at the Journal de Montréal (who will hold a press conference Tuesday to discuss its own contract negotiations as its current one expires Dec. 31) and the union representing journalists at The Gazette (their contract expired June 1 and they’re back at the negotiating table in January).
Had Quebecor won this case, it would have been a manual for other companies on how to get around Quebec’s liberal anti-scab laws. Have the journalists be freelancers, working for a separate company, and filing mainly for the website. But the commission threw a wrench in that setup, and that puts the unions in a much better bargaining position.
There’s still some room to maneuvre if someone wants to try this again. A lot of the focus was over the fact that the Journal asked for specific news events to be covered. Not to mention the fact that all of this was setup after the labour disruption started. Had those things been different, the decision might have been a little more murky.
But it’ll be much harder for a media company to get around a labour disruption in Quebec by outsourcing work to a third party. And that creates a huge shift in the balance of power away from newspaper owners and toward newspaper unions.
In case you’re interested, there are press releases from the union and from Sun Media.
UPDATE (Jan. 7): The Journal is appealing. The union says it’s not surprised.