Cablegate: Charest Government, Quebec Labor Unions

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: QUEBEC 0210 (2002)

1. Summary: Premier Charest's Liberal government and
Quebec's powerful unions are headed for a showdown over
proposed revisions to provincial labor laws on
subcontracting and the health care system. Both sides
are playing for public support, though neither
particularly successfully so far. Unions have already
mounted demonstrations, work stoppages and acts of
vandalism; a province-wide Day of Disruption is
scheduled for December 11. The Liberals are trying to
push four labor-related legislative actions through the
National Assembly before Christmas. At stake is
whether organized labor in the province will be able to
maintain its traditional and unique strength in the
face of the government's desire to make Quebec more
competitive with other Canadian provinces and more
attractive to investors. Charest told CG Quebec that he
is determined to stand up to the unions and will not
bend under intimidation tactics. End Summary.

Quebec's Unions
2. In 2002, Quebec for the third straight year was the
most highly unionized state or province in North
America with 40.7 percent of its workers collectivized
as compared to 32 percent in Canada and 28 percent in
Ontario and 15 percent in the U.S. Public sector
workers make up a large majority -- 82 percent -- of
Quebec's 1,260,000 unionized workers. The rate of
unionized workers in the province's private sector is
27.7 percent.

3. According to Julie Cusson, a researcher at the
Conseil du Patronat (the province's top business
group), when the Quebec Labor Code was first designed
in 1964 its main goal was not to establish the rules of
engagement between labor and employers but to
facilitate unionization and put Quebec labor at the
forefront of the battle for workers' rights. According
to Cusson, Quebec is the only jurisdiction in Canada or
the U.S. where workers wishing to form a union do not
have to vote. Union representatives only have to
collect the signatures of 50 percent of a work unit's
employees plus one in order to secure union
accreditation. In other provinces, a required secret
vote takes place a week or two after union membership
cards have been signed.

4. The largest union in the province is the Federation
des Travailleurs du Quebec (FTQ) with 520,000 members
or 42.5 percent of Quebec's unionized workers,
including most of the construction workers. The
Confederation des Syndicates Nationaux (CSN), known for
its extremism, accounts for 20.8 percent of Quebec
union members, the Centrale des Syndicats du Quebec
(CSQ) or teachers' union has 9.2 percent, and the
Centrale des Syndicats democratiques, 3.9 percent. A
few independent unions, such as the independent nurses'
union, the Federation des Infirmieres et Infirmiers du
Quebec (FIIQ) (the main organizer of the marches
against the war in Iraq last spring), as well as some
independent government workers unions make up 23.1
percent of the total work force.

Proposed Changes
5. One of the most controversial items in Premier Jean
Charest's so-called "re-engineering plan" for the
province is his government's proposal to amend Article
45 of the Quebec Labor Code. Article 45 has come to be
interpreted in such a way that employer subcontracting
has been all but prohibitive in the province. Under
Article 45, courts have said that workers are entitled
to keep their benefits and wages, when their work is
subcontracted to another employer. Guy Lemay a
Montreal labor lawyer believes the proposed Bill 31
revision of Article 45 would give Quebec businesses and
governments the same sub-contracting flexibility
available to companies in the other Canadian provinces.
However, Opposition leader Bernard Landry echoed the
labor line at National Assembly hearings on the bill,
saying that the proposed revisions to Article 45 would
transform $20 per hour jobs into $10 per hour jobs.

6. In the health care sector, the government has put
forward two organizational measures with potentially
deep labor impact. Bill 25 would merge local clinics
and long-term care centers under the authority of
general hospitals with a single board of directors;
regional health boards would be eliminated throughout
the province. Bill 30 would limit to five the number
of categories of workers in a hospital, thus reducing
the number of bargaining units in Quebec's health
system from 3,671 to 1,961. At present, in some Quebec
hospitals, directors must negotiate with more than
twenty bargaining units from janitors to x-ray

7. One other key Liberal piece of legislation, Bill 32,
would raise the cost of government run-day care centers
from $5 to $7 next fall. Although daycare is only
indirectly a labor issue, labor officials are using it
to attract support from the general public in their
plan for a province-wide "Day of Disruption" on
December 11. Government workers in schools, hospitals,
daycare centers, public transportation and other public
agencies are being called upon to demonstrate against
the government on that day in their workplaces.

8. Union leaders have said that labor activism will
increase after the Holiday season if the Charest
government does not change course. Charest told CG
Quebec December 3 that he would not give in to union
intimidation tactics - inter alia, demonstrators had
trashed the offices of Minister Benoit Pelletier and of
President of the National Assembly Michel Bissonet that
week. He said he was determined to proceed with
Article 45 amendment and union consolidation on certain
fronts. According to several post contacts and news
reports, Spring could mark the start of a series of
major work stoppages and general strikes. Many public
sector union contracts ended last summer and are
currently in the negotiation process. By Spring,
thousands of government workers will have been without
a collective agreement for more than six months; if
negotiations continue fruitless, strikes threats will
become a reality.

9. According to a member of the FTQ policy bureau,
labor groups fear that if the Charest government is
successful on subcontracting and health system
organization issues, it may be tempted to challenge
other Quebec labor conditions that have not yet been
debated publicly. For instance, successive Ontario
premiers have petitioned their Quebec counterparts to
open Quebec construction sites to Ontario workers. And
Quebec employers have long said a secret ballot should
be held before union accreditation is granted.

Union Rhetoric and Action
10. Unions have criticized Charest for planning the
upcoming reform behind closed doors, and for moving too
quickly, without enough stakeholder consultation. The
CSN insists the government's plans were drawn up in
"secrecy" or with the help of the Conseil du Patronat.
Post's FTQ contact complained Premier Charest has never
consulted FTQ President Henri Mass on provincial
reengineering. An October 14 open letter by Charest,
published in the province's major papers, particularly
stung in its accusation that labor leaders were only
concerned with protecting their "corporatist"
interests. Quebec business leaders, who have been
supportive of Charest's proposed changes, point to a
late November CROP survey that showed Quebecers were in
favor of privatizing or subcontracting government
services so as to reduce the size of the state. Labor
meanwhile emphasizes that the same survey showed
satisfaction with the Liberal government has dropped
from 51 percent in September to 43 percent in November.

11. The union actions of the past few months have not
been very conclusive. Montreal public transit workers
were criticized by the media and commuting public for
going on a one-week strike in mid-November even though
full service was provided during extended rush hours.
Even Labor's friends in the press and its allies in the
Parti Quebecois have condemned union acts of vandalism
and prevention of public events. Among other staged
events, Union activists 1) overtook and vandalized a
children's hospital to prevent Premier Charest from
making an announcement there; 2) vandalized the offices
of several Members of the National Assembly; 3) broke
furniture in a downtown Montreal hotel and prevented
the Conseil du Patronat President from attending a
conference; 4) beat up a TV crew; 5) spread liquid hog
manure on the carpet of one city councilor's apartment

12. Not all of Quebec's unions rely on such strong-arm
strategies, but the use of intimidation by Quebec
unions -- and near acquiescence to it by authorities -
- has been a feature of the labor scene here for many
years. In September, Montreal municipal workers used
city vehicles to block traffic and bridges during rush
hour while their new contract was being negotiated. The
only repercussions were that the workers will have to
pay for the gas used and will be docked pay for the
hours they spent immobilizing thousands of Montrealers.
Reportedly, criminal charges are almost never brought,
though unions have caused thousands of dollars in
property damage as well as human injury.

13. COMMENT: Since the early 60s, strong labor unions
have been a characteristic of Quebec's "distinct
society." The Liberal's attempt to reduce labor costs
and privileges in the province will be the first and
biggest test of the mandate for change Charest claimed
in winning the election last April. End comment.

14. This cable contains input from the Consulate in
Quebec City.


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