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construction

Minister of Labour Lise Theriault at the National Assembly, April 6, 2011.Clement Allard/The Canadian Press

A task force examining Quebec's troubled construction industry proposes what it calls a "revolution" in that sector of the economy by substantially reducing the power of unions on work sites.

Labour Minister Lise Thériault responded to the release of the task force's report by saying its recommendations will be included in coming provincial legislation that will represent a "new era in labour relations."

"I will table a bill that endorses in its entirety the recommendations in the report," Ms. Thériault said in a news conference on Monday. The bill will be tabled this fall in the National Assembly.

Without being named specifically, construction unions affiliated with the Quebec Federation of Labour were clearly being targeted by the report, aimed at breaking the monopoly QFL unions exercise in the hiring of workers for many of the province's major construction projects.

QFL-Construction, an umbrella organization of 17 trade unions, has more than 72,000 members and makes up 44 per cent of the total number of unionized construction workers in the province. The organization has been part of a controversy plaguing the construction industry in recent months. News reports suggesting that former union executive members had ties to criminal organizations and that union funds may have been misappropriated have seriously undermined the labour group's credibility.

The most important of the 57 recommendations by the task force would abolish the right of labour organizations to determine which workers and how many would be hired for specific jobs on a construction project. Employers often abdicate their right to hire who they want for fear of creating costly and time consuming confrontations with unions on their work site.

"The hiring of the work force by unions and the abuses that it created must be prohibited," the report stated. "Workers must again find the freedom of choice of their employer and entrepreneurs the ability to fully exercise their right to manage."

One of the members of the task force, Michel Gauthier, a former director-general of a rival construction union affiliated with the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, stated bluntly that "we are proposing a revolution" in the industry. And he said that the time has come "to put an end to the discrimination and intimidation practices" on construction sites.

Other recommendations would give more powers to the government body known as the Commission de la Construction du Québec ( CCQ) in overseeing the recruitment of workers. For instance, labour organizations would be licensed to act as referral agencies for various construction jobs. If the unions refuse to comply with strict rules that bar them from using intimidation tactics against employers in order to get their members hired, they would face severe sanctions, including losing their licence to refer workers.

The CCQ currently holds the authority to refer workers for various construction projects but rarely exercises it, leaving it up to unions to deliver the work force. "If the CCQ doesn't control the referral system, then it will become obsolete," Mr. Gauthier warned.

None of the trade organizations affiliated with QFL-Construction were represented on the task force. Yves Ouellet, executive-director of QFL-Construction, said the report was an attack on his union and an attempt to give employers more powers over who gets hired.

"This is totally unnecessary," Mr. Ouellet said in an interview. "Union hiring represents only 15 per cent of all construction jobs. … The government is acting too quickly. It's all smoke and mirrors. They attack us to avoid holding a full public inquiry into the corruption and collusion in the awarding of government construction contracts."

Business leaders are crossing their fingers that this time the government will have the courage to go through with the proposed changes. The Cliche report on violence in the construction industry in 1975, and another report in 2005 involving the millions of dollars in public funds wasted on the failed bid to modernize the Gaspésia paper mill, also recommended putting an end to union hiring practices in the industry.

"The time has finally come to put an end to union hiring on construction sites," said Jean Pouliot, head of the Quebec Construction Association. "Our members want to fully exercise their right to manage their projects."

The province's influential employers groups, the Conseil du patronat, applauded the report but said that it didn't go far enough. It wanted the task force to also review compulsory union membership in the construction industry.