The long awaited public sector strike in Quebec has begun. From October 26th – 29th, 400,000 public sector workers in Quebec staged strikes to protest against the austerity measures of the provincial Liberal government. These strikes were rotating, with different regions striking on different days. Another wave of rotating strikes will take place in November and then the movement will culminate with a three-day province wide public sector general strike on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of December.
Following the election victory of the Liberals last year, they wasted no time in committing themselves to an ambitious program of deep cuts in social spending. Billions of dollars are being gutted from the public sector while rates for daycares, hydro and other public services are being hiked. Seeking to rein in public spending - wages, pensions and working conditions of public sector workers are on the chopping block. Discontent and anger has been increasing among workers, as mass demonstrations are now commonplace, with workers staging actions in all areas of the province. The most recent major show of force was the 150,000 public sector workers who took to the streets of Montreal on October 3rd.
This past spring, in spite of an obvious desire among the rank and file to fight back against the government, the union leadership stifled mobilizations by sinking into what could only be described as a circus of lengthy negotiations. All mobilizations were put on hold and the momentum built up over months was scuttled. In spite of this, approximately 30 CEGEP teachers’ unions staged a 1-day illegal strike on May 1st against the wishes of their central union leaders. For this, many teachers have been suspended or reprimanded by administrators.
To the surprise of no one, the negotiations during the summer proved to be a joke, with the government intransigently insisting that the workers pay for the poor state of the public finances. In fact, in the middle of the negotiations, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard had the gall to gloat about what they were doing, while speaking at a Liberal party convention. He said, “the citizens are telling us ‘you are doing what must be done. Continue, and do not give up!’ Our task is not easy. Positive results are already being felt. Be wary though, there is still some way to go. The world economy is still turbulent and unstable.”
The capitalists criminalize working class resistance
In the face of mounting working class resistance, the government has been clamping down on basic democratic rights. In May, Marc Cuconati, president of the hospital workers union at Montreal’s Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital told Le Devoir that “Ever since the election of the Liberal government, we are facing unprecedented repression. Every protest action is smothered and gagged. The results of which is a censorship not seen since the Duplessis era.” Nicole Daniel, the president of the workers’ union at the newly Integrated Centre for Health and Social Services (Centre Intégré Universitaire de Santé et de Services Sociaux) for the east island also complained against such measures. She explained that the members of the union are now forbidden to even wear the union sweater. “Since February, anyone who wears this sweater is given a warning that it is illegal. Employees have so far received ten disciplinary warnings and one employee was even suspended. We find this unbearable as that was our only means of visible protest.” The president of the Montreal central of the CSN, Dominique Daigneault believes that the administrators who are implementing these harsh disciplinary measures are, “executives who seem to be afraid of losing their jobs and therefore apply an undemocratic internal policy, limiting union power and freedom of expression.”
This is all part of the government’s attempts to legally impose their will onto the public sector workers. This became especially clear when, in the middle of negotiations, they began conspiring with municipalities to allow them to dictate working conditions by decree onto the municipal employees if there is no advancement in the negotiating process. The Minister of Municipal Affairs, Pierre Moreau, in a meeting with the Union of Quebec Municipalities in May said, “You want new tools? We'll give them to you. We will discuss changes to labour relations in the municipal sector.”
The complaints from mayors like Régis Labeaume of Quebec City is that the municipalities are “taken hostage by the unions” due to the fact that they cannot impose back to work legislation and dictate working conditions like the provincial government is able to do. “For eight years I have been asking for us to be able to dictate working conditions. We cannot speak of municipal autonomy if we cannot take hold of the biggest expense of the city. For me, this is the biggest issue.”
The result of the discussions between the province and the municipalities is a new “fiscal pact,” containing a $300 million annual reduction in transfers to the municipalities. In order to give the municipalities the legal muscle to force this onto the workers if they protest, Moreau is giving them more powers. These would include things such as binding arbitration, which would allow an arbitrator to simply impose the “best final offer” of the government onto the workers. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the “best final offer” of a government with $300 million less funds will not be a good one. Most of the details of these powers have yet to be released, but it is obvious that this is not good news for the workers. The president of the Union of Quebec Municipalities, Suzanne Roy has applauded this new agreement saying “This gives us a slightly more comfortable position, whereas before we often had our hands tied."
This has been widely denounced by union leaders with the sharpest denunciation coming from the president of the Police Brotherhood, Yves Francoeur who said that the government “wants to transform mayors into absolute monarchs.”
The spectre of back-to-work legislation
As the strikes roll out and the 3-day public sector general strike looms in the near future, there is an elephant in the room. It is of course, the so often used, back to work legislation or “loi spéciale” as it is known in Quebec. Time and time again, each moment the workers rise to fight against injustice and imposed austerity by corporate backed governments, these governments use the law to take away their right to strike. A cursory glance at the history of labour action in the province shows us that no matter which party is in power, the government has always been quick to take away the right to strike. In 1972 after a weeklong public sector general strike, the Liberal government of Robert Bourassa passed back-to-work legislation to end the strike movement. In 1982, the Parti Quebecois government of René Lévesque imposed a collective agreement onto 310,000 striking public sector workers, ending their strike. In 1999, Health Minister Pauline Marois imposed law 160, forcing an end to a nurse’s strike. In 2005 the Liberal government of Jean Charest imposed contracts onto public sector workers once again. The last PQ government of Pauline Marois passed back-to-work legislation in 2013, forcing 77,000 striking construction workers back to work.
The current strike movement represents a fantastic opportunity to beat back the austerity agenda of the Quebec government. The creativity, militancy and desire to fight shown by rank and file workers thus far has been exemplary. This is truly the only force that has the power to defeat the agenda of the Quebec capitalists and their lackeys in the Couillard government. Therefore, the whole labour and student movements, both public and private, in English and French Canada need to rally behind the public sector workers of Quebec. Solidarity demonstrations, strikes and pickets need to be organized to assist them in their struggle. A victory for the public sector workers in Quebec will serve as inspiration for workers all over the country.
It is imperative that the movement is armed with the perspective to defy any attempts by the government to legislate the workers back to work. The workers should learn the lesson from 2012 when the Quebecois students defied the anti-democratic bill 78 and sparked one of the biggest movements of civil disobedience in the history of Canada. A law is only a piece of paper when the masses refuse obey it. We've seen how strikes in the recent period have been defeated by government diktat. Therefore, the movement needs to prepare now to defy back-to-work legislation. When the mass of the workers move, there is no force on earth that can stop them!