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When you look back over the past two years, the Vidéotron strike stands out – for its scope, its length (almost a year) and its consequences for CUPE and organized labour. But the story might have been different had this dispute with Québec’s largest cable operator fallen within provincial rather than federal jurisdiction. In fact, the federal government is at least partly to blame for the length of this dispute, because the Canada Labour Code, as it now stands, creates labour unrest out of thin air. Québec laws ban use of scabs In Québec, the use of scabs has been illegal for almost 25 years. This legislation came after many years of fierce confrontation in bitter strikes such as Commonwealth Plywood, Robin Hood and United Aircraft. In some cases lives were lost. But in every case, the future is bleak when scabs are allowed to steal workers’ jobs. Legislation banning scabs has helped bring labour peace to the province. [Today, British Columbia is the only other province where scabs are banned. In Ontario, the Tories repealed an anti-scab law in 1995 as one of their first acts in office.] So how was it that scabs were permitted in the Vidéotron dispute? The communications sector is under federal jurisdiction and the Canada Labour Code has no anti-scab protection. This is surprising given the federal Liberals supported an anti-scab bill introduced by the Bloc Québécois when the Liberals were in opposition. Equally troublesome, the federal code allows employers to “amend” collective agreements 81 days after a request for conciliation. Under the Code’s current provisions, an employer only has to request conciliation and at the end of the 81-day period can get around provisions it doesn’t like. This is what happened at Vidéotron, creating one of the toughest labour disputes of the last ten years. ===Company bargains in bad faith=== On December 14, 2001, Vidéotron’s management broadcast a message from Serge Gouin, the chairman of the board, over the Vox community TV channel. In effect, he issued an ultimatum, demanding $35–40 million in cuts from a payroll of $120 million. Two months later, on February 14, 2002, the parties met to exchange bargaining proposals. Even before presenting their demands – or hearing the union’s – management announced they had requested conciliation. Then, on March 4, Vidéotron announced their intention to sell 650 technicians to Entourage Solutions Technologiques Inc. in total violation of the collective agreement that prohibits sub-contracting. In their news release, management stated that the sale would proceed “according to the law.” We later learned that a new company, Alentron, had been created by Entourage to hire the technicians and circumvent the provincial code’s ban on the use of scabs. Even before the dispute became public, the situation was grim as we sat powerless through a parody of negotiations. The employer wanted to dismantle the company, selling it off piece by piece. They simply waited for the expiry of the 81-day period provided in the federal code to free themselves from the collective agreement and confirm the technicians’ sale. On May 8, 2002, at 00:01, the 2200 employees went on strike. Fourteen minutes later, the employer locked them out. We know the rest. Scabs replaced not only the technicians but all of Vidéotron’s employees. Tensions grew and incidents multiplied. The dispute lasted until the spring of this year. Hundreds of families were left without incomes for almost a year all because a businessman wanted to do things his own way … “according to the law.” ===Resounding victory – but the cost was high=== But in the spring of 2003, negotiations ended with a resounding union victory and with the employer renouncing his plan to dismantle the company. The sale of the technicians to Entourage was cancelled. This was a big win since the employer had often said it was “impossible to go back,” saying the equipment, trucks and tools were no longer theirs. “The cheque is cashed and that’s that,” the employer kept repeating. After the dispute, Le Devoir editorialist Jean-Robert Sansfaçon wrote that “to avoid a number of them being transferred, all the employees agreed to split the bill and accept some concessions […] without seriously impacting the quality of their general working conditions, which are better than average.” The long – too long – dispute at Vidéotron had a happy ending, for sure, but the price was high. The employer’s dogged determination to dismantle the company led them to hire scabs. Given the federal government’s failure to ban scabs, it bears a heavy responsibility in this conflict. We must not forget this.