The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake passed a directive on Monday, January 10 to implement the Kahnawake Trades Qualifications Program, which will ensure that ironworkers from the reservation are the first to be picked to work on the construction of the Honoré Mercier bridge.
When the bridge was built between the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawake and the Montreal borough of LaSalle in 1932, legislation was put in place to ensure that work on the bridge would be undertaken primarily by Mohawk workers. However, both the Commission de la construction du Québec (CCQ) and the local chapter of the iron-workers union, Local 711, have contested this in the past.
Local 711 has tried to kick Mohawk workers off the bridge project if they didn’t have CCQ cards identifying union membership.
Joe Delaronde, Kahnawake political press attaché, told The Daily “the first phase of construction was done extremely well. However, not all the workers have Quebec union qualifications.”
Chief Rhonda Kirby, who sits on the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK), explained, “Almost ninety per cent of the workers in Kahnawake are unionized ironworkers, but most of them have their qualifications from the United States.”
The Trades Qualification agreement will be a pact between the MCK and the provincial government, and will institute a committee of three people that will declare if workers are qualified. The committee will be composed of two qualified trades workers with over ten years of experience, and one community member from Kahnawake.
According to Kirby, this agreement will also allow Mohawk health and safety inspectors to carry out inspections in place of the CCQ.
In 2009, soon after the $67-million contract was awarded to the Kahnawake-based Mohawk Bridge Consortium (MBC), Local 711 started making allegations about the working conditions on the bridge, while arguing that MBC workers were not recognized under CCQ. They even went as far as threatening some Mohawk union members with the loss of their union books.
At a 2009 press conference held at the Palais de Justice de Montréal, Jacques Dubois, spokesperson for Local 711, was asked whether the union was looking for a portion of the contract which is the largest of its kind in Canada.
“It’s not [wanting] a piece of the pie, the contracts in the past were either chipping the concrete or painting. Local 711 represents its local members of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, Reinforcing Ironworkers. Our trade jurisdiction was not involved in the past in the work that’s been done there,” said Dubois.
The two-phase construction project to replace the entire deck of the Mercier bridge for the first time since its construction in 1934, is slated to prolong the bridge’s life for 75 years. The second phase of construction was contracted out to Pomerleau, a private company from Saint-Georges, Quebec which must honour the Trades Qualification Program.
“I heard some grumblings from the union about this agreement,” Kirby told The Daily. “Any contractor is now required to work with qualified Kahnawake workers.”
Delaronde added, “This program will help provide future contractors with a pool of highly qualified workers. … We are trying to create an atmosphere of trust.”
The bridge is a crucial transport artery to and from the south shore – 29.5 million vehicles use the bridge every year – and has recently been showing signs of age. In July a two-by-three foot portion of the road fell into the river, requiring multiple lane closures and re-routing of traffic. In December, there were worries that the guard rails which prevent vehicles from falling into the river were not strong enough.
The construction work has employed between thirty and 120 workers from Kahnawake. When asked whether this new program would put Mohawk iron-workers currently employed on the bridge out of work, Kirby said it was out of the question.
“This is what these people do. We have some very experienced workers who work on these bridges,” she said.
MBC Chairman Wayne Rice and Local 711 spokesperson Jacques Dubois could not be reached for comment specifically for the Daily at publication time.