Monday, April 5, 2010

Quebec Bakers Want Too Much Dough

It was with some disappointment that I heard that the Weston Bread factory in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil is to close down due to excessive union demands.

Decades ago, many more than I'd like to remember, my whole Grade One class made an end-of-term field trip to that very same factory. The visit was nothing less than enchanting, as the huge vats of dough and the semi-automated machines were dazzling, especially to a gang of six-year olds. When we concluded our visit, we were each rewarded with a giant shopping bag of a selection of the factory's products and I never forgot how proud I was to bring home the 'goodies' to my mom. Back then every little bit helped.

The plant will close, according to the company, because the union refused to guarantee flexibility in scheduling, a condition deemed necessary in a changing marketplace. In spite of a stern warning from the company that it wasn't just posturing, the workers held firm.

And so, the union has negotiated its workers right out of their jobs. As expected, the leaders blame the company and use slogans and catchwords like - 'mépris' (contempt) to deflect responsibility.
I've noticed that more and more, 'MÉPRIS' has become the go-to word, whenever unions, special interest groups and nationalists suffer a particularly humiliating defeat.

I feel sorry for the workers, who are now separated from their well-paid jobs, due to a union miscalculation.

Quebec has always been Canada's most unionized province and also has the distinction of having the most radical and corrupt labour movement, but still, it's hard to understand it's lack of sophistication and propensity to badly overplay its hand.
Union negotiation is all about pushing the company to the brink, but not over.  It seems that in Quebec, more often than not, the union jumps off the cliff all by itself.

Quebec has a sad history of union incompetence.
Back in 1969, a Post Office contract with a Quebec company to deliver mail locally wasn't renewed. (It was actually the company, newly unionized, who failed to bid on the renewal).
The 450 drivers of 'LAPALME' who in Quebec union folklore became known as the 'Gars de Lapalme"(Lapalme boys) were offered integration into the Post Office, but refused, out of loyalty to the CNTU (Confédération des syndicats nationaux ), a powerful Quebec union. The workers demanded that their union affiliation be maintained, a demand flatly rejected by the Post Office.

The drivers went on 'strike' to push the issue, but effectively had no leverage, since they weren't direct employees of the Post Office, who then hired new workers affiliated to their own Public Service union system. The jilted drivers held a three year long death rattle, often violent, to underscore their plight. It was one of the roughest labour disputes in Quebec history, one in which emotions ran high. Asked to comment on the driver's situation, then Prime Minister Pierre-Elliot Trudeau was quoted as saying, "Qu'ils mangent donc de la marde" (Let them eat shit.)

Sadly, in the end, the CNTU, realizing the futility of the situation, abandoned the workers, who were cast adrift in the saddest example of union bungling in the history of Quebec.

You'd think that after failures like these, attitudes would change and that unionized workers and their leadership would wise up. Alas it is not to be, not even forty years later.

The Journal de Montreal is a successful Montreal tabloid owned by zillionaire Pierre-Karl Péladeau, son of the late great media baron, Pierre Péladeau. Nobody would ever accuse Péladeau Sr. of treating workers with kid gloves and his son is a chip off the old block. Workers should have known what they were up against when they pushed demands in contract negotiations.

Last January (2009), Péladeau locked out employees in a dispute over a variety of issues. The sticking point appears to be the issue of media convergence, where the work of those who write in the newspaper can be transferred to the Internet without additional compensation.
According to
"Photographers and journalists at the paper make an average salary of $88,000 for a 30-hour week. Editors make an annual average salary of $125,000. Employees are entitled to four to six weeks of annual vacation paid at time-and-a-half.
Amazingly, the newspaper continues to publish during the strike, seemingly without missing a beat, using 'contract' reporters and editors, a practice usually outlawed in Quebec.
The newspaper appears to be as popular as ever with advertisers and readers holding fast, making the newspaper even more successful than it was before the strike.

With the continued success of the newspaper, there's no impetus for the employer to negotiate. It's likely that Péladeau would love nothing better than to have the present situation become permanent.

It's ironic that some of the most literate and educated people in Quebec cannot understand that after fifteen months, it's time to either give up or go home. Many of the old-timers writing for the newspaper should remind their co-workers what happened when The Montreal Star pressmen went on a protracted strike back in 1979. The newspaper folded.

With salaries and conditions, like those described above, it's mind-boggling that the employees haven't realized that they are risking much more than they can possibly gain.  Even if the employees 'win' their strike and the employer caves in (an unlikely occurrence), they'll never recoup the money they lost by not working. Pride? Stupidity? Hardheadedness?

Raynald Leblanc, president of the union of employees is playing a risky game that is banking on the Rue Frontenac news website that locked out employees have set up, to put pressure on management. It's a risky game and Pierre-Karl is not one likely to blink, especially while staring down the mild-mannered photographer/union leader.

The locked-out employees have a healthy strike fund that can last another couple of months, but even the mighty NHL player's union realized that it was time to cave, after being locked out for a full season by determined owners. Once again, another Quebec union is playing Russian roulette.

There aren't many strikes lasting over a year which are ever resolved in the worker's favour, a reality that Quebec unions still fail to understand. If a company can hold out for a year without folding, they can usually hold out indefinitely.

Sometimes you've got to swallow hard.
Weston Bakery employees and their union leaders should have realized that three quarters of a loaf of bread is better than none.
Just ask the Ontario auto workers, who took massive hits in order to keep their jobs. While its hard to accept less, sometimes it's a better choice than to shoot for all or nothing.

That could of course never happen in Quebec, after all, we have our union pride and ....BS (welfare.)


  1. ''Montreal remains bilingual.'' Why Montréal should be more bilingual than Ottawa ? And what about Toronto ?

  2. Editor: "I've noticed that more and more, 'MÉPRIS' has become the go-to word"

    The word “meprisant” is le mot du jour in Quebec. You can’t order a damn coffee in English without having some people accuse you of being “plein de meprise vers la langue Francaise”. It boggles the mind.

    The union situation is tricky. Protection of the workers’ right is essential, but how do we ensure that unions do not cross the line, as is frequently the case in Quebec?

    I’m afraid the solution to this problem lies not only in the regulation of union-gov't relations, but also in people’s mentality. I think the Quebecois people are too reliant on unions and in general exhibit quite a lot of self-entitlement.

    My hope is that one day Quebec will become a province where self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and resourcefulness are the virtues, instead of the continual dependence on the overbearing and ever-expanding gouvernemaman. But I know it is not realistic in the near future. It probably needs a generational change.

  3. Good piece, but I don't think that it's so much the union jumping off a cliff as it is the union executive herding their members over the edge. As the Weston Local will learn the hard way, Union execs are willing to fight to the end, knowing THEIR jobs are safe and that there are plenty of other locals left. Union members considering a strike anywhere should first ask themselves one question: "If the company shuts down the plant, will I be able to find a similar job at similar pay?" If the answer is "No", they had better be careful.

  4. Killing the goose that laid the golden egg.