Montreal, September 15, 2004  /  No 146  
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Martin Masse is publisher of QL.
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by Martin Masse
          The youth wing of the Quebec Liberal Party caused a minor commotion several days ago when its members overwhelmingly voted at their annual convention to abolish the Rand formula. Jean Charest, Quebec's Liberal premier, quickly disavowed his young supporters and said he had no intention to bring this issue on to the government's agenda.
          The Rand formula is named after Supreme Court Justice Ivan Rand, who arbitrated a violent conflict in 1945-46 at the Ford Canada plant in Windsor, Ont. It requires the employer to collect union dues from all employees covered by the collective agreement, without necessarily forcing them to join the union – the so-called "closed shop" clause. The logic is that all workers benefit from the agreement, whether they are members of the union or not, and should thus be required to financially support it. 
          Justice Rand's formula for "peaceful" labour relations quickly spread throughout Canada and became part of collective agreements. In 1977, Quebec – like other provinces – entrenched the formula in law. 
          Since that time, the power of unions has decreased across Canada. Not so in Quebec, however, where even minor tinkering with labour law is typically cast as a wholesale assault on the working class. When Mr. Charest's Liberal government modified Quebec's Labour Code last fall so as to make contracting-out easier, unions and their allies blocked streets, ports and other installations. 
          The Premier's goal was simply to bring Quebec legislation in line with that of other provinces. And the changes were hardly revolutionary: Nothing will change for unionized workers already protected by collective agreements that prohibit contracting out. But unions in Quebec have gotten used to gaining new privileges, not losing any, and they had no trouble terrorizing Liberal MNAs. Since then, the government has abandoned most of the reformist agenda on which it was elected. 
          Quebec has the most densely unionized economy in North America, with 40% of its workers belonging to a union. (That compares with about 25% in Ontario and Alberta, and less than 15% in most U.S. states.) In large part, this is because Quebec law forces unionization on workers: To work in construction, for instance, one must belong to one of five officially sanctioned unions. 
     “Quebec has the most densely unionized economy in North America, with 40% of its workers belonging to a union.”
          There are discontents in the province. For several years, the ADAT (Association pour le droit au travail) waged a quixotic battle in courts to free construction workers from their forced unionization. And a group called the Union paysanne is contesting the monopoly of the huge Union des producteurs agricoles, an organization that functions as an appendage to the provincial bureaucracy, and to which all agricultural producers have to pay dues. 
          In such an environment, it's easy to see how the Liberal Youth plan to abolish the Rand formula would be smeared as a radical threat to workers' rights. But in fact, the proposed step would merely bring Quebec back to where it was in the early 1970s, before the first Parti Québécois government included it in the Labour Code along with anti-scab provisions. That decade was a time of intense labour unrest, when unions across Canada were flexing their muscles and constantly gaining more ground. Only in Quebec have the pro-union excesses of that era not been corrected. 
          In a free and dynamic labour market, unions would be established voluntarily and would thrive only if they proved beneficial to all the parties involved, by simplifying working rules and relations for example, not by using legal means to force themselves upon unwilling parties. In a low-unemployment economy (something Quebec has not experienced for a long time, in large part because of its pro-union orientation), an individual worker would not be left powerless before his employer, whatever his union status. His leverage would depend on his value as a productive worker. He could effectively say: "I will go elsewhere if I am not satisfied with the salary and conditions here," and find a better job. 
          The union logic is instead that all should get the same treatment, protections and benefits, including the incompetent and unproductive. This comes at huge costs for the high-quality workers who are denied advancement thanks to union-mandated seniority and hiring rules, for non-unionized workers and for the economy as a whole. 
          The proposal to eliminate the Rand formula is a good one. But the formula itself is just the tip of the iceberg. The larger problem in Quebec is an obsolete labour-relations edifice that has entrenched the prerogatives of unions to the detriment of the province's economy and, more importantly, the freedom of individual workers and employers. One can only hope that Mr. Charest's successor has the political courage to dismantle it. 
* This article was first published in the National Post on August 18, 2004.