Activity at thousands of construction sites across Quebec was paralyzed after unionized workers walked off the job, threatening to blunt the province's economic growth this year if the labour conflict drags on.
A union alliance representing some 175,000 workers failed to reach a deal with employers on new labour agreements by a deadline of midnight Tuesday. Workers launched an unlimited general strike at 5 a.m. Wednesday.
"A strike was the only choice left for us," Michel Trépanier, a spokesman for the alliance representing five different unions, said in a statement. "Employers are asking us to sacrifice time with our families to be available for work. There are limits and they've been reached."
Construction represents roughly 12 per cent of Quebec's gross domestic product and each day lost will cost the economy $45-million, the provincial government estimates. It pledged to enact back-to-work legislation if the parties fail to come to a settlement quickly.
Montreal is among Canada's most active cities at the moment for new construction, with several multibillion-dollar projects under way. They include the new Centre hospitalier de l'université de Montréal superhospital, the Champlain bridge project led by SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. and the Turcot interchange, a key hub for road traffic in the city.
Hammers and drills fell silent at all three of those work sites on Wednesday. Scores of other sites were also affected, including Ivanhoé Cambridge's $220-million Manulife tower in Montreal and Hydro Quebec's $6.5-billion La Romaine power generation project near Havre Saint-Pierre.
Cement maker LafargeHolcim Ltd. said the vast majority of job sites it is currently supplying in Quebec are idle and delivery of concrete and aggregates to those places has been cancelled. The company will be forced to lay off workers temporarily if the strike continues, company spokeswoman Karine Cousineau said.
"We're watching this very closely," Premier Philippe Couillard told reporters in Israel, adding that he preferred the parties reach negotiated settlements without government interference and will give them more time to do so. Still, he warned the government will not hesitate to act if there is no resolution.
"It's necessary for me to send that signal early because it's Quebec's economy that's in play," Mr. Couillard said, alluding to the province's 1.7-per-cent growth forecast for 2017. He declined to give a precise timeline for an intervention.
Dominique Vien, Quebec's Labour Minister, met with parties in the conflict Wednesday afternoon where she asked them to provide a negotiation schedule. She said some construction sectors appeared close to concluding agreements and urged them to do so. A deal touching residential construction appeared closest to being signed.
Business groups urged a quick end to the conflict.
"The adage that says 'when the construction industry is doing well, everything is doing well' is also inversely true – a labour conflict has a major and direct impact on all economic sectors," Stéphane Forget, head of the Fédération des chambres de commerce du Québec, said in a statement.
This is the second time in four years that Quebec has seen a full-blown strike in the construction industry. The last 10-day work stoppage in June, 2013, shaved 1.1 per cent off the province's economic output that month, a cost of about $333-million, according to the Institut de la statistique du Québec.
The main issues in the negotiations are work schedules, overtime and pay.
The Association de la construction du Québec (ACQ) represents more than 17,000 companies and acts as the main negotiator for construction employers in the province. In a document on its website outlining the issues in dispute, it notes that industry activity has been in constant decline since 2012 in terms of hours worked. It says that while it doesn't want to roll back employee salaries, it is seeking more flexibility on work hours and other productivity gains.