So-so-so, so much for union solidarity in Quebec

Attempts to reform the construction industry have exposed a deep rift between its unions

Fanny Levesque/Canadian Press/Le Soleil

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 200-plus-pound 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 the FTQ-Construction, the largest construction labour union federation in Quebec; his critics, and there are many, see him as a thuggish throwback who rules jealously and 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 the members of Jean Charest’s Liberal government, whose proposed law, Bill C-33, would remove the union movement’s power to dictate which union members get to work on which job site 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, goddamnit,” he spits. “Now they’re going to turn it all to shit.”

It isn’t only Gauthier seeing deep red. Across the province last month, construction workers staged wildcat strikes on some of the province’s largest sites—prompting dozens of allegations of assault and intimidation of those construction workers and politicians who dared not fall in line. In all, 150 job sites were shut down for one or two days, according to the province’s labour ministry.

One construction worker reported being assaulted by a union representative wearing steel-toed boots when he found out she would be testifying in front of the National Assembly about the plight of women in the industry. Construction on Trois-Rivières’s deep water port stopped after two unidentified union representatives burst onto the site and shut off a generator providing oxygen to divers working underwater. According to a source close to the investigation, the union members were from the FTQ-Construction and the Conseil provincial (International), the province’s two largest construction unions.

In yet another episode, of which Maclean’s learned last week, a worker with the CSN-Construction in Quebec’s Montéregie region was beaten with baseball bats when he refused to leave a roadwork site on October 25. The man, who has since lodged a complaint, had two teeth broken, among other injuries to his head and body.

Then there’s Quebec labour minister Lise Thériault, who beefed up her security after a caller left threatening phone messages at her Montreal constituency office. “I’m going to break your legs, you goddamn bitch,” the message said. The person identified themselves as none other than Bernard Gauthier, who told Maclean’s that he’d heard the tape after police contacted him. Gauthier, who denied leaving the message, says he was surprised to find out the threats were real. “I heard she received threats, but I doubted it,” he said. “I figured she was trying to make herself look good.” The Sûreté du Québec have launched an investigation into the threats, and wouldn’t comment on Gauthier’s claims.

Bill C-33, the proposed law that would take the power to place workers out of union hands, hasn’t only prompted unauthorized strikes and a mountain of complaints. It has also revealed a long-held but little-known rift between the province’s construction unions. Quite simply, when it comes to who gets to build what in Quebec, the province’s union movement isn’t a picture of solidarity. Just the opposite, in fact.

There are five construction unions in the province, and it is of no coincidence that the two largest were the ones behind last week’s wildcat strikes—just as it is no coincidence that the three other unions staunchly opposed them. According to several sources, the wildcat strikes were part of ad hoc pressure tactics launched by FTQ-Construction and International, which together represent roughly 63 per cent of the province’s construction workers. Tellingly, FTQ-Construction and International management never denounced the strikes.

Meanwhile, the three remaining construction union federations partially or wholeheartedly support Bill C-33’s sweeping changes to the construction industry. ‘The changes proposed [in Bill C-33] will contribute to the elimination and exclusion experienced by workers in the industry,” reads a recent CSN missive. The other two labour union federations, CSD-Construction and SQC, have expressed reservations about the bill, but endorsed its goal of clamping down on strong-arm tactics in the industry.

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. Observers say it has remained a staple in the industry mostly because of Quebec’s unique union structure: it is one of the few places in North America where smaller construction trade unions are members of larger union federations like the FTQ, the CSN and the SQC. In other words, both the FTQ and the CSN represent their own electricians, their own carpenters, and their own heavy machinery operators, who compete with their rival union for work contracts.

The law as it stands effectively turns unions into job placement agencies who try to place their own members on job sites—often at the expense of other unions. In Quebec’s construction industry, dominated now as in the 1970s by large, government funded projects, particularly in the province’s north, the bigger and more established the union, the more chance it has of getting work for its members.

And the biggest in the land, by far, is the FTQ-Construction—something of which Bernard Gauthier is distinctly aware. Far from laying the blame at the FTQ-Construction’s feet, though, he says rival union federations, the CSN especially, are purposely targeting him to sully the FTQ’s name and gain a foothold on Quebec’s North Shore. “A union lives and dies by its membership. If you don’t have membership, then you don’t have enough money to open regional offices, you don’t have enough money for regional reps, so you end up basically on the verge of disappearing,” Gauthier says. ‘That’s why things are so crazy around here.”

The FTQ-Construction represents roughly 80 per cent of unionized construction workers on Quebec’s North Shore. Having the lion’s share of the workers is a reflection on the FTQ-Construction’s reputation for dilligence amongst its workers, Gauthier says, and has allowed him to attract the best heavy machinery workers to his own FTQ-Construction Local 791. It has also allowed him to enter into unique relationships with area contractors, including those working on Hydro-Québec’s enormous Romaine River dam site near the lower North Shore town of Havre St Pierre.

“We guarantee our work,” Gauthier says. “That forced businesses to work with us without actually forcing them, you understand? We wanted to make ourselves indispensible, a necessary evil. If you’re a contractor, I go to him and say, ‘Look, you don’t have to like me, but I have a system that will probably help your company. You tell me what you need. We know our members by their first names, what they can do and what they can’t do. So you tell me what you need, I check my lists and call you back.’ When the contractor makes a submission it’s easy for him to calculate his costs.

“He knows he’ll have a base productivity. You can have all sorts of problems with other workers. They might not be able to do the job. You might get a guy who has a heart condition, or who doesn’t come in on time. That’s what we tell the contractors, ‘If you work with us, you won’t have any problems, my friend. If you see that I don’t deliver the goods, I get out of there.’ It’s worked like hell.”

Though he says he’s placed CSN workers in the past, Gauthier himself 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 can be heard threatening a foreman from a rival union. “You’re going to close your goddamn mouth before I get there,” Gauthier says. “I’m trying to tell you in the most polite way possible. Until I come meet you, you better keep your goddamn mouth shut.”

The man they call Rambo then 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 two weeks after Enquête’s broadcast. Surrounded by dozens union members, Gauthier tackled the issue of his reputation. “If I project that kind of image, I’ll work on it, I promise,” he said. 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. ‘The members of FTQ-Construction on the North Shore could give lessons to their bosses in Montreal,” wrote La Presse columnist Nathalie Collard, deeming Gauthier’s performance “structured, clear and authentic.”

Gauthier is currently being investigated by the province’s labour relations board for having allegedly systematically barred CSN-Construction member Harold Richard from various construction sites simply because of Richard’s union affiliation. “I’ve been fighting the FTQ-Construction for 20 years,” Richard told Maclean’s. In the most recent case, Richard says Gauthier forced Equipements 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. The FTQ-Construction controls everything.”

The FTQ-Construction’s ubiquity (and, critics charge, its tactics) go well beyond the huge, barren northeastern coast of Quebec. In 2005, Montreal-based refiner Ultramar began work on a 243-km pipeline between Montreal and the Quebec City suburb of Lévis. A conglomerate of two Quebec City-based companies, Neilson and EBC, won the contract to build the project, worth an estimated $370 million. The pipeline runs through the Montérégie region on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, which according to CSN-Construction president Aldo Paolinelli is a stronghold of CSN-Construction membership. Despite this, Paolinelli says his union has only been able to place a handful of its members on site. “We have 13 workers out of 300 in total. Everyone else from the CSN that was on the list was rejected.”

Neilson representatives didn’t respond to numerous interview requests. “We are not interested in talking to you,” a Neilson employee told Maclean’s before hanging up.

In Montreal, meanwhile, the FTQ-Construction’s remarkable ability to find work for 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 how the union would often designate more manpower to a job than was 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. It was a common practice, said the supervisor. ‘The FTQ collects all the government building and pension funds,” he said. “It’s a great racket.”

Bernard ‘Rambo’ Gauthier, though, says he doesn’t have a problem with other unions on his turf. He’s even placed CSN workers in the past; he just wishes there was enough work for everyone to be happy. “There are too many unions,” he says. “Find me an industry other than construction that has two or three unions. The mines, the aluminum industry, the hospitals all have one union each. And everyone makes money. Why do we have five ?”

As for his nail-tough ways, he says new law or no new law, that’s just the way it is and will always be in Quebec’s construction industry. And despite what he might have said at a certain press conference a year ago, he doesn’t plan on changing. “I’m not running a hair salon, you get it? That’s my personality. It’s too bad, because I’m not going to change. I’m not going to walk around in a suit and tie. 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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