02/10/2014 11:19 EST | Updated 04/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Quebec probe looks at allegations of intimidation on construction sites

MONTREAL - Quebec's corruption inquiry has begun examining union intimidation and extortion on construction sites around the province, with an investigator sharing anecdotes he gathered from workers.

Testimony on Monday painted a picture of a construction union in complete control of what happened on sites on Quebec's North Shore.

Inquiry investigator Michel Comeau said the union was ready to sabotage sites by vandalizing equipment.

There were also work slowdowns and payoffs to union brass, practices he said increased the price of projects by as much as 30 per cent.

While the inquiry has heard that several different players have driven up the price of projects in big cities, Comeau testified that the Quebec Federation of Labour's construction wing was very much at the centre of the problem in other parts of the province.

The veteran police investigator said none of 70 witnesses his team met with would talk on the record or agree to testify before the inquiry, leaving Comeau to tell their stories.

In recent months, the inquiry has been examining the labour federation's construction wing, corruption within its ranks and the influence of organized crime in its Montreal-based leadership.

Comeau described the North Shore region as a state within a state, with the construction wing representatives for that region operating through intimidation.

The man in charge was Bernard "Rambo" Gauthier, who has been previously accused of intimidation on sites.

The inquiry heard that he and several lieutenants ran the sites and that workers had to abide by their rules. They also fiercely defended local workers, ensuring sites would not operate unless the union was appeased.

"Over there, Rambo was considered a God," Comeau said. "He was an influential person on the work sites."

Gauthier has not testified before the inquiry.

The major projects in the area often centred around Hydro-Quebec. Using the example of work on the Romaine Complex, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, Comeau described some of the obstacles the union would throw up for contractors.

Co-commissioner Renaud Lachance asked if Hydro was aware of the problems on site. Comeau said the provincially owned utility was aware and was left to pay the bills, with the extra costs being filtered down to the taxpayers.

"Hydro closed its eyes because the work needed to get done," Comeau said.

Any employer criticism of union work was met with swift protests, strict adherence to the collective agreement and worksite slowdowns. Workers were paid travel and housing fees, changing their addresses on the paperwork, even if they were locals.

Equipment was often broken in an effort to slow work down and to ensure employees be paid longer. The equipment sent to be repaired often reeked of marijuana smoke.

Attempts to defy the union didn't go well. Comeau recounted that when one contractor tried to fire several unionized employees for incompetence, he was assaulted and faced threats of having his legs broken and being attacked at his own home.

One contractor who refused to pay travel premiums had his equipment wrecked the following day.

Another employee of a firm, having discussed intimidation on a site, reported a provincial police officer confided in him that they, too, felt threatened by members of the construction wing.

Contractors were too afraid to complain, Comeau said.

Comeau spent all of Monday recounting different stories.

In one case, an Osisko mine worker was reportedly fired for working too quickly. When he threatened to go to the media, they gave him $25,000 to buy his silence.

In another case, unionized employees were forced to take part in 50-50 draws organized by the union with half the money going to the union itself. Comeau noted the lottery generated $12,000 a week, off the books.

The unions were clearly in charge. Comeau recounted a clear example: crane operators from Quebec were paid two years worth of salary to do nothing on a Hydro-Quebec site.

A German company, Bauer, had won the contract for work at the Peribonka hydro site. Quebec workers weren't happy and many of the German employees were intimidated and returned home.

The Quebec Federation of Labour negotiated and locals were hired, but didn't work because Bauer didn't want them.

Comeau said Hydro-Quebec footed the bill and workers were paid to do nothing but play cards, watch TV and stay in a trailer on site, being paid weekend and differentials.

At least two were paid to stay home — sometimes at double their regular salaries.

"It was tolerated and everyone knew," Comeau said.

In another North Shore case, Comeau said workers felt there was something strange about the quick pace of work during the expansion of an Alouette aluminum refinery in 2005.

Several workers told inquiry investigators the site had been "bought."

Comeau said union executives were being paid off to ensure the work was done quickly and efficiently. False billing was used to pay off the representatives with cash. There were also fishing holidays and fancy dinners.

"There was union peace that was out of the ordinary, we finished three months in advance," Comeau said one worker told him.

Earlier, the inquiry had seen a picture of QFL union bosses, an Alouette executive and former construction boss Tony Accurso celebrating the quick completion of that very contract, vacationing in the south on Accurso's luxury yacht.

The inquiry heard that Accurso companies in that era had a very close relationship with the union and often landed the very best workers.

Accurso has since been charged with fraud and influence-peddling. His lawyers are also fighting an attempt to bring him before the inquiry.

Comeau said workers were fearful of meeting with investigators or even being seen talking to them on the sites themselves, not wanting to be thought to be snitches or informers.

"We quickly realized that, on construction sites, there was a kind of code of silence," Comeau said.

He returns to the stand Tuesday.