Montreal Mayor Takes on City Union

In Quebec, PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONS can make or break governments, union leaders sometimes get thrown in jail, and alpha-male politicians regularly make their name, or figuratively lose their teeth, fighting them in epic battles. So the idea of Gérald Tremblay - the soft-spoken, media-shy, socially challenged mayor of MONTREAL - taking on the city's infamous blue collar workers' union was just too good for humourists to pass up. In a recent episode of a satirical puppet show on Radio-Canada television, cartoonist Serge Chapleau coaxed a hesitant Tremblay to read the riot act to a Blue posse loafing in a city park. The Tremblay puppet came back with a shovel wrapped around his head, saying sheepishly, "They were not very receptive ..."

That's the mayor's image for you. "He's a living caricature, the nerd's nerd," Chapleau says. In that program, Tremblay came across as the goofy, ebullient and gullible jovialiste who says and does things that would embarrass anyone - except perhaps himself. That's lampooning, of course, but "In order for a caricature to stick, it has to have a fair amount of truth to it," Chapleau says. "We draw the line at making him look like a fool, though. That wouldn't stick."

Not a fool, of course. Mayor Tremblay is an Outremont lawyer, a Harvard MBA graduate, a former Liberal industry minister who also made a name, and money, turning around ailing businesses - and has now focused his attention on how one of Canada's biggest cities is administered. It's just that he "has all the charisma of an empty chair," one friend says, and hates fights and squabbles. But here he is, taking on what may be the meanest labour union in the land. Maybe the Blue fell for the puppet act and thought they could throw sand in Tremblay's face? Think again.

For more than 20 years now, the 6,000-strong Blue has been less than receptive to any moves by the municipal government. Members have been known to crash the doors of City Hall with heavy machinery, beat up foremen, blockade entire downtown neighbourhoods, dump manure on a manager's doormat, and intimidate just about everyone. A recent study concluded that their productivity level oscillates between 18 and 30 per cent. Just a few weeks ago, union president Michel Parent, steamed after losing a court battle to challenge a work agreement imposed on the Blue by a previous court ruling, warned the mayor "to fasten his toque with wire, because it's going to rock." (In the meantime, Montrealers are enjoying a long-awaited spring thaw - in a city that's grimy, potholed and litter-strewn like never before.)

The Blue's taunt elicited no public reaction from the placid Tremblay, who comes across as an anomaly in the current landscape of Canadian politics. "Tremblay as a politician is totally atypical," says André Morrow, his image-maker and strategic counsel. Politicians are complex mixes of idealism and realism, greed and hubris, vision and opportunism, Morrow says, but not Tremblay. "He is exactly like what you see, and he does exactly what he says he does." Adds Ronald Poupart, a political veteran from the Bourassa years: "Tremblay is not a good politician, because he can't tell a lie, and doesn't even know how to embellish a situation. And that is also his biggest strength. He keeps his credibility intact, come what may."

Tremblay's wimpish image was set for good five years ago, during a televised debate against outgoing mayor Pierre Bourque. It is still remembered as the Deafening Silence. At one point during that encounter, in front of a board of trade crowd, an aggressive remark by Bourque somehow threw Tremblay off-kilter. He remained silent, smiling, for all of 16 seconds - an eternity that was replayed, over and over, in full, on TV news for days. "That's the only time in my life I had to scramble into all-out damage-control mode over words a politician had not spoken," Morrow recalls.

But somehow, an embarrassing moment that would have killed any other politician only made Tremblay more endearing, and he was elected. He got away with even worse last fall. After campaigning on a no-tax-hike platform, and winning re-election last November, he tabled a $4-billion budget that did contain tax increases for some. That triggered an uproar, of course. So Tremblay apologized for making a mistake, withdrew his first budget, and cooked up another one, free of tax increases. And got away with it. "He does not keep his pride where most politicians keep theirs," Poupart says.

Perhaps because he cannot tell a lie, it was best for Tremblay to keep quiet about his plans for the union. He has never declared war on the Blue, hasn't told the public exactly what he intends to do - and declined to be interviewed by Maclean's on the issue. So, when the first blows landed in late February, it took a while before the Blue realized what hit them. Covert detectives had filmed them at work - or, rather, not. The news that three work crews took 90 hours to patch up a grand total of nine potholes hit the union in the knees. "Now the public has a culprit to chew on, and it's not the mayor," one city hall insider remarks. The pothole affair was followed by stern warnings in writing that loafers will be suspended, and repeat offenders fired. Then, another sledgehammer fell: more than 500 Blue who walked off the job to stage a protest at City Hall in February will be suspended without pay for one day. And unruly Blue who still threaten foremen will not only be suspended, but will be taken to court.

But, says one senior city hall bureacrat who asked that he not be identified, "attacking the Blue was not Tremblay's main objective - only the means to a bigger end. Tremblay is turning the whole city administration on its ear. Foremen, district managers, even directors who don't perform well are also under the gun; other trades are being investigated by undercover agents as well."

"The mayor has campaigned on a promise to clean up the city streets, remember?" says Christiane Miville-Deschênes, a close adviser to Tremblay. "What we're doing is changing the culture of the workplace, to bring a bit of sanity back to it." Indeed, politicians must share blame for the Blue's badass attitude, and for the administration's dysfunctional management, says Michael Grant, a management professor at Université du Québec - Montréal. "They have always caved in to the Blue's demands at the last minute to buy peace. Troublemakers were rehired, managers were bypassed and let down."

These troublemakers, Tremblay's entourage says, are no more than 500 among the 6,000-strong union. Now Tremblay is acting to improve management - although he will never admit outright that it has been part of the problem - hoping the Blue's rhetoric will cool off as the situation improves. "The union is destabilized at the moment, and divided over which course to follow in the future," says the city hall bureaucrat. You bet they're destabilized. They were hoping to coax a nerd into dropping his gloves. Instead, they found a slick bureaucrat skating circles around them.

Maclean's May 1, 2006