POLITICS

Construction unions, bosses agree to restart negotiations to end strike

06/20/2013 03:28 EDT | Updated 08/20/2013 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - Within hours of Premier Pauline Marois warning her patience for Quebec's construction strike was wearing thin, the duelling sides promised a return to the bargaining table.

It was not immediately clear when the two sides would sit down.

Yves Ouellet, a spokesman for the construction unions, said in Quebec City he would await the call from the concillator and is ready to negotiate.

"We have something to offer," Ouellet said in a brief news conference after meeting with Labour Minister Agnes Maltais.

Ouellet would not elaborate further, saying the union would not negotiate in public. He acknowledged the spectre of back-to-work legislation had put increased pressure on both sides to reach a deal.

The alliance of construction companies, which met earlier with Maltais, had no immediate comments, saying it didn't want to speak until Maltais had met with the unions.

Maltais also gave little away in a brief statement, saying her goal was to get talks started again.

"I thank the representatives of the labour and management organizations that have agreed to receive and respond to the call from the concilliators and again be seated at the table," she said. "Now, let them work."

The strike will continue, however.

Marois said earlier in the day that Maltais would be telling the two sides to start talking to each other when she met them on Thursday.

After ruling out a legislated end to the strike a few days ago, the idea seemed more palatable to Marois in the last few days.

She said at an event in Montreal that she believed the sides could hammer out a deal in a matter of days if they bargained in good faith and with open minds.

"We would rather not resort to a special law. We don't want that. I repeat it is always better to have a negotiated settlement."

But in a radio interview Thursday morning, Marois made it clear her government wouldn't tolerate a lengthy strike.

"We're not going to allow the situation to continue for a long time," she said in an interview on Montreal's 98.5 FM.

"We're interested in settling this quickly."

She said Maltais would tell the parties in meetings on Thursday "to get back to the negotiating table and negotiate diligently."

Marois pointed out the sides were only separated by two or three issues when talks broke down on Saturday.

About 175,000 construction workers in the residential, commercial and industrial sector put down their tools on Monday, shutting down work sites across the province.

Among the projects that have been put on hold is the construction of Montreal's two superhospitals, which are among the biggest construction projects in Canada. One of the hospitals is mired in scandals that have rocked Quebec's construction industry.

Union leaders and members of the builders' alliance going into the meeting with Maltais acknowledged the government wasn't kidding around.

"I think it's serious," said union leader Gerard Cyr as he went into the meeting with Maltais. "I hope it doesn't come to that."

He pointed out the construction unions had already made concessions.

Jean Pouliot, a spokesman for the construction companies, said before the meeting that he wanted to see a settlement.

"We're in solution mode," he said.

Marois pointed out the strike is causing problems not just on megaprojects like the hospitals but to people waiting to move into new homes and condos as well as those renovating their properties.

Workers continued to stage noisy protests outside sites.

The main stumbling blocks in negotiations are wages and working conditions.

(With files from Martin Ouellet and Alexandre Robillard in Quebec City)