When Ron Daoust's house in Quebec burned down last year, his neighbors offered time and money to help him build a new one.
Little did he know that officials would order them to stop and fine them $625 Canadian (US$420).
"They're after me for rebuilding my own house," says an angry Mr. Daoust. "I'd rather go to jail than pay the fine." He is now challenging laws that give power to Quebec's carpenters unions to impose fines on nonunion workers.
Daoust knows that power well: He's a union carpenter.
Daoust's plight began last February when fire spread fast in his home in Potton Township, just north of the Vermont border. Word of the fire also spread fast among some 1,600 people who live nearby.
A collection box was set up at the local Owl's Nest restaurant and at a nearby convenience store. Some high school students asked people for donations.
Next came a benefit at the Owl's Nest, when 40 people volunteered to help Daoust and his wife, Joann, build a new house. Some offered to baby-sit, others said they would help on construction.
Soon after work started last May, an inspector showed up. "His only job was to make sure people on the site are paying union dues and are registered carpenters," Daoust says. "And the two people working with me were volunteers."
The inspector, says Daoust, was probably alerted to the construction by an out-of-work union member who lives nearby.
"I explained about the fire and the volunteers, but he doesn't care. He says you can't have 'repetitive volunteerism.' How do you like that line? If they work more than a day or two on your place, they have to be members of your family," says Daoust.
Unmoved, the inspector issued tickets for illegal work. The two volunteers were each fined $250 for working illegally. Daoust was fined $375 for not reporting the illegal work and failing to deduct tax and unions dues.
A month later he received a letter from the Construction Commission informing him of his obligations to the union. Daoust was told that while he was allowed to work on his house, he could not do it "in whole or part," if he was paying salaries.
There was also a stipulation that he had to hire a registered contractor, who in turn could hire unionized workers.
"There are rules," says Jocelyne Roy, director of communications at the Construction Commission in Montreal.
"People working on construction sites have to have competency cards. They must have on-the-job experience, schooling, and have passed a written test," she says.
The commission maintains that competence is so important that it has been made a requirement for access to construction sites.
It employs 650 people to ensure that construction laws are enforced. It is financed by union members and sanctioned by government law. The infractions have the power of law, the same as a traffic ticket handed out by police.
Quebec has one of the highest unemployment rates in North America, 10.8 percent. Next door in Vermont, the rate is 3.6 percent. Economists say Quebec's high jobless rate is partly from restrictive work practices, such as the closed-shop construction unions.
Arguments for reform
"Quebec has the most rigid labor laws in North America," says Fazil Mihlar, senior policy analyst at the Fraser Institute, a free-market think tank in Vancouver. Mr. Mihlar has just finished a study on the economic effects of closed-shop unions.
"The closed-shop system in Quebec means less productivity, less profit, reduced capital spending, and, most important, more unemployment," says Mihlar, who points to the example of New Zealand, which he says had the same closed-shop system as Quebec's until 1991.
"Union members and politicians in Quebec worry that the end of the closed chop will mean fewer jobs and lower pay. But unemployment in New Zealand went from 11 percent in 1991 to 5 percent today and wages went up, not down," Mihlar says.
The union disagrees. "These laws go back to 1968 in Quebec," says Ms. Roy. "They are designed to protect jobs, not destroy them."
Roy says Quebec has agreements with other Canadian provinces and with US construction unions to allow qualified people to work in Quebec without too much red tape.
The reality for Daoust is infraction notices from the Quebec government and appointments to appear in court. For now, he plans to plead not guilty and see if he gets sentenced to jail.
He worries about a criminal record that would prevent him from crossing into the US. People living this close to Vermont head across the border almost on a daily basis, to buy gasoline, eggs, chicken, and milk, which even with an American dollar costing $1.45 Canadian, are still cheaper in the US.
"You have to wonder about what kind of a country we live in when you can't put a roof over your head. I mean who can afford to pay people $30 or $40 an hour?" asks Daoust.
By the way, they did finish the house, keeping an eye out for inspectors and working weekends.