It’s a great racket

Threats, violence and a union boss named Rambo. Just another week at a Quebec construction union.

It’s a great racket

Mario Beauregard/CP

By appearances alone, Bernard Gauthier makes for a great villain. His nickname is Rambo, and though he came by it honestly enough—he served eight years in the Canadian military—it is fitting for a 200-plus-lb. man with a mohawk, an earring and a mouth that would mightily challenge even the most adept broadcast censor. A construction worker practically since he could pick up a hammer, Gauthier is arguably the most notorious and divisive union figure in Quebec today. He is a hero to the men he oversees as a representative with FTQ-Construction, while his critics, and there are many, see him as a thuggish throwback who rules fist-first over his territory.

“We are against violence, but honestly, telling a goddamn bastard that he’s a goddamn bastard feels good,” Gauthier told Maclean’s from his office in Sept-Îles recently. “It’s liberating. It takes out 50 per cent of the rage in your heart. And now you can’t do it. If you do, you’re accused of intimidation, tabarnac.”

Gauthier sees many bastards in his life these days, chief among them Jean Charest’s Liberal government, whose proposed law, Bill C-33, would remove the union movement’s power to dictate which members get to work on which job sites in the province. The practice, known as “hiring hall,” has long been a hallmark of labour codes across North America and Europe, and the Quebec government’s plan to strip it away has Gauthier furious. “We had a nice industry that was quiet, that was flourishing. It was going well, goddammit,” he spits. “Now they’re going to turn it all to s–t.”

Gauthier’s industry hasn’t come across as particularly nice of late. Recent wildcat strikes at several large construction sites show how easily work can be waylaid on Quebec’s crumbling infrastructure. Flashes of violence during these strikes, meanwhile, hint at what might be in store as the government takes on a long-held—and powerful—status quo.

In recent weeks, one construction worker said she was assaulted by a union representative with steel-toed boots when he found out she would be testifying in front of Parliament about the plight of women in the industry. Construction on Trois-Rivière’s deepwater port stopped after two unidentified union representatives shut off a generator providing oxygen to divers working underwater. In yet another episode, of which Maclean’s learned this week, a worker with CSN-Construction in Quebec’s Montéregie region was beaten with baseball bats when he refused to leave a roadwork site on Oct. 25. The man, who has since lodged a complaint, had two teeth broken, among other injuries to his head and body. Even Quebec Labour Minister Lise Thériault became a target when a caller left threatening phone messages at her Montreal constituency office. “I’m going to break your legs, you goddamn bitch,” the caller, who identified himself as Bernard Gauthier, said. Gauthier told Maclean’s he heard the tape after police contacted him, but denied leaving the message.

Bill C-33, the proposed law that would take the power to place workers out of union hands, not only prompted unauthorized strikes in late October and a mountain of complaints, but it has also exposed a rift between the province’s construction unions. There are five in the province, and it is no coincidence the two largest, FTQ-Construction and International, which together represent roughly 63 per cent of the province’s construction workers, staged the wildcat strikes—just as it is no coincidence that the three other smaller unions were staunchly against them.

Bill C-33 seeks to address the violence, or the threat of violence, which has stubbornly endured in the industry since it was first publicized in the 1970s. In practical terms, the law, as it stands, effectively turns unions into job placement agencies that try to place their own members on job sites—often at the expense of other unions; the bigger the union, the better chance it has of getting work for its members. And the biggest in the land, by far, is FTQ-Construction. FTQ-Construction has roughly 80 per cent of the union membership on Quebec’s North Shore. Gauthier says this reflects FTQ-Construction’s reputation for diligence among its workers, which allows him to attract the best heavy machinery workers.

While Gauthier says he’s placed workers from smaller unions like CSN in the past, he hasn’t exactly been the model of inter-union fraternity. Last fall, the Radio-Canada program Enquête documented several examples of Gauthier’s management style. In one phone recording, Gauthier threatens a foreman from a rival union organization. “I’m trying to tell you in the most polite way possible. Until I come meet you, you better keep your goddamn mouth shut,” Gauthier says. Then the man they call Rambo refers to himself in the third person: “You’ll see when Rambo gives you one in the teeth, you won’t find that funny.”

Gauthier explained himself at a press conference he called two weeks after Enquête’s broadcast. “If I project that kind of image, I’ll work on it, I promise,” he said, while surrounded by dozens of his members. At once sombre, profane and outspoken, Gauthier’s sortie was a masterful bit of PR that managed to charm even the Montreal-centric media he often denounces.

Gauthier is currently in front of the province’s work relations board for having allegedly barred CSN-Construction member Harold Richard from various construction sites, simply because of Richard’s union affiliation. “I’ve been fighting FTQ-Construction for 20 years,” Richard told Maclean’s. In the most recent case, Harold says Gauthier forced Équipements Nordiques, one of the North Shore’s largest heavy equipment operators, to keep him from being employed on its construction sites. “Contractors buy the peace. If they don’t do what the union tells them, they get their equipment destroyed, or they don’t get the labour they need. FTQ-Construction controls everything.”

FTQ-Construction’s ubiquity (and, critics charge, its tactics) go well beyond the huge, barren North Shore coast of Quebec. In Montreal, FTQ-Construction’s keen ability to place its members has led to certain abuses on work sites in the city, according to a current FTQ- Construction member. The member, a supervisor who wished to remain anonymous, told Maclean’s the union often designates more manpower to a job than is needed. Those extra positions—he called them “phantom jobs”—were on the payroll but never on-site. On one particular renovation job in 2007, at Montreal’s Place Ville-Marie, owned by the real estate arm of Quebec’s government-run pension fund, the supervisor was overseeing a crew of six employees and two ghosts who never once haunted the job site. “The FTQ gets all the government building and pension funds,” he said. “It’s a great racket.”

For his part, Bernard “Rambo” Gauthier says the problem is the glut of construction unions. He says other industries, like mining and nursing, are better off because they have only one union representing the interests of workers. As for his nail-tough ways, he says that’s just the way it is and will always be in Quebec’s construction industry. “I’m not running a hair salon, you get it? I have my boots on, I’m a guy from the land. I represent men and women in construction, and I’m proud as hell. I don’t care what they think.”

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