On May 24, 2017 Quebec construction workers walked off the job after failing to sign a collective agreement with their employers. Though the provincial government threatened pass Bill 142 which would force them back to work the following Monday if they failed to do so, the Couillard government chose to table said bill and construction workers remain on strike.

Labour disputes are as Québecois as poutine and tire sur glace. No matter the time of year, some group from public prosecutors to hotel workers to teachers to nurses is always on strike because in Quebec we have an expression:

“Au Québec, on syndique!”

In Quebec, we unionize.

Though for many people labour disputes are nothing more than a public nuisance characterised by service delays and screaming picketers, unions play a vital role in protecting thirty to forty percent of workers in Quebec.

Historically, it was the unions that fought for living wages, reasonable working hours, and safer working conditions. Unions were at the forefront of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution that fought government corruption and the oppressive hold of the Catholic Church on the province.

Today unions and the laws that protect them keep big business from trampling all over their employees and no case says that better than the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in 2014 in United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 503 v. Wal Mart Canada Corp..

We’ve all heard stories like this before.

Wal-Mart opens a store, treats its workers like garbage, and when they exercise their legal right to form an association to protect themselves the company fires the lot of them by closing the store. Wal-Mart always claims that it’s because the store in question wasn’t profitable and had nothing to do with the unionization of its employees. Normally companies like Wal-Mart get away with this sort of thing, but not in Quebec.

In Quebec we have the Labour Code, which establishes strict rules of what employers and employees can and cannot do when it comes to unions and collective bargaining. Though the Code provides rules on unions of employees and associations of employers, this article will focus on the unions.

The Labour Code defines a union or association of employees as a:

“a group of employees constituted as a professional syndicate, union, brotherhood or otherwise, having as its objects the study, safeguarding and development of the economic, social and educational interests of its members and particularly the negotiation and application of collective agreements”

Associations of employees can engage in bargaining with their employer(s) to establish a collective agreement, which is a written contract between them establishing the conditions of employment. These agreements are generally drafted, negotiated and signed when the union is formed, and when they’re up for renewal. That said, the Code has a series of obligations and rights for employers and employees.

Employees in Quebec have the right to belong to an association of their choice and can participate in said association’s formation, activities, and management. Employers and their representatives are not allowed to threaten or intimidate someone with the intent to scare them out of joining or participating in such an association. At the same time, associations of employees are not allowed to use those tactics to get a worker to join them.

Unions are not allowed to solicit membership during working hours, and they’re not allowed to hold meetings at the place of work unless they are certified by the Labour Tribunal and have their employer’s consent.

Employers are not allowed to “dominate, hinder or finance the formation or the activities” of the unions, a provision undoubtedly put in place due to Quebec’s long tradition of corruption. They are not allowed to refuse to hire someone for exercising their rights as per the Labour Code, and they’re not allowed to engage in threats, intimidation, discrimination, reprisals or dismissals for exercising those rights.

If an employer engages in these illegal behaviors, employees can file a complaint with Quebec’s Administrative Labour Tribunal within thirty days of the sanction or action. If the Administrative Labour Tribunal agrees that an employee tried to exercise their right under the Labour Code, any action taken against said employee by their employer is presumed to have been the result of attempting to exercise said right.

It’s then up to the employer to prove those actions were for a “good and sufficient” reason. If the Tribunal doesn’t buy the employer’s explanation, it can in turn order the reinstatement of the employee within eight days of the tribunal’s decision, and even order that the employer pay the employee an indemnity equivalent to the salary and benefits lost due to reprisals against them.

The Code establishes rules of how unions can decide to go on strike, voting procedures within the union, and the certification process in which the union applies for recognition by the Administrative Labour Tribunal to act as representative for the workers of a given employer. It describes who counts as a union member and procedures for negotiating a collective agreement.

What Wal-Mart was caught for is a violation of article 59 of the Labour Code that bars employers from changing the conditions of employment during the unionization process. The union successfully argued before the Supreme Court that closing the store was a prohibited change in employment conditions. The Court ordered Wal-Mart to compensate its former employees.

If all negotiations for a collective agreement fail, either the union or the employer or both can apply to government to force arbitration. Arbitration is somewhere on the legal spectrum between mediation and a trial. Like in mediation, both parties submit their dispute to a third with the goal of finding a decent solution for both parties, but like a trial the decision is binding. This typically happens in cases of serious impasse.

Though strikes in Quebec can be a public nuisance, labour laws and unions not only protect Quebec workers but also allowed us to spank Wal-Mart.

* Featured image: lifeinquebec.com

For decades, the political scene in Quebec has been in a quagmire. The national question has dominated the discourse, replacing the left-right axis found almost everywhere else with a sovereigntist/federalist one.

Two parties have benefited both greatly and equally from this setup – The Parti-Quebecois (PQ) and the Liberal Party of Quebec (PLQ) have been in power since the 1960s.

At first, many progressives felt they had no choice but to park their vote with the PQ, knowing that a better and more just world would always take a backseat to sovereignty, language and national identity. Federalist progressives, on the other hand, could either vote PQ and hope there wasn’t a referendum or hold their nose, push their ideals to the side, and vote Liberal.

Recently, other options have emerged, most notably Quebec Solidaire (QS) and a re-born provincial Green Party. Unfortunately, the two-party system seems too powerful to break. If there was ever a time for someone to come along and prove, once and for all, that the PLQ and PQ were just two sides of the same coin, neither being a place for progressives to park their vote, now would be that time.

Looks like the savior of Quebec politics may have just arrived. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Pierre-Karl Péladeau, or PKP as his friends, enemies and pretty much everyone else knows him.

A Short Honeymoon

Since becoming PQ leader, at least officially (as if it was really a contest), PKP has enjoyed some positive numbers. Support for the PQ is up and so is support for sovereignty.

Not surprising, really. A party that was down in the dumps after losing badly now has a leader with name recognition beyond the political sphere. He’s an avowed sovereigntist, too.

pkp je veut un pays

Who can forget him almost shouting “Je veux un pays!” It is, after all, the moment that pretty much derailed the Marois campaign.

He is a businessman, known for getting what he wants. He wanted a national right-wing cable news network, he got one. He wanted to raise our cable and internet rates, he did that, too.

You can see how some have faith that this businessman who wants to make Quebec a country can achieve that goal, too. They can ignore the fact that their new savior of Quebec is famous for creating a network accused of Quebec bashing on many occasions as long as he gets the job done.

The honeymoon, however, may be short-lived, and cracks in his armour may begin to show sooner rather than later.

Not a Great Business Man

One of the issues the PQ has had to deal with constantly over the decades is that their nationalist ideals were out of touch with economic reality. And an independent Quebec would spell financial catastrophe. In the early days, the party took an approach that opposed the capitalist system, so unconventional economic ideas were possible. Things have changed.

The PQ now wants to show that separating from Canada is possible and good for business. Who better to lead this initiative than a businessman with a proven track record, right?

pkp sun news canadian flags

Well, if you look at PKP’s track record as a businessman, it’s really not that great. Sure, Quebecor is a powerhouse, but it’s the house Pierre Péladeau, PKP’s father built. Since PKP took over, Quebecor has underperformed most major media companies in Canada and failed at international expansion with Quebecor World. Not to mention the fact that Sun News is no more, after just under four years in operation.

Is this what the PQ is basing their pro-business future on? At this rate, he’ll get his country, but it will only last three years and a bit.

Not a Union Man

The PQ has always relied on union support to win power. Not only does their new leader lack any pro-union cred, his name is as reviled in union circles as the Trudeau name is hated in sovereigntist ones.

No matter how corrupt Quebec politics may be, selling the man who locked out workers for over a year to union membership is just a non-starter. This is when the recognition factor starts to work against Péladeau.

The unions really don’t have many other options. The Liberals, the party of austerity and pension cuts are out of the question. Will they actually bite the bullet and back QS, a party with only three seats? Time will tell.

Without union support, the PQ will be desperate to pull any type of progressive allies they can. PKP is also the man who directed his media outlets to discredit the student protests in 2012. So a Marois-style appeal to more radical elements of Quebec society is out of the question.

One Issue Party

René Lévesque was first elected on two promises: to make Quebec a better place to live through progressive social policies and to hold a referendum. He delivered on both.

rene levesque

He wanted to show just what kind of a country Quebec could be before giving people the chance to make it his dream a reality. Lévesque must now be rolling over a homeless man in his grave.

PKP wants a country, too, but it’s the same sort of country Quebecers already have through Harper. His nationalism is purely ethnic and linguistic with no hint at being progressive on any other fronts.

A Smaller Base

The PQ has always had two main bases of support: progressive sovereigntists and conservative nationalists. Marois clearly favoured the latter and risked alienating the former, but PKP has no chance with the former to begin with. The only support he will get from progressives will come from those who want a country at all costs.

It is a much smaller base to pull from. If the union support is out, he’ll just have to wrap himself in the Quebec flag and pray for a miracle. The best he can hope for is opposition or maybe a minority government if the Liberals really screw up bad.

But where will all that formerly potential PQ support go? It won’t be to the Liberals for sure. Progressives may just not turn up to vote, or possibly it will galvanize behind another party, one that puts actual societal change at the forefront, leaving the national question on the backburner.

If that happens, and the discourse in Quebec politics shifts to a new axis, people will have one man to thank: Pierre-Karl Péladeau.

As this year draws to a close, we see a spike of nearly five percent of foreign temporary workers admitted to Canada over the course of 2013. 125 000 foreign temporary worker permits were issued this year in comparison to the 119 000 issued in 2012.

Since the mid-1970s, the foreign temporary worker program (FTWP) has not ceased its rapid climb in acceptance rate of foreign temporary workers. The accelerated acceptance rate of the FTWP, backed by corporate Canada and successive Liberal and Conservative governments, is publicly justified by a need to keep Canada economically competitive on the international scene.

This has been the rhetoric and the words used by the political and corporate elites to justify the complete deregulation of the Canadian labour market since the mid-1980s and also the continual expansion of the FTWP into all sectors of Canadian life. Through the expansion of FTWP, anti-union and anti-labour lobbies throughout Canada have seen the stagnation of Canadian wages and the power of organized labour hit a wall, from which it may not fully recover. Profits have skyrocketed and business continues as per usual.

What these anti-union and anti-labour lobbies have essentially advocated for is a growing gap between the rich and the poor in Canada, an increased pressure on the Canadian working-class, the disappearance of the living wage, growing unemployment particularly among youth and the deregulation of the Canadian job market. All of these factors continue to upload a neoliberal vision: global division of labor between the skills-based rich in countries from the north and a manual labour-rich south, what can also be described as the triangular trade of the 21st century.

Throughout the past two decades, many have spoken of the highly skilled professionals and academics that are immigrating from developing countries toward the fully industrialized north. It is a brain drain.

migrant workers federation

On the other hand, there is the continual delocalization of many industrial jobs from northern markets towards southern markets, where wages are lower and the tax environment friendlier. In essence, outsourcing for multinational and corporate interest.

Both brain drain and outsourcing have serious consequences on the global economy. The brain drain deprives developing countries of necessary skill sets to tackle the challenges of post-colonization and outsourcing ravages communities throughout the Western world and still does today.

The form of globalization in which we must live today poses no solution for the inequity that weighs in favor of the rich and the most powerful of this world. Well, inequity is the fuel that allows globalization to continue unheeded on its destructive path.

In the past decade we have seen the surge of a new phenomenon called insourcing through the rapid growth of the FTWP. Insourcing, as opposed to outsourcing, is the use of  ‘cheap’ labor when there is lack of manpower to get this or that project completed.

There are many historical examples of insourcing in Canadian history, one being the exploitation of Chinese workers to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Chinese families at the time received no compensation for members of the family that were killed, nor were they always notified of the death itself. Although Chinese workers were promised enough money to send home to their families in China, this dream sadly rarely came to fruition.

With a history like this housed in Canadian public memory, one would think that Canada would learn from these mistakes and make sure they never happen again. Yet, that very same treatment is reserved for foreign temporary workers throughout the country today. At the end of their contract, temporary workers do not even reserve the right to reside on Canadian soil.

In recent years cases of abuse and discrimination have come to light, all of which are proof of violation of labour laws. This has put pressure on the Conservative government to create stricter guidelines for the program. The government now obliges employers to pay foreign temporary workers Canadian minimum wage and pay a user fee.

Fundamentally, FTWP is a program that is based on discrimination and will only breed more discrimination. The FTWP creates a double standard, one for Canadian residents and citizens and one for the Other, creating a second class of workers, that is a reserve force that is inexhaustible in which individuals lose their rights and their dignity.

A capitalist’s dream come true, the FTWP allows those in power to strip individuals and nations of not only their product, but their capacity for trade. To the Canadian government, these workers are disposable.

Any worker that comes to Canada and works for the betterment of our collectivity deserves to be treated in the same regard as any other worker on Canadian soil. There should be no class distinction made among workers; we are one.

To protect the hard-won battles of organized labour throughout the years, we must also struggle with foreign temporary workers. FTWP should not be a centerpiece of Canadian immigration policy, but a program that helps foreign workers who have no intention of staying while they are here and helps those who do wish to remain in Canada make the transition.

“Good enough to work here, good enough to stay” a Canada that respects itself, that upholds the principals and values enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would honour such an ideal.

There are steps in the fallen snow somewhere in Gatineau, Quebec. Student politicians traveled from across the country to protest other student politicians who came to meet from across the country on a frigid Saturday in late November.

The Canadian Federation of Students, the CFS, a national student advocacy and service provider meets among the huddled bureaucratic buildings in a capital region Best Western for an Annual General Meeting. The future looks as stark as the day’s grey sky. Battling protesting heretics who want to see it dismantled and destroyed and a political landscape where its desperate voice resonates only so far into obscurity, CFS delegates must see the season’s first snow as poetic. It is going to be a long winter.

The cracks came years ago. In the 90s, sparse universities and colleges marked their detestation with referendums to disaffiliate. The CFS resorted to lawfare. The strategy must have seemed straight forward. Admit no loss; the façade must not be fractured. Local student politicians lead their flocks against what they conceived as an evil corrupt empire.

Whether the incompetence or carelessness, of staffers or the ploys of right wing insurgents, the CFS has become embroiled in trouble. Referendum after referendum, the CFS became smaller and smaller. Now it fights with all its legal and organizational capacity to hold onto to its last provincial forts on an increasingly hostile frontier. In 2009, 13 campuses wanted to leave. In 2013, it is at least 15. The CFS is cornered.

cropped-CFS-VOTE-NO-VOTE-YES
(image studentunion.ca)

There are only two options. It can continue to defend its lingering and lost legitimacy or rise and reinvent itself.

The CFS needs immediate innovation. The status quo simply can no longer do; most students either perceive it with anger or apathy. If the CFS choses to rise, it can do a couple things. Unifor, Canada’s largest industrial union, has the promising potential to change the Canadian landscape. They are looking to branch out. CFS could join them, save tens of thousands by combining administrative infrastructure, streamline services and give itself a new mandate when dealing with its members. Unifor could champion free education and the CFS could appeal to its working students, unionize their work places and create stronger lines of solidarity across society.

If that isn’t appealing, the CFS could rethink how it operates. This could be done with three Ls: Localize, Limit and Link-up. Create local legitimacy with binding general assemblies, limit the power of staffers and build institutional links with grassroots organizations and PIRGs.

Some thinking, a little elbow grease, and a lot of inspiration can make the great services the CFS provides greater. Instead of its flurry of press releases going straight into the trash cans of journalists and its organizing efforts bringing fewer and fewer people with every gathering, it can reorganize and galvanize.

The pessimism must be refused and rebuked. Those on the left should make no alliances with the conservatives who would like nothing more than to see every progressive institution, or institution capable of being progressive, destroyed. The CFS’ leadership should take note and act quickly.

It is bleak. Their belligerence and negligence must be ended soon, either by their own desire for positive, progressive change or the slow and painful result of their own stagnancy, stupidity and hard-headedness, the inevitable destruction and complete irrelevance of the CFS.