Written by Travis Fast and Martin Dumas, Laval University
On Thursday morning the 19th of March 2020 the Canadian press was buzzing with news that the government of Quebec had suspended collective agreements in the public education sector. In its online edition, CTV Montreal ran the story COVID-19: Quebec teachers in shock after government suspends collective agreements. As reported in the story, the president of the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) said that, “they were told their entire collective agreements no longer apply when there are certain provisions in place, such as emergency measures.”
Although the story and the information was misleading in some respects, it nonetheless raises a couple of pertinent questions and concerns. In this short blog post we will address each aspect in turn.
The misleading aspects of the story
The first point to make clear is that s. 118 and 123 of the Public Health Act give the government a broad range of powers once a public health emergency has been declared including the general power to “order any other measure necessary to protect the health of the population.”
However, as required and published in the Gazette Officielle, the government made very clear that it was not suspending collective agreements but rather making specific, albeit important, amendments to “collective and other agreements… between school boards, on the one hand, and all unions, on the other hand.” Three specific aspects of these agreements were subject to ad hoc amendment: (1) the assignment and classification of personnel; (2) work scheduling; and (3) “compensation that is additional to the remuneration or compensation paid for normal work hours.”
As important as these three aspects of collective agreements are, they do not exhaust collective agreements and thus cannot fairly be said to be tantamount to suspending collective agreements in the public education sector. Perhaps also noteworthy is that the amendments were made specifically to agreements covering public sector workers in the education sector and not to all public sector workers.
Pertinent questions and concerns
To our minds, one pertinent question this issue raises is why did the government chose the kludge of dictating rather than negotiating or at the very least consulting with the respective unions? To be sure, emergency situations may alter the modalities of the duty to bargain in good faith. But does the current situation, in which teacher’s unions show signs of collaboration with state authorities, really support the failure to comply with such a fundamental duty?
A second pertinent question is why did the government think it necessary to provide themselves the power to abrogate compensation requirements above normal work hour levels? These are questions that should be addressed by the government and are examples of prematurely ignored subjects of negotiations.
Outside of these two general questions, the amendments raise some important concerns as to potential abuses of these ad hoc powers. Abuse of power is a real concern as some formulations are rather vague, as in “to allow the employer to meet needs.” And authorities will also have to interpret the text sensibly: if “Personnel members may therefore be assigned to tasks under another job title”, such a transition will necessarily have to take the competence of the people assigned into consideration.
Travis Fast & Martin Dumas, “COVID-19 and Public Education Collective Agreements in Quebec” Canadian Law of Work Forum (March 20 2020): https://lawofwork.ca/covid-19-and-public-education-collective-agreements-in-quebec/
 S-2.2, Public Health Act, s.123.