MONTREAL - The Quebec union organizer known as "Rambo" defended his reputation and that of his union on Tuesday amid accusations they were behind threats and thuggery on construction sites.
"I'm sorry, but I haven't intimidated anybody," Bernard Gauthier fired back after being challenged at the Charbonneau Commission about his practices.
Gauthier has been described at the inquiry as a controlling figure who went to great lengths to ensure local workers on his Quebec North Shore turf had jobs.
Earlier, he told the inquiry that he welcomed the chance to testify, convey his thoughts and restore his reputation.
"You'll see over the next two days that we didn't intimidate anybody," he said.
Gauthier, who is affiliated with the Quebec Federation of Labour's construction wing, has had his tactics questioned in testimony as the Charbonneau inquiry examines the issue of threats and extortion on construction sites.
"When I arrived, we wanted to change things," said Gauthier, an operator of heavy machinery.
"It's perhaps hard to believe with my face because they've made me out to be an outlaw, but we wanted to change things and we're still working on it."
Gauthier suggested one way to limit confrontations is by limiting the number of workers from elsewhere in the province allowed to work on the North Shore.
Gauthier repeatedly said his only interest was to ensure local workers were not left out in the cold.
He told the inquiry that work is hard to find in the far-flung region, where major construction projects are scarce and jobs are cyclical. Collective agreements are strictly adhered to in the region to ensure everyone gets work.
"Where we are, it's quite bad, it's 'fly-in, fly-out'," Gauthier said, explaining that workers and contractors come in from other parts of the province.
"They come, they exploit us and then they leave," Gauthier fumed. He said outsiders believe people on the North Shore are well off, but that's not true. Local workers struggle to ensure bills get paid, he said.
A steady stream of inquiry witnesses — company owners, inquiry investigators and industry regulators — have described a world in the North Shore in which Gauthier and his lieutenants used intimidation and violence to maintain control over sites.
They have testified that on-site vandalism and violence was a reality if conditions were not met. The price of projects in the region was between 10 and 30 per cent higher because contractors had to factor in how much the union practices might cost.
An inquiry investigator who spoke to several dozen witnesses last year said Gauthier exerted tremendous influence: "Rambo was considered a God," he said.
Gauthier disputed some of those allegations Tuesday.
On the issue of violence, Gauthier explained that when a company refused to hire locally, he'd assemble a committee of unemployed workers to pay the site a visit. He claimed he didn't want violence, but admitted it was a possibility and that he sent security along with the group to keep watch.
"I'd tell them 'no physical contact, no threats,' but once they'd left (for the work site), I didn't have control," Gauthier said.
He blamed many of the intimidation allegations against him on a rival union that was simply jealous he was able to amass a larger number of members.
Before he arrived in 2003, bands of unemployed workers would roam looking for employment, with "fists and bats" being used to settle disputes over who worked. Gauthier said his goal was to make the union, which now represents about 600 members, respected.
"We wanted to make ourselves indispensable or essential," Gauthier said.
He said he never forced contractors to go through him and never dictated how many people they hired. He had no issue with companies bringing in some of their own "key men."
The practice of unions placing workers on sites no longer exists — a construction regulatory board now handles that responsibility.
Gauthier said he never took kickbacks from anyone, but said his predecessors may have.
Earlier on Tuesday, the former Canadian Forces member also explained that his memorable nickname is not linked to his military service between 1985 and 1991.
Gauthier said he came by it because he would spy on security at one of his first jobs in the early 1990s at a Hydro-Quebec site. A few workers came up with the nickname "Rambo" which has since been amplified by the media.
He said most people simply know him as Bernard or "Ti-Ben."