Par Éric Duhaime,
Cet article a été publié dans le National Post du 24 février 2010
A poll released by Le Devoir last week reiterates that three Quebecers out of four are calling for a public inquiry into the province’s construction industry. This follows a petition of 60,000 people asking for an inquiry and similar requests from mayors, all opposition parties, police and even the former judge and head of the sponsorship inquiry, John Gomery. Over the last year, there’s been one scandal after another with allegations of widespread corruption and collusion among union bosses, the mafia and politicians.
It all started in March 2009 when a Radio-Canada investigation discovered alleged links between the general-director of the powerful FTQ-Construction, the biggest union of the industry, and the underworld. In September, further investigation uncovered a cost fixing scam among construction companies on public jobs, mainly road construction or repair. It involved bikers intimidating the competition and brown envelopes used to buy politicians and bureaucrats.
Many analysts and commentators started to wonder if such corruption could explain why it costs between 35% and 40% more to build roads in Quebec than in Ontario.
Thirty-six years ago, the Quebec construction industry was found travelling down the same shady road. In March 1974, union gorillas vandalized the James Bay building site, causing $33-million in damages. The then Liberal government of Robert Bourassa ordered a public inquiry, known as the Cliche commission, to clean up the industry. Four unions were found guilty of criminal acts and placed under guardianship. The inquiry did not, however, bring transparency nor internal democracy to FTQ-Construction.
The regulation of construction workers in Quebec is unique. Not only does it generally prevent workers from other provinces from working in Quebec, it also forbids people who do not pay union dues from practising their professions. Unions benefit from their monopoly over workers. They control the supply of labour and decide who works where, when and under what conditions.
The current system, which deprives workers of their right to basic freedom of association, could well be one of the explanations for the continued corruption. The names of union bosses may have changed, but the accusations against them are quite similar.
If the current Quebec government does not want to conduct a public inquiry as called for by 74% of Quebecers, it should at least start modernizing the province’s labour laws. It should start by demanding transparency and accountability. Currently, construction unions still freely decide what financial information they will reveal to their members. In contrast, any private company registered on the stock exchange has to publish records of its expenses and provide public accounts. Why should a private corporation be subject to stricter requirements than a union organization where workers are forced to become members and pay their dues?
In the United Sates, unions have to open their books and give internal information on 47 specific financial figures and 21 non-financial matters. They are required to dissociate expenses made for legal representation from those linked to political activism. And the U.S. Federal Department of Labour makes all that information public.
Let’s also remember that our southern neighbours do not force anyone to become a member of a union. American workers are free to pay the share of their dues that is used to defend their own interests without necessarily paying for political propaganda if they disapprove of it.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest needs to listen to his construction workers instead of the union bosses and give them back their freedom of association, as guaranteed by article 2 of the Canadian Constitution. His government also needs to force unions to open their books as all honest and modern organizations do. In the absence of government responsibility, Quebecers have the right to demand a public inquiry and other Canadians should start joining them since they often pay their fair share for public infrastructures in Quebec via the federal government’s contribution. The 40% extra that construction costs in Quebec is the equivalent of that federal purse.
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