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By Marty Logan

MONTREAL, Aug. 20 (IPS) -- The owner of a McDonald's restaurant near Montreal, Canada, is challenging its workers' union to prove it still has the support of the majority of employees. Union leaders concede they probably cannot.

Under laws in the province of Quebec, employers can ask the labor ministry at least 60 days before a contract expires to verify if the majority of workers still support the union. If not, the union loses its certification.

That looks about to happen at the McDonald's in Rawdon, an hour's drive north of Montreal, where a first contract imposed a year ago makes the restaurant the only unionized McDonald's in North America.

Although the tactic in this case is different, it is another case of the fast-food giant in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada, ridding itself of unions.

"We knew that McDonald's would do this. We tried to convince the young people to join us, but we lost because McDonald's is not a place where they go to earn a living," says Roger Valois, vice president of the Federation of National Unions.

Employees "weren't ready to fight for a union because they knew it could hurt their chances with future employers, who would see them as potential union leaders," he adds.

In a statement, the owner said he was "respecting the wishes of his employees" by asking for the verification.

In their contract, Rawdon's 25 employees are guaranteed wages of $4.50 an hour -- the minimum salary established by the government -- plus work breaks, meal allowances and leaves.

They organized following two high-profile cases in this French-speaking province, where owners shut their restaurants after workers voted to join a union.

In 1998, the owner of the St-Hubert McDonald's, south of Montreal, closed his restaurant instead of accepting a union after 51 of 62 employees there signed union cards.

Three years later, a downtown Montreal operation closed its doors after the owner failed to counter a union bid, despite hiring two dozen employees in one day to try to outnumber union supporters.

The outcome in Rawdon is not surprising, says a journalist who has written about the restaurant's treatment of unions.

"McDonald's will sometimes distance itself from the tactics of individual shop or franchise owners, but they're most likely lying: These challenges to certification often require teams of very high-priced lawyers that a small business owner couldn't afford, and the tactics are too standardized to be coincidental," says Liza Featherstone.

"Decertification -- based on every legal technicality McDonald's can possibly invent -- has been used by McDonald's owners in St. Hubert, Quebec, Squamish, British Columbia (on Canada's west coast) and elsewhere," she adds.

Valois says the Ministry of Labor will announce the results of its survey of Rawdon employees within a couple of weeks, but he has always been "pessimistic" about the union surviving at the restaurant.

"When we saw that the McDonald's at Rawdon was willing to negotiate, we said 'Oh-oh, something is wrong here', because normally, McDonald's does not negotiate."

The owner was simply biding his time until he could legally challenge the union, adds the vice president. During that year, he took advantage of the usual high turnover at other fast-food restaurants to recruit employees unlikely to join the union.

"They use industrial psychologists, who employ skillful questions," he adds, "and can easily detect if the applicants are the sort of people who would join together to defend their interests."

Thirteen workers have been replaced in the past five months, Valois says.

Quebec is the most organized of Canada's 13 provinces and territories: 40 percent of workers belong to unions, compared to a national average of 32 percent, according to Statistics Canada. The province is also said to have some of the farthest-reaching workforce regulations on the continent.

But Valois says current laws make it difficult for unions to sign up workers at fast-food restaurants, although employees at other McDonald's have approached the Federation of National Unions to represent them.

"We don't have the labor laws in Quebec that permit young people working in the fast food industry to unionize. The government does not support it," he says.

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