Quebec construction workers on strike after negotiations break down

MONTREAL – The sounds of hammering, drilling and digging at Quebec’s bustling construction sites were replaced by chants and waving picket signs as workers walked off the job Monday in a general strike.

Among the sites paralyzed by the walkout that began at midnight is the construction of Montreal’s superhospitals, which are among the biggest construction projects in Canada.

One of those hospitals is mired in corruption scandals that have rocked Quebec’s industry. Now the industry has more than just arrests and anti-corruption measures to slow it down.

About 175,000 workers in the residential, industrial and commercial sector laid down their tools Monday for the strike after negotiations broke off on the weekend with the builders’ alliance. Civil engineering and road work is also affected.

Labour Minister Agnes Maltais warned the companies and the workers that they will bear the responsibility for economic consequences.

She ruled out bringing in any special back-to-work legislation.

“This will be settled by negotiation,” Maltais said in Limoilou.

She said the government doesn’t decide conditions for the private sector and that she made that point to both sides in a call on Sunday.

“I called both the management side and the union side to tell them, ‘Listen carefully — don’t wait for the government to solve your problems. It’s your responsibility.'”

She said government concilliators will continue to work on the conflict.

Maltais did not know how much the strike would affect costs on government-funded projects, saying that would depend on the length of the strike.

Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume estimated the city’s new arena project would lose $200,000 per day if no work is being done.

“If (the strike) lasts until Friday, that will be $1 million we’ll no longer have and the site will face delays at the same time,” he said.

Labeaume said, from his point of view, he “would not hestitate” to legislate an end to the strike.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business noted the construction industry accounts for about 15 per cent of the gross domestic product and $51 billion in investment.

“We should remember that this industry is composed mainly of small businesses,” said Martine Hebert, the federation’s vice-president. “Indeed, 82 per cent of enterprises have five or fewer employees.

“Every day lost on sites therefore has significant financial impact, not only on the economy but also thousands of small entrepreneurs. Ultimately, nobody wins.”

Sticking points in the dispute are wages and working conditions.

Workers insist a main problem for them was a demand by the Quebec construction association to change the amount of overtime pay employees would get for extra hours worked, reducing it from double time to time-and-a-half.

The union has also said it was being asked to agree to a 14-hour day and six-day work week at regular wages although the construction association says it never made such demands.

The union insisted Sunday it had little choice but to go on strike.

“The offers we have received from them show a complete lack of respect for workers, they don’t reflect the quality of our industry, the quality of our workers,” Yves Ouellet, a union spokesman, told a news conference. “We find this dishonest.”

The strike follows accusations from both the construction union and the builders’ associations of bargaining in bad faith.

Lyne Marcoux, the chief negotiator for the provincial construction association, said Saturday that the union was negotiating through the media and intended to send workers into the streets.

Eric Cherbaka, director general of Quebec’s residential homebuilders’ association, also criticized the union’s attitude.

“The union alliance leaves the table and once again prefers to use pressure tactics at the expense of negotiating,” he said in a statement Saturday after talks broke down.

The construction association repeated its criticisms as it reacted to the strike announcement on Sunday. It insisted in a statement that it had continually showed respect during bargaining and had attempted to improve working conditions.

Ouellet called on workers Sunday to reject calls by employers to show up for work regardless and asked construction crews to respect Quebec’s first construction strike since the 1980s.

He said it is an exercise of their rights.

He denied suggestions the unions had been greedy in the face of concessions requested to boost productivity and because of tough economic times.

“The Quebec construction workers are among the best in the world, the most productive in the world,” Ouellet said. “There’s no question of cutting acquired rights.”

The union spokesman said it’s a question of paying people what they’re worth. The unions had already made concessions and the offer from builders asked for more, he insisted.

“The strike will be a blow but why should everything be put on the backs of the workers?”

He said monetary offers had been for a one-per-cent increase with no retroactive pay. The union is seeking a three-per-cent increase in the first year and 2.75 per cent in the next two years of the contract.

(With files from Alexandre Robillard in Quebec City)