Quebec unions are urging the province to adopt tougher "anti-scab legislation" to end what has been called "the perfect lockout."
It started on Jan. 24, 2009, when Quebec media mogul Pierre-Karl Péladeau, president and chief executive officer of Quebecor Media and Sun Media, locked out more than 250 employees of the Journal de Montréal, the largest French-language newspaper in the country. It has become one of the longest labour disputes in Canadian media history.
As the lockout entered its third year, Members of the National Assembly held public hearings to examine whether anti-strikebreaker provisions in the labour code should be modernized to prevent similar situations.
"Some have said that you have created ... 'the perfect lockout' from the point of view of the employers," Liberal committee chairman François Ouimet told Mr. Péladeau during his appearance on Monday. "Does a balance of power truly exist between Quebecor and its unions?"
The province's labour law prohibits an employer from using replacement workers during a labour dispute. However, a loophole in the legislation allows Mr. Péladeau's company to produce a daily newspaper during the lockout by setting up a wire service called QMI and gathering news stories from the Quebecor empire's dozens of other media outlets outside the bargaining unit. Using information technology, the stories and pictures produced for QMI in several locations are then acquired for publishing daily in the Journal de Montréal.
Raynald Leblanc, president of the union representing the locked-out workers, estimated that QMI produces more than 40 per cent of the newspaper's content. He called this a violation of the spirit of the labour code and has contributed to prolonging the dispute.
"A lockout is also very violent. It is violent because you take the employees and you throw them out on the street for an indefinite period of time, which in our case is very, very, very long," Mr. Leblanc told the committee.
In July, 2009, the Quebec Superior Court ruled that the newspaper was acting within the law because the content originated from "establishments" outside the Journal de Montréal building rather than strike breakers.
The Parti Québécois tabled a private members bill in December, 2010, that would prohibit an employer from using services produced "outside an establishment where a strike or lockout has been declared."
Mr. Péladeau warned the committee that it would be "inappropriate, uncommon and even very dangerous" to draft legislation based on a dispute involving "less than 200 people." Mr. Péladeau said such a bill would penalize Quebec and create an unfair advantage for labour organizations.
"It will scare companies, which will have more and more difficulty in wanting to come here. It will also probably precipitate the closure of many of them. I don't want to be pessimistic, but I'm concerned," Mr. Péladeau told the committee members.
PQ MNA Stéphane Bergeron noted that, according to government statistics, out of the more than one million man-hours in lockouts in Quebec from 2000 to 2009, 54 per cent involved Quebecor-owned companies.
"There seems to be a real problem with Quebecor," Mr. Bergeron said.
More problems may be on the horizon. The president of the union representing the journalists at Quebecor's Journal de Québec, where a 16-month lockout ended in 2008, predicted another labour dispute at the paper.
"I'm beginning to wonder if Quebecor isn't preparing another lockout in two-and-a-half years from now," union president Denis Bolduc told the committee.
Quebec Labour Minister Lise Thériault was absent from Monday's hearings, which prompted Quebec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir to conclude that the government has no plans to change the law.