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Union workers protest over a provincial proposal to overhaul pension plans at the legislature in Quebec City on Wednesday, August 20, 2014.Clement Allard/The Canadian Press

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said he would "never give in to thugs" as the province's political leaders appeared ready to take on restive public-employee unions over Quebec's controversial pension-reform plans.

Hearings into the Liberal government's pension legislation opened in Quebec City against a backdrop of heightened security and noisy street protests by municipal workers furious about the bill.

As employees protested outside, Mr. Coderre and the mayor of Quebec City, Régis Labeaume, both outspoken proponents of the pension changes, said taxpayers couldn't keep sustaining the current pension regime.

"The status quo is no longer an option," Mr. Coderre said. "We're now confronted with a financial reality we can no longer ignore."

Pension costs in Montreal have more than quadrupled since 2002 and now eat up 12 per cent of the municipal budget, the mayor said. Mr. Coderre said he was open to compromise with the unions but wouldn't countenance the rowdy spectacle that unfurled at City Hall Monday night, when protesting firefighters and other municipal employees surged into the historic building and littered it with papers and other debris.

"The last few weeks have been hectic and even emotional for many people," Mr. Coderre said. "But now, time has come to work together."

The pension legislation, Bill 3, seeks to have municipal employees in Quebec assume a larger share of their pensions by requiring workers and cities to split the cost of covering their plans' $4-billion deficit.

The proposal has morphed into the first major test for Premier Philippe Couillard, who has made belt-tightening a byword of his four-month-old government. He has vowed to stand firm on pension reform.

As expected, unions are up in arms over the proposals. Serge Cadieux, secretary-general of the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec, told the hearings Wednesday the bill was inequitable, set a bad precedent and was probably unconstitutional.

City unions in Montreal have never shied from a forceful fight with their bosses. Blue-collar workers have a track record of militancy: A former, high-profile union leader, Jean Lapierre, appeared at a demonstration in Montreal on Wednesday to announce that protest actions would get more "radical" and this was "only the beginning of hostilities." Police officers in camouflage pants and fire trucks plastered with stickers have become routine in labor conflicts.

But it's unclear whether the public will side with the unions this time. Several observers say Monday's vandalism at City Hall may have cost the unions some public sympathy; police officers were seen on site standing by without reining in the rowdy demonstrators.

The head of Montreal's police union, Yves Francoeur, defended his members on Wednesday, saying they never got the green light from senior officers to step in and carry out crowd control. Even after the boisterous mob had entered City Hall, police sought the go-ahead from their superiors to do their job, Mr. Francoeur said. But the rank-and-file officers were told no, because city hall had not requested police intervention. Mr. Francoeur referred to the incident as a "comedy of errors."

Hearings into Bill 3 continue on Thursday.