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Vol. 78/No. 12      March 31, 2014

Quebec gov’t probe targets
construction workers’ unions
MONTREAL — Over the past six months, a three-year-running government corruption probe has targeted the Quebec Federation of Labor (FTQ) and the affiliated FTQ-Construction union with slanders of links to organized crime, thug violence and the illegal drug trade.

The Commission of Inquiry on the Awarding and Management of Public Contracts in the Construction Industry was set up by the Quebec provincial government in October 2011 with the stated aim of investigating corruption in the awarding of government construction contracts. Chaired by Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau, the commission is commonly referred to as the Charbonneau Commission.

The Quebec Federation of Labor is the largest union federation in Quebec, with 600,000 members. FTQ-Construction represents 70,000 workers, including thousands of construction workers in the industrial, commercial and institutional sector.

The probe by the commission into the internal affairs of the FTQ follows years of police wiretapping labor officials’ phone calls — none of which have led to criminal charges — and attacks by successive governments to weaken the union.

Quebec had been the last jurisdiction in North America where bosses on all major construction sites were required to hire only union labor. But in September 2013, anti-union legislation went into effect eliminating “union placement” of workers on construction sites, a gain won in labor battles of earlier decades. This protection gave the union more power to enforce contract terms on working conditions, wages and job safety. The bosses now hire through the Quebec Construction Commission, a government agency.

The Parti Quebecois government gave the Charbonneau Commission an extended mandate to submit its final report by April 2015. So far the commission’s findings — based on three years of testimony from politicians, government functionaries and construction bosses — have resulted in the resignation of Montreal mayors Gerald Tremblay and Michael Applebaum and Laval Mayor Gilles Vaillancourt. Applebaum was arrested last June and charged with fraud, conspiracy and corruption over real estate transactions.

Since the fall of 2013, six former and current union officials have been subpoenaed to face televised interrogations.

During the testimony of former FTQ President Michel Arsenault in February, the commission played police wiretap tapes of personal phone calls from 2009 in which he commented favorably on a vacation he had taken on the yacht of a construction magnate whom the police allege may be connected with the mafia. Arsenault resigned as FTQ president last November after witnesses testified that he knew of links between some union leaders and illicit business ventures, but did nothing about it.

On Feb. 25, Bernard Gauthier, representative of Heavy Machine Operators Local 791, an affiliate of the FTQ that represents some 600 workers in northern Quebec, was hauled before the commission. He explained his efforts to ensure bosses hired union members and adhered to contract terms. Charbonneau and commission lawyers sought to paint Gauthier as a thug, responsible for assaults on other workers and bosses. Charbonneau condemned Gauthier’s refusal to accept the government’s abolition of union placement and campaign against “aggressive unionism.”

Gauthier was greeted by 60 construction workers at the airport upon his return to northern Quebec following the two-day televised testimony.

In mid-February contract negotiations began between union officials and the Quebec Construction Association, which represents construction bosses in Quebec. Last July, the provincial government used anti-union legislation to force the 77,000 strikers back to work after a week-and-a-half-long strike that paralyzed major construction projects across the province. At the outset, the strike involved 175,000 workers and included workers in the residential and civil engineering sectors. But workers in those sectors reached contract agreements before the government’s back-to-work decree, which banned the industrial sector from striking for a year.

If no agreement is reached on the main issues, including Saturday double-time pay, work hours, wages and the hiring of local workers, the industrial sector workers can legally strike after June 30.

In the context of a snap April 7 election called by the provincial government, the FTQ leadership is calling on its members to support any candidate that backs the union’s platform, which includes repeal of the 2013 legislation that eliminated union placement and put hiring in the hands of a government agency.
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