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Les relations du travail au Québec : bilan des années 1970

Les relations du travail au Québec : bilan des années 1970

Gérard Hébert

Volume : 36-4 (1981)


Québec Labour Relations in the 1970’s

Trends in collective bargaining have been ambiguous: certain events can be considered as major steps forward, which may in the long run jeopardize the future of free collective bargaining. Collective agreements have become longer, and more legalistic.

Collective bargaining

In terms of context, the following observations seem important. The proportion of unionized employees has remained substantially the same, but the proportion of unaffiliated unions has increased significantly. Inflation has been the number one phenomenon in the decade, with the wage controls in effect from 1975 to 1978. The unemployment rate has remained fairly high in Québec for the whole period, varying between 7 and 11%.

Besides a few major conflicts in the private sector, the whole decade has been dominated by the three bargaining rounds of the public and the parapublic sector. The proportion of man-days lost has hit a record-breaking 1.15% in 1976.

In the private sector, the A.I.B. controls have been the most influential element in the decade. These controls have caused the percentage of man-days lost to be, in 1977 and 1978, substantially lower than usual, and the average duration of the major collective negotiations relatively shorter. They have kept wage increases well below 10%.

In labour law affecting private bargaining, the only major changes were made in Bill 45, enacted in 1977. The Bill has introduced voluntary conciliation, mandatory arbitration of the first collective agreement at the request of either party, the automatic application of the Rand formula upon certification, and the highly controversial provisions against strikebreakers. It is too early to evaluate the effects of these changes, especially those regarding strikebreaking.

Labour relations in the construction industry have been the object of a whole series of legislations. The introduction of a tight industry-wide bargaining scheme in the late '60's did not produce all the benefits that were expected. Government intervention was frequent and heavy to try and solve various difficulties arising out of the application of such legislation. Labour relations in the Québec construction industry have become the most regulated in any industry anywhere in North America, certainly in the private sector.

In the public sector the basic rules had been laid down in the i960's, like the right to strike in public and even essential services, but they received their final form only in the 1970's, especially through the laws and events of the three successive rounds of bargaining.

The 1972 round was the most highly centralized and the hardest-hitting of all. The Common Front of the various unions involved in the public sector was in full operation, the presidents of the three leading central bodies were jailed for recommending not to obey a special return-to-work law, social agitation was fairly highduring May 1972, and the whole endeavour ended in the breaking up of the Common Front, the beginning of the expansion of unaffiliated associations, and the creation of a new central body.

The 1975-1976 and the 1978-1980 rounds were quite different. The Common Front was never as extended and as cohesive as in 1971-1972, and the strike activity was never as concentrated. On the whole, there may have been as many man-days lost, but they were much more scattered in time, sector and space. In all cases, a string of special return-to-work laws has been adopted, twelve in all over the decade, ten of which concerned the public sector.

The major characteristic of the various rounds is probably their political character. The objectives set down by the unions have a political connotation: they are openly aimed at raising the minimum working conditions of all employees, including those of the private sector. The process itself is highly political in the sense that the size and the impact of the whole exercise is bound to take up the colours of a major confrontation between the leading unions and the government. The 1972 slogan "We must break the System" is revealing of the very nature of the whole process. The effect is more economical than political, and the question mark is whether the private sector will be able to follow the leader with the major advantages granted to the public sector employees.

Looking at the overall situation during the decade, the following general characteristics can be mentioned. The labour movement, while continuing to fulfill its bargaining agent responsibilities, has become much more radical in certain sectors. This has caused management, even public management, to take a harder line. The ritual of bargaining has remained much the same: negotiations are long and hard, and usually call for crisis bargaining before coming to an end. In many cases, confrontation is the name of the game. Work stoppages have become much more diversified than previously, legal or illegal, rotating or regular, wildcat or sympathy. Conversely, the religious respect given to a picket line, while remaining in most cases, is beginning to fade in certain instances. The adoption of various labour standards legislation has affected the scope of bargaining. Regarding the outcomes, the public sector agreements have influenced the private ones, at least in three major areas, the level of wage increases, the duration of annual holidays and the extent and conditions of maternity leave. The major difference concerns the security of employment: private companies can give no greater security to their employees than the one they enjoy themselves.

In conclusion, some events of the 1970's have raised serious questions concern-ing collective bargaining, at least in the public sector. Besides the political aspect that overshadow the determination of working conditions for these employees, the number and importance of work stoppages in public and essential services may eventually challenge the acceptability, if not the usefulness, of the whole process.

Collective agreements

The 1970's have seen important developments in collective agreement analysis. Labour Canada has continued and improved its survey and publications on the subject. Most of the Canadian provinces have put in place a computerized System of analysis of collective agreements. In Québec, the whole population of collective agreements will eventually be analysed, thus making available a particularly important knowledge of the small collective agreements, the number of which is very high: 60% of all collective agreements in Québec cover groups of 50 employees or less.

With regard to the format of collective agreements, their length and legalistic character have increased over the decade. Their coverage is extremely diversified: the vast majority of agreements regulate working conditions at the plant or the company level, while a few sector agreements, regarding public employees and the construction industry, govern working conditions for hundreds of thousands of employees.

Between 1960 and 1975, wages have increased more rapidly than the cost of living; since 1975, the picture is much more confused. Cost of living adjustment (C.O.L.A.) clauses have increased dramatically in the mid-1970's. The number of such clauses does not increase anymore; they tend to be more diversified. No dramatic change has occurred concerning premiums, working hours and overtime.

Fringe benefits have moved in a more significant way. The duration of annual holidays has increased, while the required number of years of service to enjoy longer vacations has decreased. A few paid holidays have been added to those already existing. Social holidays of all types (for funerals, wedding, births), which were almost non existent at the beginning of the decade, are now relatively frequent. The number of sick leave paid holidays has increased, but banks for unused sick leave holidays tend to disappear; they are replaced by some kind of wage insurance. Welfare plans and pension plans have been improved, while severance pay provisions are now somewhat more frequent than at the beginning of the decade.

In promotions, transfers and lay-offs, seniority becomes more and more important. The period for retaining seniority rights, while on leave or on lay-off, also tends to increase. The length of the probation period has slightly increased, this being one of the few management gains over the period.

There has been an increase in the number of clauses pertaining to health and safety, probably due to the new legislation: collective agreements, either add to the minimum imposed by law, or make the provisions in the law more definite and specific for the parties. Employment security has become almost complete in the public sector, while it made only minor progress in the private sector; this progress was usually related to problems flowing from technological change. More collective agreements impose limitations on contracting out, especially in municipalities, but the content of the clause has remained substantially the same.

The inflation upsurge of the mid-1970's had a major effect on the duration of collective agreements: it increased the number and proportion of one-year agreements; but two and three year agreements have regained their previously favoured position, with a C.O.L.A. clause and /or a reopener to protect the employees against unexpected inflation. In union security, the union shop is becoming the predominant form in mandatory membership. The Rand formula now being obligatory by law, the collective agreements still contain the specifications on how to implement this obligation. Provisions for leave of absence on union affairs have increased substantially, in frequency and nature.

Concerning grievance procedure and arbitration, the only trend that can be noticed is a slightly increasing preference for the single arbitrator, as opposed to the arbitration council, and a somewhat more frequent recourse to expedited arbitration.

Finally, labour-management or joint committees have also increased in number and importance, especially in the larger agreements and concerning health and safety questions.

Whether these trends will continue depends a lot on the forthcoming context. The major factor will be the inflation situation, and the possible reintroduction of economic controls. The orientation of the labour movement will also be a major determinant of future labour relations. The weight of the public sector on the whole System will continue to be heavy, with a major question mark: will the public sector unions become more moderate, in the face of public reactions, or continue with al-ways greater demands and greater confrontations? The possible development and consolidation of labour standards legislation will affect, one way or another, the content of future collective agreements.

The more important factor of all will likely be the fundamental approach to labour relations by the various parties involved. Even if the adversary System remains the basis of the general model, another approach implying a greater degree of cooperation is gaining importance. The various experiments in that direction carry different names: quality of working life, problem-solving approach, new industrial relations or labour relations by objectives. All these experiments have in common the belief in greater and more effective communication lines between labour and management.