The strange labour war at a Quebec chicken shack

Why a small, family-run Quebec restaurant shut down during a bitter fight with its union—for three years
A game of chicken
Photograph By Roger Lemoyne

For 1,211 days, Au Roi du Coq Rôti, a decades-old rotisserie chicken shack and veritable institution of downtown Sherbrooke, Que., was embroiled in a bitter labour dispute that broke records for longevity in the region. Grease didn’t boil in the deep fryers. Chicken didn’t sizzle on the flame. And its glass doors—tinted yellow since yellow-tinted windows were in fashion—were shuttered. At the heart of the matter: the restaurant’s decision to cut its delivery service.

Bolstered by the support of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), one of Quebec’s largest and most monied labour union federations, the 43 employees stood on one side of the battle. Managers Alain and Réjain Perreault, sons of the man who founded the restaurant in 1965, stared back from the other. For three long years.

The lockout officially began in July 2008, after the Perreault brothers and the union failed to renew their collective agreement, says Denis Beaudin, regional president of the CSN. With the restaurant closed but negotiations still proceeding, the Perreaults announced they would cancel the restaurant’s delivery service, deeply entrenching both sides in the dispute. More than two years later, a provincial mediator stepped in and, on Jan. 16, Au Roi du Coq Rôti finally reopened. Under the terms that ended the lockout, the Perreaults were able to cancel delivery service, cutting 22 employees. But it came at a steep price. They had to pay $145,000 in indemnities and $50,000 for lost pay. Wages are set to rise an average of 9.75 per cent between now and 2017. Perhaps most remarkably, the Perreaults, who declined to comment, also had to pay for interior renovations and upgrades after workers argued conditions were unsafe and unsanitary.

That’s a lot to deal with for a family-owned business with no sales since 2008. And without its delivery service, Au Roi Du Coq Rôti relies solely on takeouts (there’s nowhere to sit down and eat in the restaurant). “Before the lockout, they sold one million boxes of chicken per year,” says Beaudin. “Like this, I think it’s going to be difficult.”

If the restaurant shuts down, one might conclude that the workers shot themselves in the foot demanding wage hikes and renovations. It wouldn’t be the first time the workforce of a small Quebec operation helped scuttle its own business. Ben’s Restaurant, a famous delicatessen operated by the Kravitz family on Montreal’s Maisonneuve Boulevard for 98 years, closed down in 2006 because, as the family told the CBC, union demands were making it too hard to turn a profit. Other small workplaces, like a St. Hubert chicken restaurant in nearby Drummond county, have a history of long labour disputes with their employees. And in Longueuil, a Weston Bakeries plant with 150 workers packed it in after the company concluded that it couldn’t reach common ground with the union.

“The laws here in Quebec are different than in the rest of Canada, and that gives [unions] a little more leverage,” says Gabriel Granatstein, a labour lawyer for Norton Rose in Montreal. It’s easier to unionize in Quebec than in provinces like B.C., Alberta or Ontario. If a simple majority of employees sign cards saying they want to unionize, it happens automatically, says Granatstein. Elsewhere, workplaces need enough cards and an election. Quebec also has the highest percentage of unionized workers in the country—nearly 40 per cent. And it has “anti-scab” legislation, which prohibits employers from hiring new workers during lengthy strikes or lockouts.

Louis Fortin, a labour dispute negotiator and fellow at the Montreal Economic Institute, attributes the province’s propensity for drawn-out labour disputes to the “very strong financial footing” of unions like the CSN. “Their strike coffers are pretty full,” he says, making it more difficult to find compromise.

For his part, Beaudin doesn’t make any apologies for fighting for the workers at Au Roi du Coq Rôti. “Three-and-a-half years, thrown in the street—employees who make minimum wage or a little more,” he says. “Me, I admire those people.”