Quebec board shoots down limits on farm unions

Quebec’s labour relations commission has cut out language in the province’s labour code that had blocked seasonal farm workers from unionizing.

Ruling in favour of Mexican workers at a Montreal-area cabbage farm, Ferme L+L, the province’s Commission des relations du travail (CRT) last Friday declared a line of section 21 of the Quebec Labour Code unconstitutional, a violation of Charter rights to freedom of association, and thus “inoperative.”

The CRT has thus accredited the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 501 to represent the Mirabel farm’s workers, other than its office staff and management.

The line in question permitted workers to organize only on those Quebec farms with at least three employees who work “ordinarily and continually” year-round.

The requirement got some support during the CRT’s hearings, from the provincial attorney general’s office and a farm lobby group, UFCW said Thursday.

Ferme L+L since 2001 has employed foreign seasonal workers between mid-March and late October, planting, tending and harvesting its vegetable crops — mainly cabbage for wholesalers and brokers, plus red cabbage for a dye manufacturer.

Owners Johanne L’Ecuyer and Pierre Locas, who have operated Ferme L+L for about 30 years, have recruited five workers from Mexico since 2005, adding a sixth in 2008, according to the CRT.

“Threshold of failure”

The CRT’s decision is “a victory for these workers and for every other agriculture worker in Quebec who needs and wants a union,” Louis Bolduc, executive assistant to UFCW Canada’s national president Wayne Hanley, said in the union’s release Thursday.

The CRT has “recognized that over the decades since article 21.5 was drafted, today’s farms have evolved into large-scale industrial operations,” Bolduc said.

“They are just like factories, and just because they shut down for a few months a year doesn’t mean the workers should be denied their right to join a union.”

Specifically, the CRT said, the ag sector has undergone “profound transformations” since the 1950s and ’60s, with many farms becoming large commercial enterprises that don’t much resemble the subsistence-scale family farms of earlier generations.

The CRT, in last Friday’s ruling, said no one had proven these enterprises to be in a “precarious” situation or on a “threshold of failure” that requires some sort of “shelter” from unions.

The UFCW estimates over 27,000 people work on Quebec farms, including about 6,000 migrant workers who come to the province during the growing season.

UFCW already represents workers at four Quebec ag operations. The union said Thursday it’s in contract talks at a fifth and has two other certification applications now before the CRT.

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