The seven-week lockout of Jean Coutu warehouse workers in Varennes, Quebec, ended last Sunday, with a five-year agreement that limits subcontracting and will provide pay raises of between 11 and 12.6 per cent. But did the pharmacy chain’s new owners break the law during the lockout? This article originally appeared on Nov. 2, 2020, in the French edition of Ricochet and has been translated and adapted.
According to an anonymous source, office workers were transferred to work as strikebreakers during the lockout at the Jean Coutu warehouse. These workers are not part of the union representing the striking warehouse workers, nor do they come from company management, yet they took over the work of locked-out employees.
An inspector for the tribunal administratif du travail (administrative labour court) admitted as much to one union member following an inspection of the warehouse conducted as part of their investigation into the use of scabs — workers brought in to replace employees who are on strike or locked out. In Quebec it is illegal to hire replacement workers during a lockout. Only employees classified as management are legally allowed to perform the duties of locked-out employees.
Metro Épiciers, the new owner of Jean Coutu Pharmacy, has prevented the 700-odd unionized employees of the Varennes warehouse from going to work since Sept. 24.
The labour dispute began when a collective agreement between Metro and the warehouse workers’ union expired on Dec. 31 of last year. The workers are represented by the Syndicat des Travailleuses et Travailleurs de PJC Entrepôt-CSN, which is part of the CSN, Quebec’s second-largest labour federation.
Negotiations have been at an impasse ever since.
The conflict between the two parties centres on issues of salary. This will be the first collective agreement negotiated with the new owner of Jean Coutu, and employees are requesting a continuation of the “COVID bonus,” demanding that Jean Coutu warehouse salaries be adjusted to the same level as those at other Metro warehouses.
These demands have been rejected as unreasonable by management. However, based on their most recent quarterly reporting, both Metro and its new subsidiary Jean Coutu Group have seen an increase in profits despite the pandemic.
On June 14, warehouse workers gave their union a strike mandate. They did not act on it until Sept. 23, when — to avoid unduly affecting the drug supply to pharmacies in the middle of a health crisis — essential workers walked off the job for 24 hours.
The next morning, employees returning to work ran into security guards, who informed them that management had declared a lockout.
That same day, Jean Coutu obtained an injunction limiting the number of people allowed in the picket lines at the warehouse, forcing them to maintain a minimum distance of 10 metres from any entries and exits. The ordinance also required that workers “allow open access to [Jean Coutu] property to anyone at any time” and even avoid “attempting to interfere with the normal activities of [Jean Coutu].”
This injunction rendered the picketing ineffective, since it prevented locked-out workers from interfering with the company’s operations at the site, allowing the company to continue generating profit.
On Oct. 14, the employer’s side left the negotiating table. Warehouse employees decided to switch tactics, protesting in front of several Jean Coutu locations in Montreal on Oct. 18.
It was only after inspectors from the tribunal administratif du travail visited the site on Oct. 27 that higher-ups decided to restart negotiations on Oct. 30, explained a source with the CSN. Metro also posted a job offer for “warehouse clerks” in Varennes. The company has no other warehouses in the area besides the Jean Coutu distribution centre. The listed hourly rate is the same as the warehouse’s lowest wage.
The CSN claims that supply to pharmacies has been severely affected by the lockout, which Metro strongly denies. However, images of empty displays in multiple Jean Coutu pharmacies have been shared with Ricochet by the CSN.
A brief history of the scab
Labour struggles in the 1960s and ’70s often turned violent in Quebec. Employers would send thugs to break sit-ins, allowing scabs to keep their factories running.
In 1977, one week after eight union members were injured by security guards from the Robin Hood Multifood Company — who were using scabs in the middle of a lockout — that the Lévesque government passed the first “anti-scab law” in North America. In Quebec it is illegal for employers to hire strikebreakers during a strike or lockout. Only administrative staff may perform the duties of their unionized subordinates during a work stoppage.
The use of strikebreakers, or scabs, is considered an unfair tactic because it allows the employer to save on payroll, increasing their profit margin during a labour dispute. In Quebec, with a unionization rate approaching 40 per cent, breaking a picket line is seen as immoral.
Contacted via telephone, Marie-Claude Bacon, a public relations official for Metro, denied all of these allegations, insisting that their “contingency plan complies with labour laws” and that “all the personnel working at the warehouse are administrative staff.”
Bacon declined to comment on the tribunal investigation prior to the submission of their report. She could not explain why the distribution centre in Varennes is continuing to hire during a lockout, in seeming contravention of provincial labour law.
The CSN held a demonstration “in solidarity with locked-out workers” on Nov. 9.