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A union blunder?

MONTREAL, Que. - Organizers with the Syndicat National du Transport Routier (SNTR) may have pushed too far, too soon in seeking better working conditions for their members who haul containers at the P...


AFTERMATH: A disheartened union member quietly contemplates all that the strike did not accomplish. (Photo by Carroll McCormick)
AFTERMATH: A disheartened union member quietly contemplates all that the strike did not accomplish. (Photo by Carroll McCormick)

MONTREAL, Que. – Organizers with the Syndicat National du Transport Routier (SNTR) may have pushed too far, too soon in seeking better working conditions for their members who haul containers at the Port of Montreal.

As a result of the 29-day strike that ended on Nov. 20, 2000, the SNTR and its parent organization, the Confederation des Syndicats Nationaux (CSN), face millions of dollars in fines and lawsuits and a tailor-made law forbidding any interference with intermodal traffic. Intermodal carriers also have a renewed resolve not to bend to pressure tactics.

Where the SNTR and the CSN have gambled and lost, according to transportation law attorney Francois Rouette, is in striking at the Port without any lawful mandate. In fact, although Bill 157, “An Act to order the resumption of certain road freight services” (tabled and passed in one day) specifically forbids interfering with freight traffic to the Port, Provision 9 of the Bill qualifies that statement with, “…except in the case of a lawfully-declared strike or lock-out.”

“I had a hard time with the use of the word strike,” says Rouette, a partner in the Quebec law firm Flynn, Rivard. “In order to have a strike, you have to have the right to strike. These people decided they were not going to be working any more. They were not accredited labor union workers and the union is not recognized as a bargaining union.”

Despite its name, the SNTR is not a lawfully recognized union. The SNTR has been working on two fronts in order to win that status, however, and last year it made some progress. Last September the commissioner-general of labor concluded that the brokers working for Huppe Transport Inc., of Montreal, are salaried employees in the sense meant by the Quebec Labor Code. The CSN was working on two other court cases in which they hoped to obtain a similar ruling.

The decision by the commissioner-general of labor was very important: It added evidence to the CSN’s argument that it has the right to organize owner/operators (O/Os) and brokers into a union and bargain collectively on their behalf. Currently, only salaried employees have that right under the Quebec Labor Code.

The SNTR was also seeking union accreditation on a carrier-by-carrier basis. On Jan. 29, 1999 it filed 16 requests (one per carrier) for accreditation. On May 5, 2000 it filed 18 more. According to Rouette though, the CSN applications for accreditation were not only incomplete, the CSN failed to prove it represented a majority of the O/Os.

“The union was asked for more information, but it did not supply the information,” Rouette explains. “It seems the union filed a stack of cards, mostly by corporation, without making any mention of to which carrier the corporation belonged.” The Canadian Industrial Relations Board (CIRB) could not, he says, “establish that they [the corporations, or in other words, the O/Os] represented the majority. Not only that, they could not establish that they represented a third of the workforce of a carrier.

“The rules say that if you [represent] 35 to 50 per-cent of the membership, a vote has to be ordered. So they were not representative. They were trying to make believe that they could speak on behalf of the people. It was not the case. There were over 30 decisions rendered by the CIRB on the same day where it said that they did not have a majority. It was a bust.

“The union knew it could not get accreditation with each individual carrier. They tried a coup de force to position themselves as a representative of all the owner/operators with all the carriers.”

Giuseppe Gracioppo, a SNTR organizer, explains to Truck News last September that the SNTR was trying to negotiate, although to that point unsuccessfully, with the carriers as a group. The judgement by the commissioner-general of labor obviously gave the SNTR the confidence to push its cause even harder. “Now we are planning something because of this judgement,” Gracioppo said last year. “[Carriers] can come and sit down the nice way, or we will do it the hard way. If they don’t sit down, then drastic measure will be taken.”

The SNTR made good its threat. The result was a bitter strike that dearly cost the Port, carriers and truckers; for example, Bill 157 allowed carriers to immediately terminate their contracts with owner/operators, although according to Rouette, whose law firm represents several intermodal carriers, truckers were asked to come back.

“Some contractors were contacted and told their services were no longer needed,” says Rouette. “Since the carriers appreciated that not all of the truckers went on strike voluntarily, we went on a case-by-case basis and we listened to some of the guys. Before the conflict was ended, letters were sent to everyone asking them to come back. Some guys could not come back, saying, ‘people went to my house and shook up my wife.'”

The courts will be busy dealing with the strike’s aftermath: The CNS is fighting Bill 157, saying it is unconstitutional and, says Rouette, “… we filed individual suits for the carriers for damages (of) about $12 million.”

Arbitrators have been appointed by both the federal and Quebec governments to examine the issues surrounding this strike and meet with the affected parties. A report complete with recommendations is expected to be handed to the provincial government on Jan. 31, although Transports Quebec cannot say when or if its findings will be made public.

Truckers have legitimate grievances, but with whom? SNTR representatives themselves insist that part of the blame can be laid squarely at the doorstep of the Port of Montreal. n


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