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L'Extention juridique et les métiers de la construction au Québec

L'Extention juridique et les métiers de la construction au Québec

Gérard Hébert

Volume : 18-3 (1963)


Juridical Extension and the Building Trades in Quebec


In 1934 the Quebec legislature passed the Collective Labour Agreements Extension Act. It was the first piece of legislation in Canada imposing a certain amount of compulsion regarding collective bargaining and collective agreements.

The present Quebec Collective Agreement Act, a misnomer, is still founded on the same basic principles as those of the 1934 Act.

According to this system, when the contracting parties (either a local union with a single employer, or any other arrangement, including a group of employers' associations with a group of different trade unions or councils of trade unions) have signed a collective agreement, either one or both of them may petition the Minister of Labour requesting that certain clauses foreseen and spelt out in the Act become obligatory for all employers and employees of the same industry in a definite region. This region may be the whole province or a limited area, such as a city.

On receiving the petition the Minister of Labour publishes it in the Quebec Official Gazette. Following this notice during a period of at least thirty days he receives the objections of anyone who wishes to oppose the proposed regulations. Then, if he deems that the collective agreement has acquired a « preponderant significance and importance » in regard to the establishment of working conditions in the industry, he may recommend the adoption of an order in council or decree. By this means the appropriate clauses of the agreement with the expedient modifications will become binding on all the employers and employees under the jurisdiction of the decree. The provisions of the agreement that may thus receive the « juridical extension » are those concerning wages, hours of labour, apprenticeship regulations, the ratio of apprentices to journeymen in an undertaking and, by virtue of an amendment enacted last year, social security benefits.

After a decree has been adopted, the contracting parties must set up a joint or parity committee to police the enforcement of the dispositions contained in the order in council. The functioning of the joint committee and the supervision of the application of the decree by the joint committee's inspectors are financed by a levy of one half of one percent that may be imposed both on the wages of the workers and on the payroll of the employers, subject to the approval of the Lieutenant Governor in Council.


From the very beginning of the operation of the Act, the construction industry has had recourse very extensively to the juridical extension of its collective agreements. In the first few years only the building part of the industry was covered, but with increasing rapidity all types of on-site construction have come under the system, although slight variations are still to be found in the industrial jurisdiction of the various general construction decrees. There are now sixteen such construction decrees regarding as many different geographic areas, the whole of them covering almost the entire province.

The trade union movement in Quebec is split mainly into two groups. For historical reasons, the national syndicates have developed alongside the local branches of the international unions. In the construction industry the two groups claim an approximately equal membership throughout the province, the international unions having a stronger foothold in Montreal and the syndicates in the rest of the province.


The decree system has had a definite influence on both management and labour organizations, although it is difficult to assess its exact importance.

On the union side it caused an unequivocal increase in the number of local unions in the building trades during its first years of application, that is roughly between 1935 and the beginning of World War II. Since World War II, the impact on unionization is much more difficult to evaluate. In the day-to-day life of the union, the existence of a decree creates the following difficulty: the workers being protected by the decree and having to pay a levy to the joint committee do not see as clearly as they otherwise would the reason for joining a union. Concerning the effect of this situation on unionization, no absolute conclusion appears possible. The development of labour unions in the construction industry in Quebec has been roughly comparable to that of corresponding unions in the neighbouring province of Ontario; this would imply that, on the whole, the adverse effect of the decree system on unionization may not have been as wide as one might think. Concerning management organizations, the impact of the decree system is probably subject to less controversy although the general influence may have been more scattered over time. Due to the obligation of bargaining regularly in order to maintain and to amend the decree, employers were forced to get together and take a common position. Construction associations existed in Montreal and Quebec before the establishment of the decree system; but everywhere else they appeared following the application of this labour-management relations formula.


The bargaining unit in the construction industry under the decree system is a multi-employer, multi-trade and geographic unit.

Multi-employer bargaining seems to have been the general rule in Quebec earlier than elsewhere. Although there were a few instances of it before 1934, it was truly and completely established with the decree system. The basic idea of juridical extension renders single-employer bargaining useless except in special cases, since after having signed an agreement which has a preponderant significance and importance, the parties may obtain that everyone in the industry be obliged, through an order in council, to abide by the same working conditions as those agreed to in their contract.

Multi-trade bargaining is even now very seldom found in the building trades on the North American continent. Outside of Quebec, Canadian examples of such bargaining are limited almost strictly to a very few huge projects, such as the hydro-electric constructions of the Ontario Hydro on the Niagara and St. Lawrence Rivers, and the Peace River power project in British Columbia.

At the beginning, certain trades in Quebec City and in Trois-Rivières had their own special decree. But because of the necessity of establishing a corresponding joint committee and of financing it, it soon became evident that small groups would have to join the general group. Thus industry-wide bargaining in each of the ten or twelve regions then governed by construction decrees became the rule without exception until the late 1940's when in the Montreal area some technical trades started to bargain separately for their own special working conditions, while remaining under the same joint committee and the same decree, but with a special section for them in it.

Definition of the bargaining unit with reference to a geographic territory is the third major characteristic. Under the system of juridical extension, the territorial bargaining unit becomes a necessity. The fact that the decree imposes definite working conditions on all the employers and the employees in an industry implies that the territory to which this order in council will apply must be very precisely defined. This territorial jurisdiction usually corresponds to the territory in which both management and labour organizations recruit their members and exert their influence.

Concerning its determination, we find again the presence of forces operating in opposite directions. As an area which had depended upon a decree centered in another region gradually reaches a stage of greater economic development, unions and employers of the district look for a decree of their own. Of the 16 decrees now in force many of them are subdivisions of former larger territories. It must be said here that a single decree may foresee two, three, four, and even in some cases five or six zones, with different rates of wages according to the economic situation of the zones concerned.


The very nature of the decree system is to make it obligatory on everyone to follow the wage rates agreed upon by the contracting parties, if their contract has acquired the preponderant significance foreseen by the law. The Act itself explicitly permits agreements, both individual and collective, providing for more advantageous working conditions than those foreseen in the decree. Such collective agreements for higher wages are almost nonexistent in the construction industry.

From the workers' point of view, perhaps the most important effect of the decree system is to have imposed a definite rate of wages for all types of on-site construction work including the non-union sector of the industry. It appears that in large metropolitan areas if not everywhere, a substantial differential may be found between the wage rates paid on union and non-union projects.

It may be asked whether the uniform rate of wages under the decree system has exerted a downward pressure on the wage rates at the bargaining table. A study of the Toronto-Montreal interregional differentials over time leads to the following observations. The relative differential between the Toronto union rate and the Montreal decree rate for construction labourers has been substantially narrowed since the inception of the decree system in Quebec. This suggests that the labourers rate in Montreal under the decree system is effectively a union rate, the remaining regional differential being explained by the different economic environment.


If we now turn to industrial conflicts, the construction industry in Quebec in comparison to the same industry in other provinces and in the United States has been extremely peaceful, although strikes do occur once in a while for various reasons. With respect to industrial peace, the influence of the decree system seems to have been very important.

By ensuring to all construction workers relatively good working conditions, the system has removed one of the main, if not the main cause of industrial conflicts. The structure of the bargaining unit, with its multi-trade composition, has also had a stabilizing influence on industrial relations. While jurisdictional conflicts plague this industry elsewhere, these are almost always solved without a work stoppage in Quebec. One of the instruments for resolving these problems rests in the detailed definitions of trades which appear in every single decree now in force in the Province.

A third factor which may have had the deepest influence in keeping the industry peaceful appears to be the long experience of bargaining that has resulted from the decree system.


Thus although the joint committee still has very limited power and jurisdiction, it appears to have a very important influence on the whole complex of labour relations in the construction industry in Quebec.

The whole decree system seems to be rather well suited to an industry in which competition is keen, unionization difficult and conflicting forces constantly at work between the persons and groups involved. It has been an important factor favouring unity and cohesiveness. It has brought some order into an industry which seems to have a natural tendency towards confusion and sometimes chaos. The system is far from being perfect. But if the parties together with the government strive to better this institution as they have done, especially in the last two or three years, we may hope that it will continue to render good service to the industry and to all the persons actually involved in it for their living.