Ottawa Citizen – Friday 27 June 1997 -Jeremy Mercer
Ruling could open door to ‘right-to-work’ law nationwide, lawyer says
A Quebec Superior Court judge may take weeks or even months to decide whether mandatory union membership in the province’s construction industry is a violation of the Canadian Constitution or simply a necessary regulation, akin to bar membership for practising lawyers.
If Judge Johanne Trudel decides to strike down the law that requires mandatory union membership, it could open the door to nationwide right-to-work legislation and drastically undermine unions’ powers.
Closing arguments for the case were heard yesterday in the Hull courtroom where Georges Dufour, a Hull lawyer, is representing more than a dozen construction workers and companies trying to strike down Quebec’s Construction Industrial Relations Act. Jocelyn Dumais, président ADAT
The law, enacted in 1968, requires anyone working in construction in Quebec, no matter what the job site, to belong to a union. Those working without a union card face fines and jail time.
Mr. Dufour argued Wednesday that the act should be repealed because it violates guarantees of freedom of association under both Canada’s and Quebec’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
If freedom of association guarantees someone the right to join a union, Mr. Dufour said, it should also guarantee the right not to join a union.
Yesterday, Jean-Francois Jobin, the lawyer representing the Quebec government, circumvented the constitutional argument.
He said that in the Quebec construction industry, union membership is just another form of professional association that sets standards for qualifications and workmanship.
It is not an infringement on freedom of association, Mr. Jobin told Judge Trudel, but a simple measure to determine the competency of Quebec construction workers.
He went on to say that union membership in itself is not a violation of freedom of association because Quebec’s construction unions act as a negotiating unit rather than an ideological movement.
In his final argument, Mr. Jobin told Judge Trudel that even if she insisted on viewing the mandatory union membership as an infringement on freedom of association, it would still be a reasonable limitation as outlined under Section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Mr. Jobin also stated that Canadian courts shouldn’t look to foreign examples of right-to-work legislation as a precedent, which is what Mr. Dufour had argued on Wednesday.
Roger Bédard, an industrial relations expert with ties to the Fraser Institute who testified in court on behalf of Mr. Dufour on Wednesday, says the proceedings in the Hull courtroom could mark the beginning of a historic change in Canadian labour laws.
« (A victory here) would make for absolutely major revisions of labour relations laws in Canada, » said Mr. Bedard. « It would pave the road for changes in other provinces. »
Mr. Bédard did not pull punches when analysing the potential impact of these changes. « If this leads to (right-to-work laws,) it could, potentially, strengthen unions. If a group of people join a union voluntarily, it will make the unions’ mandate stronger and it will be truly representative. On the other hand, it would give the right to people to say they don’t want to pay union dues and they don’t want to be part of a union. That could make a union weaker. »
At the heart of the case is Jocelyn Dumais, a Gatineau carpenter and contractor who has been working with Mr. Dufour as president of the Right to Work Association. He says he is pleased with the two-day appeal hearing and dismisses Mr. Jobin’s arguments.
« We’re talking about a right to work without a union card, » said Mr. Dumais. « What he is talking about, all these regulations that are needed, doesn’t apply. If you are a brain surgeon, maybe you need some card to declare your competency. But when you are a labourer at a demolition site with a shovel, no.
« You just want to work. »
Mr. Dumais and Mr. Dufour said that, starting today, they are beginning to solicit funds for an appeal.
If Judge Trudel rules against them, they have promised to take the case as high as the Supreme Court of Canada. If Mr. Dufour wins the case, they have no doubt that the government of Quebec will appeal.
« Either way, the battle will continue, » said Mr. Dumais.