Guilt By Association

by Steve Bouchard

I heard the news on TV a few days before Christmas: owner-operators in Québec were now allowed to be unionized. No, wait, the government was going to require them to join a union. Beg you pardon? Surely I heard wrong.

But then the phone started to ring. It rang for days and days, with bewildered and confused owner-operators and fleet owners on the other end of the line.

“Were you watching the TV?” they’d say. “Owner-operators are going to join unions. What the heck is going on?”

I guess I’d heard the TV right. But was it true?

The reporters had said the Commission des transports du Québec (CTQ), which regulates trucking in this province, ruled on Dec. 7 that owner-operators had to join one of three of Québec’s biggest labor unions: the Syndicats des Metallo, the Centrale des Syndicats Democratique, and the Confederation des Syndicats Nationaux. The reports said these unions were going to represent owner-operators at the Forum des intervenants de l’industrie du camionnage général.

The Forum, in case you don’t know, was established by the passage of Law 135 in June 2000 as a venue for owner-operators and trucking company leaders to develop guidelines for work contracts.
Hmm. I didn’t know the Forum had anything to do with unionization. Come to think of it, I didn’t know owner-operators-independent contractors-could be unionized at all.

The truth is, they can’t. In fact, on Dec. 20 the CTQ hastily pumped out a press release saying the media had misinterpreted its ruling. The CTQ said its decision simply recognizes that professional associations managed by the three unions have met membership targets that will allow them to represent owner-operators on the Forum.

Ah, yes, “professional associations.” What are these professional associations, you ask?

They are arm’s-length affiliates of the unions, sort of like wholly owned subsidiaries. Law 135 says these associations may represent owner-operators at the discussion table if they meet certain membership targets: collectively, they must have 50%-plus-one of the province’s owner-operators as members, and individually each must represent at least 10%.

If the associations sign up the majority of owner-operators, “all will have to pay an annual contribution to the freight mover group of their choice,” says the text of the law, which defines “freight mover” as “the owner of a tractor truck registered in Québec … whose principle job is to drive that truck.” The amount of the payment will be set by the association, the law states. “Any defaulting freight mover will be prohibited from putting his or her heavy vehicle into operation and operating the vehicle.”

Well, the membership targets were attained-barely. Of the 5237 owner-operators registered with the CTQ, the total represented by the three associations is 50.9%. Since a majority of the owner-operators have joined a professional association, they all have to. Owner-operators who don’t join an association (or at least pay an annual fee to one) risk losing their operating authority with the CTQ.

I think the CTQ owes the industry some answers. And there’s no shortage of questions, some of which are included in appeals launched by two separate groups:

1. Does the legal definition of “freight mover” include a trucker who pays the monthly payment of the vehicle but has the registration and fuel taxes paid by a carrier?

2. How does this ruling affect owner-operators who are doing business outside Québec, and therefore are federally regulated?

3. Why is association membership mandatory?

4. Will there be an audit of the membership numbers? The 50.9 % representation level achieved by the three associations is close enough to the minimum target to make anyone suspicious.

5. How the heck did this become law in the first place? Should the government really have a legally binding role in developing a model business contract for carriers and owner-operators? Should the government have any role here at all?

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