'People are angry': Quebec construction workers protest as province tables back-to-work bill

Bill 142, aimed at forcing Quebec's construction workers back to work but allowing unions and employers to continue negotiating, was tabled just after 11 a.m. today. Debate is expected to begin this afternoon and continue into Tuesday morning.

Debate on Bill 142 expected to begin this afternoon, may be passed as early as Tuesday

A spokesperson for the unions representing 175,000 of Quebec's construction workers says they are 'really angry' with the idea of back-to-work legislation. If Bill 142, tabled Monday morning, is passed, they'll be forced to return to their work sites by Wednesday. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

After days of protests and stalled negotiations, the Quebec government tabled legislation today that, if passed, will force striking construction workers to return to their jobs by Wednesday.

Workers, unhappy at the idea of being legislated back to work, voiced their displeasure outside the National Assembly.

Riot police were called to monitor the boisterous crowd, which threw beer cans and urinated on the nearby press gallery building before thinning out by mid-afternoon.  

Unions rejected the employer groups' final offer yesterday afternoon, setting the stage for the government to fulfil its pledge to introduce the special law.

I hope everything is going to go well, but … people are angry, really angry.- Michel Trépanier , union spokesperson

Bill 142 was tabled just after 11 a.m. ET. Debate on the proposed law is expected to begin this afternoon and continue into Tuesday morning.

The law would give the two sides until October to sign a collective agreement. Barring that, each issue that hasn't been resolved will be subject to binding arbitration.

The law would also give employees a 1.8 per cent salary increase until a new contract is agreed upon. An association of construction employers had been offering a 1.9 per cent increase before talks broke down. 

Construction workers had to be legislated back to work after a two-week strike in 2013, the last time their collective agreement expired.

During question period, Premier Philippe Couillard said he wants to see an end to the pattern of waiting for the government to intervene in what is a private conflict.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard responds to a question from the opposition over special legislation forcing construction workers back to work on Monday at the legislature in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"We have to get out of the habit of using this mechanism, that's now being reused, unfortunately, throughout the years, whereby neither party seems to have any interest or real will to solve anything," the premier said.

The Opposition Parti Québécois criticized the resort to back-to-work legislation. 

"It's a bill that is unjust and probably illegal," said PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée. He also accused the government of being in a conflict of interest, given that it is one of the construction industry's largest clients. 

Construction workers 'in shock'

About 175,000 unionized workers walked off the job last Wednesday. Employees in the industrial sector are asking for more stable work schedules. Salaries are one of the main sticking points in the residential sector.

They have been without a collective agreement since April 30.

Michel Trépanier, spokesperson for the alliance of unions, said the bill contains exactly what the owners want. He believes it was written so that if the two sides go to arbitration, the employers have the best chance to get what they want.

He said the unions still have to study the bill, but that they are "in shock," adding that in their opinion, they came up with a "reasonable" list of demands but that the employers had a "shopping list."

Earlier in the day, Trépanier said while he hopes his members respect the law if it orders them back to work, he isn't quite sure what will happen.

Striking construction workers march to the National Assembly to protest as the Quebec government prepares a special legislation forcing them back to work. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"I hope everything will go well, but my feeling… I don't like the situation right now because people are angry, really angry, so we'll see," he told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

And since the government made it clear that it would eventually resort to back-to-work legislation if the workers were to strike, that undermined their leverage, he said, adding to the workers' anger. 
Construction workers gather in Montreal as they prepare to board buses heading to Quebec City for a demonstration. Protesters are expected to be driving in from across the province for the demonstration. (Radio-Canada)

The group that is negotiating on behalf of the employers put together an offer it believed would be enticing for the unions, explained the employers' spokesperson, Éric Côté.

That offer included a four-day work week, but Côté said the union chose to reject it.

"If that's not a gesture in favour of families, of work-life balance, I don't know what it is," he said.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak and Radio-Canada