Whatever Happened to Workers' Rights?
Whatever Happened to Workers' Rights?

Whatever Happened to Workers' Rights?

January 1 st 1993

It is easy to get confused about the contrast between rhetoric and reality. Take the issue of freedom and democracy. Everyone is in favour of those values, except when it comes to specifics such as the freedom to work in any province or without trade union harassment. Why are so few people protesting these serious violations of our fundamental freedoms, especially at this time when we hear so much about rights and claims by interest groups?

As many workers have found out, union rules, supported by legislation enacted by ideologically friendly parliamentarians, do not protect their freedom to work. On the contrary, those rules are intended to establish monopoly union power. Workers' freedom is further eroded by the perverse linking of union power to narrow-minded provincial self-interest. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Quebec, although other provinces are not blameless.

Frank McKenna, Premier of New Brunswick, wrote a hard-hitting article in Reader's Digest (June 1992) condemning the lack of free trade and movement of people across provincial borders. Some of his examples are truly astonishing.

No free trade

He reports on the case of Randall Brown, a small contractor from New Brunswick who was awarded a contract to install countertops in a Montreal hotel. Aware of Quebec's restriction on out-of-province workers, Brown contacted an official of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. He thought he had obtained the required permission from the union. But four days after starting work, an inspector from the government construction commission, the Commission de la Construction du Quebec (CCQ), ruled that the men were not allowed to complete the job. That evening, demonstrators threatened to take action if Brown and his men were not out of the province by the following day.

After a week of negotiations and complying with a number of demands, including registering his company and putting his employees on the payroll of a Quebec company, Brown thought he had clear sailing. But his problems had only begun. Delays caused him to run three weeks over schedule. He lost $17,000. Some months later, the CCQ fined Brown and his employees $4,545 because he had failed to register his company properly and had not taken the required safety tests. Brown refused to pay the fine and considered suing the CCQ. "I'm not paying any fine for working in Canada," he told a reporter.

Similar events have led to counteractions by workers in other provinces. For example, when 25 Quebec workers began installing equipment at a sawmill in New Brunswick, local workers harassed them and vandalized one of their vehicles. They were threatened with more violence if they did not leave the job.

It is easy to foresee such reprisals escalating into more violence. So far, Premier McKenna has resisted the advice of labour leaders in his province who have urged retaliatory restrictions against out-of-province workers.

Tit-for-tat behaviour would only worsen the problem. Moreover, it is my belief, as premier, that restrictions on the movement of labour—indeed, interprovincial trade barriers of all kinds—are fundamentally antiworker. Though sometimes invoked in the name of protecting jobs, in reality they cost the jobs of thousands of people across Canada by fragmenting the national market and sheltering inefficient industries from competition. Protecting industries from competition hurts us all, whether it's the inflated cost of a government contract or the artificially high price of a litre of milk.

Sectoral bargaining is a trap

The Quebec scene warrants a closer look, especially in light of recent revisions to labour legislation in Ontario and British Columbia that closely resemble existing Quebec legislation. (This applies especially to the far-reaching restrictions on the operation of a business during a strike.)

Every time there is a major overhaul of labour legislation, trade union spokespersons, particularly from the construction trades, are sure to trot out their demand for legislation imposing a form of sectoral bargaining. For example, at its 1990 annual convention, the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario unanimously passed a resolution asking the government to force all Ontario construction workers into the ranks of AFL-CIO affiliated unions.

The stated goal is to eliminate unfair competition between employers who pay "union" wages and those who pay less, sometimes considerably less. All of us should favour the elimination of unfair competition and wages. But there is more lurking behind the request for sectoral bargaining. The real intention is to create one huge union or closed shop.

The leaders of big labour have pushed for sectoral bargaining from their NDP pals in the recent labour law reforms in Ontario and British Columbia. But so far, these pro-labour governments have resisted the temptation, presumably because of a pragmatic calculation that the public would not condone such a brazen grab for power.

However, sectoral bargaining is precisely what has been put into effect in the Quebec construction industry, where every worker must buy his or her right to work from a union. No wonder trade unionists in other provinces like to cite Quebec as a province with an "admirable" system of labour relations. But just how "admirable" is their system?

Some observers have pointed out that the power of Quebec's construction unions to control jobs and fine workers for simply trying to work for a living can be traced back to the late sixties and early seventies. This was a time of immense turmoil in Quebec society, especially on the labour scene. Unions engaged in large-scale strike action, including the so-called "Common Front" strike in 1972, aimed at destroying the government of a young Premier Robert Bourassa.

Three of the main labour leaders were jailed for breaking the law. But the stage was set for a payoff when the union-backed Parti Québécois, led by Ren6 Levesque, came to power in 1976. The result was a set of antidemocratic regulations that greatly impinged on the individual worker's freedom. The new rules not only placed a host of obstacles in the way of out-of-province workers, it required all construction workers to belong to a union. Workers can be fined or imprisoned for violating the restrictions.

For example, earlier this year Ron Daoust was fined $125 for working on a renovation project. His crime was that he worked on a small addition to a commercial building. A few years previous, he and a fellow worker were fined $3,000 for working without a union card. (See Fred Langan, "Quebec's Labor Police After the Working Man," The Financial Post, May 25, 1992.)

The Quebec government has made job policing easy for unions. In fact, its government-paid inspectors are all over job sites checking books to make sure that no one is working illegally. The official union rate of $32 per hour has priced construction workers out of many jobs. A lot of small contractors or private owners are unable to pay those rates and, as a result, many construction workers are officially unemployed but working and being paid under the table at less than half the wage.

A disgrace

This kind of disparity makes it very difficult for the large contractors who are unable to dodge the inspectors and forced to pay $32 per hour. Fred Korman knows all about this problem. He is the owner of a construction firm in Mansonville, Quebec, employing some 75 workers. As construction work diminished because of the recession and unfair competition from "illegal" tradespeople, Korman has been forced to scale back his operation . The "illegals" are paid under the table and thus avoid paying any taxes. Many of them are collecting unemployment insurance and are officially listed as living below the poverty line. Korman has been approached by workers willing to work for less. But if he hires them, he faces a $1,600 per worker fine.

A recent editorial in The Financial Post (December 12, 1992) observed that every Canadian has the right to do an honest day's work except in Quebec "where oppressive labor laws restrict construction work to union members or those with stingily meted out permits, or cartes de competence." The editorial continues:

Quebec's current laws are a clear abrogation of the fundamental right of Canadians to be able to work anywhere in this country they wish. They should be tested under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms under the section involving worker mobility rights. That they haven't been, by organizations in this country that allegedly champion civil liberties, is a disgrace.

Government officials defend these policies by saying they protect workers. But how can such policies protect workers when they drive companies out of business and force those desperate for a job to function outside the legal system? What is most galling is the blatant hypocrisy of those responsible for this madness. Unionists and their friends, who keep blaming the free trade agreement and the "corporate agenda" for our economic woes, should look again. By promoting policies that poison labour relations, they discourage investment and hamper job creation.

This is not an argument against unions and their right to seek compliance with properly and fairly concluded wage rates and working conditions. But government regulations brought about by the bullying tactics of powerful unions must be exposed for what they are: not in the true interest of workers, the province, nor the country as a whole. Where are the leaders in politics, business, and the media who dare to speak up forcefully in defence of the rights of ordinary Canadians? It is high time that freedom-loving Canadians stand up to this nonsense and demand that they be free to make a living without harassment. Ã¢â„¢Â¦

Harry Antonides
Harry Antonides

Harry Antonides came to Canada in 1948, initially working as a farm hand and railway labourer. After over a decade working in a chemical plant in Sarnia, Ontario, Harry joined the newly forming Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) in 1962 as a field representative. By 1970 Harry became director of research and education. In 1974, he was a founding member of the Work Research Foundation (now Cardus) and publisher of their sole publication, Comment magazine. A prolific writer and dynamic speaker, Harry delivered lectures all over North America and published numerous articles, reviews, and essays. He is author of several books on Christianity, labour, and economics, including Multinationals and the Peacable Kingdom (1978) and Stones for Bread: The Social Gospel and its Contemporary Legacy (1985). Harry is retired and lives with his wife Janet in Willowdale, Ontario.


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