NATIONAL

BIG BAD BLUES

Montreal’s blue collar union is on the warpath—but the city’s hanging tough

BENOIT AUBIN March 6 2006
NATIONAL

BIG BAD BLUES

Montreal’s blue collar union is on the warpath—but the city’s hanging tough

BENOIT AUBIN March 6 2006

BIG BAD BLUES

NATIONAL

Montreal’s blue collar union is on the warpath—but the city’s hanging tough

BENOIT AUBIN

While everyone was watching the action in Turin, storm-tossed Montrealers were starring in their own special winter games: staying afoot on icy side-walks, long-jumping over puddles of slush, rocking cars out of ruts, slaloming around potholes the size of kitchen sinks. Nature alone usually cannot bring this tough old city to its knees. But, this time, the Blue helped it.

Montreal’s infamous, 6,000-strong blue collar workers’ union is on the warpath— again. A full week after the storm, Montreal was still enduring dangerous sidewalks, messy streets, litter-strewn alleys. The Blue—possibly the baddest labour union in the land-are not on strike, just unhappy with their contract. Which is bad enough: once, 13 years ago, they stormed City Hall on such a bad day; more recendy, they thought nothing of blocking off whole downtown neighbourhoods at rush hour in an attempt to sensitize the public to their plight. “Truth is, that has served them well in the past,” says Michael Grant, a labour management specialist at Université du Québec à Montréal. “Politicians have regularly bypassed management to buy peace by making last-minute concessions to les cols bleus.”

Not this time, it seems. Mayor Gérald Tremblay—re-elected last November—has

drawn a line in the slush. “No more negotiating with the help of two-by-fours,” a senior aide told Maclean’s. “We’re talking zero tolerance.” That means war, and it could get ugly. For now, though, it’s a question of courting public opinion. Just last Tuesday, 2,000 employees left work to stage a wildcat protest at City Hall. But... no rioting, no blocking off highway exits this time. Instead, the Blue dumped roses and wreaths on the steps of City Hall, “burying the link of trust that has been destroyed by our employer,” union leader Michel Parent told reporters.

That symbolic nicety was lost on the general public, though. What is shaping opinion at the moment is the great pothole caper. The city administration hired undercover detectives to spy on crews assigned to filling potholes—Mayor Tremblay’s stated top priority. The result? Three crews (selected at random, the city says), totalling 10 workers, filled a grand total of nine potholes over 90 hours of work, spending most of that time drinking coffee or driving around. For maximum impact, the story was leaked to the masscirculation tabloid Le Journal de Montréal. The result was guffaws and cries of outrage—

“Everything but surprise,” pollster Jean-Marc Léger remarked, adding that the Blue’s public image is “abysmal.”

The current conflict has its roots in one of the messiest political foul-ups of recent years. When Montreal suburbs were forcibly merged into one megacity in 2002, the Blue had to accept imposed—and adverse—conditions to harmonize work throughout the island of Montreal. Even after 15 of the city’s 22 municipalities voted to de-merge in 2004, the Blue was stuck with the old merger collective agreement. Now they’re fuming, claiming they’ve been ripped off—and smarting from the pothole affair. “What other employer would frame up its employees and expose them in the press?” one union official said in an interview. “The workers’ union is nothing but the reflection of its employer, and the city of Montreal is a vicious employer.”

That doesn’t cut much ice with the city. “There have been four different administrations in 25 years—and one constant problem with the union,” says Christine Miville-Deschênes, a Tremblay aide. But up to a point, the Blue are right when they say management is part of the problem. “Many mid-level managers have thrown in the towel,” says Grant. “A culture of laxity has taken root, and the employer has lost control and authority.” Still, for the Blue, the big picture is not promising. Public sector unions have led the fight against Jean Charest, accusing the Liberal premier of plotting to “destroy Quebec’s heritage” with his “neo-conservative policies.” But Charest imposed an agreement on the unions shortly before Christmas; they’ve been much quieter since. Then Quebecers helped elect a Conservative government in Ottawa.

The Blue are also mired in a divisive leadership campaign, with a vote to come on March 23. Local media are feasting on stories of intrigue, espionage and intimidation between two slates of union brothers. The city secretly hopes for a new leadership to emerge, with whom it can forge a new culture of collaboration. But nobody is betting on that. Jean Lapierre, the retired leader who personified the union’s feistiness, is still very much present: in a recent TV interview, he said that fighting for the empowerment of workers “is a calling, you must be a missionary, and be prepared to make personal sacrifices, and never, never give up.” That’s the Blue’s culture in a nutshell. A hard nut for the city to crack. M