2020 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for the class struggle in Quebec. Public-sector collective agreements expire on March 31, and negotiations have begun. Without a doubt, the results will have important repercussions for the decade to come. The outcome of the negotiations will either mean further hardship for the 550,000 public sector employees in the province, or the reversal of decades of cuts for public sector workers.
Already last fall, warning shots were fired and it looks like the struggle is shaping up to be a bitter one. The employers’ offer was announced in December: an increase of seven per cent over five years, well below inflation. In addition to this contemptuous proposal, the government is offering to give piecemeal increases by occupation. For example, young teachers and orderlies would be entitled to better offers. Christian Dubé, the president of the Treasury Board, head negotiator for the government, is using this in an attempt to divide the labour movement by playing to the public’s sympathies for certain workers. “We know that attendants have a very heavy workload. We know what is going on in nursing homes and seniors’ residences, and we have to be able to keep up,” he stated, crying crocodile tears. In reality, only 25 per cent of public sector employees would be entitled to these more advantageous offers. Worse yet, these offers also remain below inflation, at only nine per cent over five years. Quebec Premier François Legault seems determined to carry on the austere traditions of his predecessors.
Time to go on the offensive
After two decades of austerity and repeated attacks on working conditions and the standard of living for public sector employees, the situation is serious. Workers are being crushed under the weight of the work. Caroline Senneville, vice-president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN, or Confederation of National Trade Unions), describes the situation: “For years now, workers in health and social services, education and government agencies have been facing a significant work overload and too often find themselves in a precarious situation.” Over the last five years, the number of absences due to illness went up by 25 per cent in the public sector.
This is particularly serious in the health care sector. It has been two years since the heartfelt appeal of nurse Émilie Ricard alerted Quebec’s population to the serious situation facing health-care workers and still nothing has changed. We continue to see spontaneous sit-ins of exhausted nurses who denounce mandatory overtime. As of last spring, there was still a shortage of 24,000 nurses across the health care system.
Low wages directly contribute to the labour shortage. Quebec has the dishonour of being the province where teachers and nurses have the lowest pay. The pay gap compared to the other provinces is about 11 per cent. According to the Quebec Statistical Institute, Quebec government employees earn 6.2 per cent less than other employees, including benefits. This figure rises to 13.2 per cent when comparing salary alone.
If there is ever a time to go on the offensive to stop the impoverishment of the public sector and win better working conditions, it is now. The odds are clearly in favour of the workers. The classic arguments of the government during negotiations—“times are tough”, “we must tighten our belts”, “the piggy bank is empty”, etc.—already don’t make sense in normal times. Our society is drowning in money. Each year, like clockwork, new statistics reveal a growing concentration of wealth. The bank vaults are overflowing with money that is just waiting to be invested in health, education, social housing, and so on. And this time, the government can’t pretend that they are out of money. With a record budgetary surplus of $8.28 billion for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, the government could easily give wage increases. Evidently, Legault does not share this view. He claims, “The surplus belongs to the people of Quebec; it doesn’t belong to pressure groups; it doesn’t belong to the unions.”
Furthermore, the situation in the labour market is favourable to the workers. With historically low unemployment rates of 5.3 per cent in Quebec, we have the upper hand. For the last year, the media has covered the bosses’ constant whining about the labour shortage. This situation should be enough to convince even the most pessimistic that workers are well positioned to make significant gains. Yet there is every reason to believe that Legault prefers instead to aggravate the impoverishment and perpetuate the austerity of his predecessors. In fact, despite favourable economic conditions, public sector workers will not win concessions without fighting for them.
Where is the common front?
As mentioned earlier, government negotiators have already stated their intention to rely on a “divide-and-conquer” strategy. Different conditions for different jobs, and even between generations among teachers, are intended to pit public sector workers against each other. Through creating these divisions, the Quebec government is trying to convince the population that only certain workers deserve increases.
Faced with such tactics, unity is needed more than ever. However, for the first time in decades the major union federations will not be united against the government. This is a serious error. Only two federations are forming a united front with each other: the FIQ (Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec/Quebec Interprofessional Health Federation) and the APTS (Alliance du personnel professionnel et technique du réseau de la santé et des services sociaux/Alliance of Professional and Technical Staff of the Health and Social Services Network).
The union leadership seems to have forgotten the very essence of the common front. Daniel Boyer, president of the FTQ, justified the decision not to join forces by saying of the various federations, “We carried out a consultation on different levels and we arrived at demands that are different, and we do not have quite the same strategy.” But the principle of the common front does not necessarily consist of presenting the same demands or having the same strategy. It is above all a question of not abandoning fellow workers at the negotiating table to face the employer alone. The strength of the workers when confronting the boss relies on their numbers. Since its inception, the labour movement has understood that unity is strength, and the bosses have understood that their best weapon is division among workers. The best strategy for the unions is to work together to improve pay and conditions for all public-sector workers. The struggle should go beyond union allegiances, and no agreements should be signed until the demands of all unions have been met. By shunning the tactic of the common front because of formalities, the leaders of the union federations are depriving the movement of a powerful tool of struggle and solidarity at a time when it is especially needed.
We should therefore ask why the tactic of the common front has been abandoned. Looking back at recent history, it appears that the common front has been of little use. The common front of 2003 collapsed when Jean Charest imposed back-to-work legislation in 2005. That of 2010 folded under threat of further back-to-work legislation and accepted a bogus deal. The 2015 common front praised themselves for having preserved the gains of previous years, but what it really preserved were concessions. The inter-union common front seems unable to make gains or even preserve past gains. No wonder it has been abandoned.
But is the tactic to blame, or how it has been used? It should come as no surprise that one is unable to hammer nails if the hammer is held upside down. If, at each negotiation, back-to-work legislation or the mere threat of it is enough to force the union leaders to back down, the struggle is lost in advance whether there is a common front or not. These undemocratic laws act as a sword of Damocles hanging over all collective bargaining in the public sector. Between 1967 and 2005, there have been 13 rounds of public-sector negotiations in Quebec, and 12 back-to-work laws. Sooner or later, our union leaders will have to find the courage to defy these laws. This is all the more true when we have a premier who is particularly fond of such legislation; one who called for it to be used against construction strikes in 2013 and 2017 as well as that of CN Rail workers last year. There can be no doubt that the outcome of the 2020 negotiations will depend on the willingness of the union leadership to launch a united strike in defiance of back-to-work legislation.
We have a historic opportunity to turn the tide after decades of public-sector concessions, and to beat back back-to-work legislation. To achieve this, it is imperative that public-sector workers join forces in the struggle with the government. Some union leaders will say that it is too late to form a typical common front, but it is the content that matters rather than the form. Unions must escalate pressure tactics, for example by launching a 24-hour public-sector strike. Furthermore, unions must pledge not to give up the fight until all workers’ demands have been met.
The Legault government may seem all-powerful, with an approval rate of 64 per cent—the highest among Canadian premiers. The popularity of the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québécois/Quebec Future Coalition) stems from the Quebec population’s nausea after decades of Liberal austerity. With the widespread hardship, the people of Quebec voted for Legault because he promised to “create good jobs.” But, as shown during the Aluminerie de Bécancour Inc. lockout, Legault would rather lick the boots of the American bosses than defend our “good jobs”. The support for this government of the bosses could evaporate overnight if it goes on the attack against the workers. Jason Kenney in Alberta and Doug Ford in Ontario have seen a dizzying drop in the polls as a result of their cuts. The negotiations to come could become the graveyard of Legault’s popularity. If we mobilize en masse to oppose the CAQ’s austerity policies, we can bring down this government.