Quebec’s premier says his government won’t be intimidated by powerful construction unions while it works to change the labour laws on job sites in the province.
Jean Charest’s comments came amid news Friday that a related initiative several years ago prompted intimidation against the labour minister at the time and required increased security for him.
Mr. Charest said he will proceed with reforms that will limit a union’s right to decide which workers get access to job sites.
The legislation is just one of numerous changes in the wake of a scandal over Quebec’s notoriously corrupt construction industry.
The government, meanwhile, is currently weighing whether to finally relent to public pressure and call an inquiry into allegations of corruption and collusion in the industry.
The dominant construction union — FTQ-Construction — has denounced the most recent reform and hinted at possible disruption on job sites.
Charest called that idea “unacceptable” and he urged the unions to accept democracy instead of trying to thwart it.
“The Quebec government will never let itself be intimidated,” he told reporters Friday during a trip to Spain.
“No, the government won’t back down. We prepared this plan with groups in the construction industry. We’ve been talking about this in Quebec for years.
“The time has come for us to make these changes. And the government is determined to make them because we believe in them.”
The union has launched an ad campaign against the government bill, claiming it takes away its ability to represent members.
FTQ-Construction president Arnold Guerin said Friday’s intimidation talk is a Liberal government tactic to turn attention away from calls for a public inquiry.
“I’m not saying there are no problems and that we shouldn’t sit down [to discuss them] but we can’t just scrap an entire system already in place,” Mr. Guerin said.
And Mr. Guerin said union members take exception to being portrayed as bullies and thugs.
“They’re making us out to be like we’re a bunch of big, bad guys. They’re trying to pass us off like that [by saying]we need to protect the minister,” said an exasperated Mr. Guerin, adding that he was against all forms of intimidation.
“Oh, come on.”
Another powerful union, the Confederation of National Trade Unions, supports the government bill. The head of the CNTU says he hopes other unions behave properly.
“We have the right to say we’re not in favour, we have the right to express it in the public arena, but we’re not allowed to intimidate on the workplace,” said Louis Roy.
“I hope that our comrades won’t intimidate people on the sites because they don’t have the same opinion of the bill.”
But one former labour minister said that taking on big unions has in the past caused security concerns.
Municipal Affairs Minister Laurent Lessard, who held the labour portfolio around 2005, admitted that he had been forced to deal with intimidation when he tried to investigate union tactics on construction sites.
Mr. Lessard recalled one parliamentary hearing where an FTQ union president showed up with a half-dozen large, menacing members, who stood with their arms crossed while the president delivered testimony denying there was intimidation on construction sites.
Mr. Lessard admitted that when things got heated during those hearings, Quebec provincial police added extra security.
A spokeswoman for current Labour Minister Lise Theriault says she has not requested additional security but says Quebec provincial police are keeping a close watch.
Mr. Lessard said he believes Ms. Theriault knows what to expect.
“I think when you change laws like this, you’re conscious that it has an impact on the business,” Mr. Lessard said.
“My colleague has been advised of this, she knows the consequences … [and] prudence is necessary.”