Quebec's labour shortage is affecting compensation, bargaining strategies and union membership itself, according to Patrice Jalette, industrial relations professor at UdeM.
From the 1980s up until very recently, unionized workers in Quebec had to content themselves with protecting their hard-won gains and making do with paltry wage increases of one or two per cent. But nowadays union members are sometimes rejecting higher offers by employers, giving their representatives even more leverage to demand more.
“It looks like the power balance between employers and employees has been reversed," said Patrice Jalette, a professor at Université de Montréal's School of Industrial Relations. "This change has been driven by a number of factors, including the labour shortage that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to this day.”
In his research, Jalette has examined around 20 Quebec employers and some 40 union representatives from different industries, identifying three areas that have been affected by the labour shortage: compensation, bargaining strategies and union organizing.
He discusses his work in a study published last March in the French-language journal Chronique internationale de l’Institut de recherches économiques et sociales, the official publication of the Paris-based IRES.
Larger-than-normal wage increases
In terms of compensation, Jalette has noticed that many Quebec businesses have agreed to significantly increase their offer.
“Annual raises for unionized employees reached 5.2 per cent in 2022 – that’s a 15-year high,” he said. “This uptrend began in 2019, when compensation rose 3.1 per cent. It went up 3.5 per cent the next year, followed by a more modest 1.7 per cent in 2021, before the big jump in 2022.”
This higher compensation comes as the result of immediate and generalized wage increases negotiated between the parties, in addition to retention and hiring bonuses, and new hires getting bigger salaries right from the start.
Revising pay scales and compensation components can be risky, according to Jalette.
“Changing existing pay scales, which stakeholders have often spent a lot of time building, can be problematic,” he said. “Adding or removing pay grades, accelerating wage increases, and introducing bonuses could be divisive and create more inequality. This could aggravate conflict between longstanding employees and new hires, as well as between skilled and unskilled workers.”
New bargaining strategies
The interviews that Jalette conducted revealed that the labour shortage has led to some businesses facing an exodus of employees. These businesses have then had to ask unions to reopen negotiations on their collective agreements before they expired so they can introduce measures to attract and retain employees.
“It’s a reversal of what usually happens: usually, when employers ask to reopen negotiations before the end of the contract, it’s because they want the union to make concessions so the company doesn’t have to shut down operations or relocate,” said Jalette.
But even in today’s context, reopening negotiations can lead to conflict, especially when there are wage differences between tradespeople and other employees, as was the case at the Westrock paper-packaging factory in La Tuque. In that case, an agreement with the union, Unifor, was only reached in early 2022 after a work stoppage and arbitration.
“We shouldn’t assume that negotiations in Quebec have become easy-peasy, or that unions haven’t been forced to develop new negotiation strategies,” said Jalette, who’s also a member of the UdeM-based Interuniversity Research Centre on Globalization and Work (CRIMT).
To prove his point, in his paper he discusses the negotiation between the Agropur cheese factory in Granby and the Centrale des syndicats démocratiques, which represents the plant’s 250 employees, to renew the collective agreement that ended in June 2021. Negotiations were expected to be especially long and fraught.
“The employer filed 158 requests to amend 32 out of 33 of the agreement’s articles, including requests to change work schedules that were very poorly received,” he explained.
After a month-long strike, the union set up a committee to help workers find jobs with other companies during the strike. Three days after this was announced, the parties reached an agreement in principle for a new collective agreement.
New challenges for unions
In his article, Jalette identifies some challenges that union locals have to face during labour shortages, such as representing temporary foreign workers on the payroll who don’t necessarily speak French or English.
Similarly, the labour crunch impedes local union activities by limiting the leave that union representatives can take to attend to their union duties, since this often depends on whether someone is available to replace them, which isn’t always possible. Moreover, high turnover among representatives means that local union executive committees are increasingly made up of less experienced people who require a lot of training.
Another big challenge is members’ high expectations regarding the outcome of negotiations. These expectations have been heightened even further by inflationary pressures.
“Managing high expectations is a challenge for union reps," said Jalette. "When negotiations begin, they have to rally their members around specific issues and entrenched demands. But then they may have to compromise and, even though they don’t get everything they wanted, make do with whatever gains they made."
He pointed out that this type of situation is a big reason why, in recent years, agreements in principle reached at the bargaining table have wound up being rejected by the union rank-and-file.
Finally, while the overall labour shortage has strengthened collective bargaining power, it's also true that it has increased union members' individual bargaining power, as well.
“Ironically," said Jalette, "this new environment may end up calling into question whether, in a favourable job market, you even need to be a member of a union to negotiate your working conditions."
About this study
"Québec – Les relations professionnelles à l’heure de la pénurie de main-d’œuvre," by Patrice Jalette, was published in the March 2023 issue of Chronique internationale de l’IRES.