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Union organizer known as "Rambo" insists he was a peacemaker

MONTREAL - The Quebec union organizer known as "Rambo" says alleged intimidation and bullying behaviour on his part was necessary to get his point across to companies who refused to hire local workers.

Bernard Gauthier told the Charbonneau Commission it was unfair to portray him as someone with a propensity for violence and bullying.

On his second day on the witness stand at the corruption inquiry, Gauthier admitted he would sometimes raise his voice to contractors who wouldn't adhere to hiring locals.

He said some of those same contractors weren't any better in their interactions with workers.

"It all depends on how we define bullying," Gauthier told the inquiry. "Intimidation, where does it begin and where does it end?"

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.

Gauthier and the union have been accused of using thuggery and threats on construction sites in the North Shore region.

The union leader said his reputation is largely fuelled by the media and is unfair. He said he's mellowed a lot over the years.

He portrayed himself on Tuesday as a peacemaker in one incident, when municipal councillors in Havre St-Pierre even called him to quell a protest on a construction site.

Gauthier testified that local workers were mad because they wanted to work on the federal site.

He said he calmed them down by showing them they did not have the proper skills for the job.

The burly heavy-machinery operator has been described in previous testimony as a central figure in heavy-handed union tactics that included bullying and intimidating contractors.

Gauthier took issue with earlier testimony by an investigator who said even Quebec provincial police were afraid of him.

"If they were afraid of me, it still cost me a lot in tickets," he quipped.

One by one, Gauthier brushed off allegations of bullying.

Three contractors testified about their experiences with his union, but Gauthier either defended the incidents as ending with locals being hired or said that he didn't have first-hand knowledge of the events.

The inquiry also asked about a series of other incidents of threats or intimidation involving Gauthier, including one where he allegedly threatened to break the legs of a 64-year-old worker. He denied it.

"I'm crazy, but I'm not that crazy," Gauthier said.

Gauthier said the Quebec Federation of Labour's construction wing tried to talk to him about toning down his aggressive approach as well as the tactics he supported, such as wildcat strikes and a strict adherence to collective agreements.

The inquiry has heard that some of these methods drove up the cost of construction on Quebec's North Shore by as much as 30 per cent because of the union actions.

But Gauthier said his discussions with the union brass never went any further than a few conversations and he was never reprimanded. In fact, the labour federation even paid for his fines when he was cited for bullying and harassment.

The union organizer argued his methods were necessary to protect the rights of workers in a far-flung region where the collective agreement was fiercely defended because it was so hard to find jobs.

Gauthier also took exception to what the inquiry saw as "excessive" union interference and heavy handedness when it came to respecting work contracts and by insisting that workers do very specific tasks.

Inquiry chair France Charbonneau asked if that approach only served to needlessly multiply the number of employees on site and raise costs.

Gauthier said he didn't have a problem with lending a hand to contractors, but noted they could easily take advantage of workers. He didn't appreciate the use of the word excessive.

"You call that excessive? Finding jobs and creating employment?" Gauthier said. "I don't agree with that, we don't hire more people than what we need."

Gauthier's testimony will wrap up on Thursday before the inquiry moves on to another witness.

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