Quebec battles unions as builder scandal spirals

Wed Nov 2, 2011 11:36am EDT
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By Julie Gordon

MONTREAL (Reuters) - A government push to rein in the power of building trades unions in Quebec threatens to hamper infrastructure development and impede efforts to tempt investors to the French-speaking province.

Major work sites across Quebec were shut down for two days last week as unionized construction workers staged wildcat strikes over legislation proposed by the provincial government to set up an agency to assign workers to jobs.

In Quebec, construction unions currently have the power to handle which members, and how many, work on major projects.

The strikes were a new black mark against a sector weighed down by corruption, an inept bureaucracy and strong unions, with a dash of mob influence tossed in.

That combination adds up to spiraling bills for public works projects, with cost overruns on major projects of C$347 million ($343 million) in 2010, according to a report by the province's anti-corruption task force.

"In Quebec, construction is the only industry where the owner of a company puts in the investment, signs the check, but doesn't have the right to hire his own people," said Gisele Belanger, a spokeswoman for the Association de la construction du Quebec, which represents about 15,000 contractors.

The proposed changes are tame compared with anti-union legislation in parts of the United States, but they have stirred up a firestorm in Quebec, which has traditionally been one of the most progressive jurisdictions in North America.

It is the only province that requires construction workers to be part of a union and it is the only place in Canada where unions control worker placement.   Continued...

<p>A worker stands at the entrance of the worksite for Montreal's new McGill University "super hospital", which will be Canada largest hospital, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, October 28, 2011. REUTERS/Julie Gordon</p>