June 1, 2012

Quebec Bill 33 a step in the right direction: International Open Shop Conference speaker

OTTAWA

Bill 33, introduced by Quebec Labour Minister Lise Theriault, is a step in the right direction, but what Quebec really needs to do is get rid of mandatory unionization in the construction industry, according to a speaker at a conference for open shop construction contractors.

Currently, Quebec law takes away two fundamental rights of construction contractors, says Michel Kelly-Gagnon, CEO of Montreal Economic Institute. They currently do not have the right to hire or dismiss workers according to their needs, nor do they have the right to manage their own workforce.

Kelly-Gagnon made his remarks during a breakfast presentation at the seventh annual International Open Shop Conference (IOSC7), produced by Merit Canada and held at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa.

He said Bill 33, which would rescind the power of construction unions to assign workers to job sites in Quebec, is "a step in the right direction."

“Unions determine which workers, and how many workers, will work on a job site especially larger projects in the industrial, institutional and road work sectors,” he said, adding unions can force an employer to hire one worker instead of another of their choosing.

Kelly-Gagon said there are about 30 regulated trades in Quebec.

"Each building trade is connected to union, which jealously protects its domain of competency," he said.

For example, he said, in order to install a simple bathroom, you must have at least eight building trades. One of his researchers was told of a case where a carpenter was given a hammer without claws, because although a carpenter is allowed to hammer nails in, regulations only allow labourers, and not carpenters, to remove nails.

Although the inquiry into corruption into Quebec’s construction industry is making headlines, Kelly-Gagnon said there are other problems, above and beyond alleged kickbacks and alleged ties to organized crime, which harm the economy.

“We hear very little about the regulatory burden that smothers the construction industry,” he said.

Quebec law requires employers in construction to only hire employees who are members of one of the five recognized unions, he said, and this applies to new work in residential, and all work in commercial, institutional and industrial. Only the residential renovation sector is exempt.

“Thankfully, however, in the last few months we have seen some winds of change,” he said. “They are still way too modest in my opinion but nevertheless they represent a positive trend.”

Other speakers at IOSC included Bill Stewart, vice-president of the Merit Contractors Association. He talked about job targeting funds and marketing enhancement recovery funds (MERFs), which are intended to subsidize unionized employers.

Through the provincial Labour Relations Amendment Act, Stewart said Alberta was the first jurisdiction in North America, in 2008, to deal with these funds.

“A MERF is a transfer of what are effectively taxes collected from one group of purchasers of construction to another group of purchases in the public sector, or perhaps a 7-11 store, to unfairly subsidize them,” he said. “These subsidies range anywhere from $5 to $15 an hour and this is a distortion of the marketplace.”

Another issue Alberta dealt with is mandatory ratios of journeypersons to apprentices, he added.

“We are concerned, and I would be from an Ontario perspective, about what is happening with the College of Trades and what the impact may be in terms of apprentice ratios here,” he said. “If you have very high ratios, that can serve as a barrier to bringing young people into the industry and you need new people to enter your industry here in Ontario.”

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