The Quebec union organizer known as “Rambo” defended his reputation and that of his union on Tuesday amid accusations they were behind threats and thuggery on construction sites.
“I’m sorry, but I haven’t intimidated anybody,” Bernard Gauthier fired back after being challenged at the Charbonneau Commission about his practices.
Mr. Gauthier has been described at the inquiry as a controlling figure who went to great lengths to ensure workers on his Quebec North Shore turf had jobs.
Earlier, he told the inquiry he welcomed the chance to testify, convey his thoughts and restore his reputation.
“You’ll see over the next two days that we didn’t intimidate anybody,” he said.
Testimony at the Charbonneau inquiry, an examinations of corruption in construction contracts, has questioned tactics used by Mr. Gauthier, who is affiliated with the Quebec Federation of Labour’s construction wing.
“When I arrived, we wanted to change things,” said Mr. Gauthier, an operator of heavy machinery. “It’s perhaps hard to believe with my face because they’ve made me out to be an outlaw, but we wanted to change things and we’re still working on it.”
He suggested one way to reduce confrontations is by limiting the number of workers from elsewhere in the province allowed to work on the North Shore.
Mr. Gauthier repeatedly said his only interest was to ensure local workers were not left out in the cold. He told the inquiry that work is hard to find in the far-flung region, where major construction projects are scarce and jobs are cyclical. Collective agreements are strictly followed to ensure everyone gets work.
“Where we are, it’s quite bad, it’s ‘fly-in, fly-out,’ ” Mr. Gauthier said, explaining that workers and contractors come in from other parts of the province. “They come, they exploit us and then they leave.”
He said outsiders believe people on the North Shore are well off, but that is not true.
Company owners, inquiry investigators and industry regulators have told the inquiry Mr. Gauthier and his lieutenants used intimidation and violence to maintain control over sites.
They have testified that the price of projects in the region was 10- to 30-per-cent higher because contractors had to factor in how much union practices might cost.
An inquiry investigator who spoke to several dozen witnesses last year said Mr. Gauthier exerted tremendous influence: “Rambo was considered a God,” he said.
Mr. Gauthier disputed some of those allegations Tuesday.
On the issue of violence, Mr. Gauthier explained that when a company refused to hire locally, he would assemble a committee of unemployed workers to visit the site. He said he did not want violence, but admitted it was possible and that he sent security with the group.
“I’d tell them ‘no physical contact, no threats,’ but once they’d left (for the work site), I didn’t have control,” Mr. Gauthier said.
He blamed many of the intimidation allegations against him on a rival union that was jealous he was able to amass more members.
Before he arrived in 2003, bands of unemployed workers would roam looking for employment, with “fists and bats” being used to settle disputes over who worked. Mr. Gauthier said his goal was to make the union, which now represents about 600 members, respected.
He said he never forced contractors to go through him and never dictated how many people they hired. He had no issue with companies bringing in some of their own “key men.”
The practice of unions placing workers on sites no longer exists – a construction regulatory board now handles that responsibility.
Mr. Gauthier said he never took kickbacks, but that his predecessors may have.
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr. Gauthier said he came by his nickname because he would spy on security at one of his first jobs in the early 1990s at a Hydro-Quebec site and a few workers called him “Rambo.”
He said most people simply know him as Bernard or “Ti-Ben.”
The Canadian Press