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Quebec's construction sector falls idle with mass walkout

Last Updated May 24, 2017 at 5:00 pm EDT

Construction workers form a picket line in front of a construction site Wednesday, May 24, 2017 in Montreal. A union alliance representing about 175,000 Quebec construction workers has launched an unlimited general strike. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

MONTREAL – Quebec construction sites fell idle Wednesday after a union alliance representing about 175,000 workers launched an unlimited general strike, crippling activity on major projects such as the Champlain Bridge and a Montreal superhospital.

The Quebec Transport Department said strikes involving engineers and construction workers affected more than 50 current roadwork projects across the province and that almost another 100 set to begin in the coming days could be delayed.

Orange cones warning of hazards were littered across Montreal streets, with road repairs having stopped mid-stream.

Valerie Plante, Montreal’s municipal opposition leader, said that will make it more difficult for residents to get around the city and cause potential problems for tourists ahead of the Formula 1 auto race early next month.

“We’re already asking Montrealers to be patient and the message today is that they’re going to have to be really patient,” she said.

Work schedules and overtime are believed to be at the heart of the conflict in the industrial sector, while salaries are the main stumbling block in the residential sector.

Michel Trepanier, a spokesman for the union alliance, said walking off the job was the only possible option.

“Employers are asking us to sacrifice time with our families to be available for work,” Trepanier said. “There are limits and they’ve been reached.

“A strike was our only option. We negotiated right up to the last second to try to get an agreement. In fact, we accepted several times to work with a conciliator in order to reach a deal without a labour conflict.”

Trepanier said the employers’ objective is clear: to drag out negotiations to benefit from the fact construction workers are not entitled to retroactive pay. Their collective agreements expired April 30.

Labour Minister Dominique Vien emerged from a meeting with the employers and unions Wednesday afternoon to say she has asked for a schedule of meetings between the two sides.

“The message I want to impart is that it is better to have a negotiated settlement than a special law and I think the parties here agree with that,” she said.

Conciliators are ready to intervene if need be, added Vien, who has said a walkout could mean losses of $45 million a day for the Quebec economy.

In Israel on an economic mission, Premier Philippe Couillard made it clear the walkout will not last long.

“We will not let the strike drag on,” he said. “Not because we want to favour the employers or the unions but out of concern for employment and the Quebec economy.”

Daniel Boyer, president of Quebec’s largest labour group, urged the province to let the parties negotiate rather than order an end to the strike when the legislature resumes sitting next week.

“The bargaining chip construction workers are using as of today is the strike,” he said in an interview. “It’s part of the negotiation process.”

Owners of sites under construction are watching closely to see how long the strike will last and how big a hit they will take.

The consortium building the new $4.3-billion Champlain Bridge said activity will resume when more than 600 employees on the bridge and nearby highway approaches return to work.

“It is too early to say what any potential impact might be (but) we are closely monitoring the situation,” said spokeswoman Veronique Richard-Charrier.

Consortium partner SNC-Lavalin (TSX:SNC) said it doesn’t have any other significant projects in the province involving unionized construction workers. Engineering rival WSP Global (TSX:WSP) said 10 of its non-striking workers were unable to gain access to sites.

Ivanhoe Cambridge, the real-estate subsidiary of the Caisse de depot, said work has stopped on its Montreal projects such as a new Manulife tower and overhaul of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, along with work in Quebec City and Sherbrooke.

The Teamsters union said its members are refusing to cross picket lines, interrupting the delivery of ready-mix cement.

Cement maker Lafarge said it will temporarily lay off workers if the strike is long.

“The longer the strike goes on the harder it is to recuperate the volumes lost,” said spokeswoman Karine Cousineau. “We have a very short construction window in Quebec so the longer it lasts the more product lines are going to be affected.”

This is the second general strike in the Quebec construction industry in four years.

The federation that represents chambers of commerce in Quebec is calling for a rapid settlement 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,” said Stephane Forget, head of the Federation des chambres de commerce du Quebec.

Forget noted the 10-day work stoppage in 2013 resulted in a drop of 1.1 per cent in the province’s gross domestic product.