Canada

Montreal's burning issue

Vandalism marks the city’s simmering contract dispute with firefighters

BRENDA BRANSWELL January 18 1999
Canada

Montreal's burning issue

Vandalism marks the city’s simmering contract dispute with firefighters

BRENDA BRANSWELL January 18 1999

Montreal's burning issue

Vandalism marks the city’s simmering contract dispute with firefighters

BRENDA BRANSWELL

When two fire trucks raced through downtown Montreal one day last week, sirens screaming and lights flashing, several passersby halted in their tracks—as usual—and stared. But in this case, there was another reason for the pedestrians’ interest. The trucks sported a unique Holstein cow look: instead of red, they wore a coat of white paint with large black splotches. The makeover was just one visible sign of the Montreal firefighters’ simmering contract dispute with the city—a battle that, since December, has included acts of sabotage and, in one bizarre instance, the dousing of a district fire chief’s office with animal urine. “We’re not going to take this type of harassment,” city councillor Gerry Weiner told Maclean’s last week as the two sides huddled with a Quebec government-appointed conciliator. Weiner, the city’s executive committee member in charge of the fire department, added: “These types of indiscriminate acts are totally unacceptable. And there is absolutely no sympathy in the population for this kind of activity.”

Maybe so. But Montrealers are growing increasingly familiar

with them. The dispute is only one of several bitter chapters in the city’s relations with its firefighters, who currently number 1,540. The stormy history includes an infamous weekend strike in 1974 during which fires raged and firefighters stood idly by, and two pending lawsuits by the city against the Montreal Firefighters Association. In the current conflict, the city has adopted a tough line, winning a court injunction against the pressure tactics, which had decreased by week’s end. The city has also warned that it may try to get the union decertified if the acts continue: as well as the animal urine incident and repainted fire trucks, militant firefighters have allegedly punctured fire hoses and disabled computers used to dispatch calls. Police are also investigating the city’s claim that a security guard was stuck in a room at a west-end fire station for a few hours after firefighters soldered the lock shut.

Strong tactics—over issues that many observers classify as minor. As recently as last April, when Montreal firefighters finally approved a contract after 26 months of fractious negotiations, Noushig Eloyan, president of the city’s executive committee, heralded the opportunity to “finally turn the page and begin an era of harmonious relations.” It was not to be. The current dispute broke out a mere eight months later, just before Christmas, largely over the interpretation of some clauses in the contract. For example, the union contends that the city is compelled to hire 17 firefighters immediately to maintain a quota of 1,557 on staff, while the city says it only needs to meet that figure once a year.

Publicly, the union has, for the most part, spoken through actions, not words. Gaston Fauvel, head of the firefighters association, has made few statements recently, and did not respond to a Maclean’s request for an interview. But among rank-and-file firefighters—who have been ordered by their union not to talk to the media—anger runs high. During an afternoon lull at one fire station, firefighters quietly expressed their exasperation over the tortuous nature of labour relations with the city—and accused Montreal politicians of continually reneging on collective agreements. “It’s always like that,” grumbled one 29-year-old firefighter. “We have to fight to win what we’ve already signed.”

How did relations between the two sides sink this low? Deputy fire chief André Brunelle has a theory—which points the finger at the union. “They developed a confrontational attitude,” he contends. “They say the only way to win things is by confrontation, and that’s why we’ve gotten here.” But Montreal may have helped foster that belief, according to some experts. “The city has always been quite loose in the way it manages,” says Michel Grant, a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal and labour relations expert who served as a mediator in 1995 during a long-running workers dispute. By making concessions over the years when faced with some rogue pressure tactics by its unions, Grant says, the city sent the message “that those kinds of actions could pay off.”

Militancy certainly runs high among the city’s unions. Last February, for example, thousands of municipal employees, including blue-collar workers, defied an order to provide essential services, and bolted from work one morning to picket city buildings over a proposed special law to roll back wages. But in Montreal, confrontation has a long history. Twenty-five years ago, in one of the most devastating instances, firefighters staged an illegal three-day strike over demands that their contract be reopened to compensate them for lost purchasing power due to inflation. During that so-called Red Weekend in October, 1974, some 15 fires left at least 200 people homeless—amid suspicions that some of the fires had been deliberately set by the firefighters. “It was a shock,” recalls John Scullion, then a Montreal district fire chief who, like other managers, was called in to replace the strikers. Scullion, now retired and living in Ottawa, adds: “I didn’t think we’d see that many fires.” Neither did others. The late Nick Auf der Maur, a popular columnist at The Gazette, wrote in 1996 how former premier Robert Bourassa watched the glowing fires from his office in the Hydro Quebec building and considered the situation sheer madness.

During the contract negotiations that ended last April, tempers also ran high. Firefighters plastered their trucks with stickers— some of them featuring Mayor Pierre Bourque with devil’s ears. The city also alleged that vandals punctured scores of fire hoses. But in the most recent dispute, city officials say the pressure tactics have become more serious. And Bourque’s Vision Montreal administration has shifted to a more muscular approach. For example, last week the city suspended 43 firefighters from one station after they refused to clean up their painted fire trucks. Faced with the threat of dismissal, the firefighters returned to work, and by midweek city officials announced that firefighters had agreed to restore all trucks that had been defaced.

Some opposition critics believe the city’s fractious relations with its firefighters need to be publicly examined. “It’s been going on for too long,” declares opposition councillor Richard Théorêt. “It’s costing us a lot of money.” The city is trying to recoup some of the losses. Montreal is suing the union for the $91,233 it spent last year to repair firefighting equipment, and has also launched a $1.2-million lawsuit against the firefighters’ association. As for the current

conflict, officials esti-

mate it has cost almost $500,000, including the hiring of security guards at fire stations to protect district fire chiefs. The city has already sent the association a notice holding it responsible for those costs as well.

The firefighters, meanwhile, appear to be losing the public relations battle. For the most part, Montrealers hold them in high esteem for risking their lives for others. But on the streets of the city’s hip Plateau MontRoyal district last week, several residents insisted that, in the latest confrontation, the firefighters have gone too far. “The first thing that bugs me is what they are doing with the equipment,” complained airline worker Renaud Béland. “It belongs to us.” Gilbert Lepage, a freelance television drama producer, called the union’s tactics “exaggerated and dangerous—I don’t think there is the basis to exert that kind of pressure now.” Editorial opinion has not been favourable either. One La Presse editorial questioned how firefighters have taken to acting like “perfect savages.”

It remains unclear how many firefighters have been involved in the recent sabotage. And some observers question whether the union has adequate control over its members. (Fauvel recently criticized his rank and file over the pressure tactics and asked them to respect the court injunction.) But city officials have also come under fire for their handling of the dispute. The mayor, who was scheduled to return to Montreal last weekend after spending 14 days touring China with a Montreal business delegation, has been criticized for not playing a greater role in resolving the problem. “Bourque has been entrusted with the population’s commonwealth and where is he?” says opposition councillor Helen Fotopulos. “He’s in China, chalking up more air miles.” Montreal’s long history of contentious labour relations has shown that disputes can all too easily erupt into open flames. □