A rather disturbing incident took place in Quebec this summer. It was reported that a group of union members, peeved by the turn of events in a labour conflict at one of Quebecor’s newspapers, had taken their grievance to the grave, quite literally. They demonstrated at the tomb of Pierre Péladeau, the late patriarch of the company.
Apart from a subsequent condemnation by his son, current CEO of Quebecor Pierre-Karl Péladeau, the event elicited little or no comment from Quebec’s business class. Nor did our media commentators, normally always so avid for sensation, see fit to inform their audiences of this incident.
Imagine for a moment the reaction I would provoke if I and a group of CEOs went to chant pro-business slogans at the grave of Louis Laberge, the larger-than-life leader of Quebec’s main union federation for 27 years. The unions and any number of journalists would go on a rampage of denunciation. I’d be drawn and quartered mercilessly in the media, and rightly so.
The graveside incident says a great deal about the climate of ideas in Quebec and perhaps, to some extent, elsewhere in the country. The playing field is obviously anything but level when it comes to how the respective interests and actions of the labour movement and the business sector are treated in the media.
Another story illustrates even better the power of unions in Quebec and the relative spinelessness of the business sector.
When I took office some years ago as president of the Conseil du Patronat, Quebec’s main business-lobby group, one of my first projects involved a public campaign to empower individual workers. I wanted to make it possible for them to vote freely on the issue of unionization in their workplaces.
It is not widely known among the general public, but in five Canadian provinces, including Quebec, workers do not always have the ability to express themselves in a secret ballot on this issue. The voting procedure instead asks for their signatures on membership cards and if more than half sign up, then the union will usually be recognized. Workers can rebuff the union’s agents, but nothing can prevent those same agents from repeatedly showing up at the homes of dissenting workers and ultimately (politely!) pressuring them to sign.
What’s more, current law does not require the union to consult all workers affected by an accreditation drive. If a particular worker is known to be strongly skeptical about the merits of unions, he can simply be ignored. Of course, once accreditation is obtained, that same worker will be compelled to pay union dues, by virtue of the Rand formula.
From the employer’s point of view, this provokes doubts in certain cases as to whether the workers of a unionized company actually wished to unionize.
A few days after the announcement of my campaign to empower the individual worker, I received a terse letter from a large company that had long been a member of the Conseil. This company (which I will refer to as XYZ for the purpose of this article) informed me that it would not be renewing its membership in the association.
The following week, a well known union leader came to me at a meeting and informed me with a sneer, “You know, as far as XYZ is concerned, you should regard what happened as just a warning. If you continue with your campaign for a mandatory secret ballot, I can guarantee that there will be many more drop-outs from your association.”
A few months later, the executive vice-president of XYZ confided to me that he had cancelled the company’s membership, at the request of the union leader “to avoid trouble with this union,” which, as he explained, exercises some financial influence by referring business to the company.
It’s instructive to know that the total revenue of the three principal organizations that represent business owners in Quebec ranges between $6 million and $7 million annually. Contrast that to the yearly revenue of the three main trade unions, which is on the order of $700 million. This excludes the money (and thus the power) residing in their tax-advantaged investment funds, which exercise a whole lot of financial influence in the many companies where they are involved.
I do realize that many businesses prefer back-door approaches and discreet lobbying to vocal demonstrations. There is no doubt that this approach is appropriate in many cases.
However, on several issues of industrial relations and public affairs, business people have effectively given up fighting or even speaking up publicly for their own interests.
Our politicians, notwithstanding their officially declared ideologies, all recognize a simple calculus. When they displease the unions, the result is publicly vented outrage and livid demonstrations. When they anger business people, the response is almost mute – and the political cost near nil. Add to this the imbalance in media coverage. Given that reality, whose interests do you think politicians are going to champion?
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is president and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute.