On 24th June, it was announced that a “historic” agreement had been reached between the Quebec government and the recently formed Common Front of public sector unions, which represents nearly half a million workers in the province. The agreement that was reached threw out the demands that were democratically ratified by the trade union movement and accepted what is, for all intents and purposes, the very same counter-proposal offered by the Charest government at the beginning of negotiations. After years of imposed contracts that enforced degrading work conditions, obligatory overtime, and stagnating wages, the hope of a united opposition by the unions in Quebec against the government’s austerity measures have been lost.
When the Common Front was formed on 11 May 2009, it was a historic event. For only the second time in the province’s history, Quebec’s unions were uniting to negotiate together with the government. The move to enter into common negotiations was a big step forward, as the unions agreed not to raid each other’s shops and to not settle with the government separately. The historical significance of this union cannot be understated; the last time a common front was formed was in 1972, which led to a general strike that brought to province to a standstill and the government to its knees. Many social gains that we hold dear in Quebec were the result of this giant social struggle.
With this in mind, the short-lived Common Front of today seems like a ridiculous farce. The main demand of the Common Front was simply for a 11.25% wage increase over 3 years, far from a revolutionary demand. This would amount to approximately 4% each year, which itself is barely enough to keep up with the rate of inflation. When we take into account the fact that since 2005, the unions have been operating under an imposed “collective” agreement that led to a 4% decline in real wages, this demand seems all the less extreme. So why has the Common Front leadership so hastily, and unilaterally, dropped this demand, which is essentially a wage cut when we take into account the real wages lost during the government-imposed contract?
For Marxists, this is not all that surprising. This has been a common feature shared by the majority of trade unions in every country across the globe. Throughout the life of the Common Front, the union leadership had no real perspective of struggling to achieve the aims of the membership. Over years of cozy relations with the government, they have been accustomed to adapting themselves to the capitalist state to contend for its cooperation. Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described this phenomenon in an article entitled “Trade Unions in The Epoch of Imperialist Decay;” in that article, Trotsky wrote, “There is one common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organizations in the entire world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power.”
The bureaucrats at the top of the trade unions are well entrenched in their positions and do not wish any storm or stress that could threaten this. These labour aristocrats are well divorced from the membership because of their inflated salaries and physical separation from those whose jobs are under threat. They prefer to try and work out some sort of compromise with the Ministry of Labour behind the scenes. They mobilize the membership only in extremely moderate doses, and use their member’s anger and frustration as bargaining chips with the government, really only bluffing strike action or any sort of serious opposition.
They, of course, cannot completely do away with the democratic processes within the trade unions, as they still need to maintain a veil of democracy in order to maintain their positions. They still let the membership have a say in what the main demands should be, only to jettison them at the last minute during the second meeting of negotiations with the government, which was carried out over just an hour long phone call!
The working class has the power but lacks leadership
It is clear that the public sector workers in Quebec have the will and the power to win their full demands. What is needed is a bold and resolute leadership willing to move beyond the bounds of capitalism in order to achieve the aims of rank-and-file workers.
All the evidence, so far, shows that when the trade union leaders move their little finger, the massive power of the working class is shown. One example of this was the demonstration of 20th March, where 75,000 public sector workers from the Common Front demonstrated on the downtown streets of Montreal, easily the biggest demonstration in Canada in years. The mood was festive and confident, and amongst much of the rank-and-file, there were talks of possible strike action. The leaders took the stage, taking turns denouncing the government’s counter-demands and claiming that they wouldn’t accept any wage cuts.
Looking back at this, it is easy to realize the disastrous role the current trade union leadership is playing. They were never very serious in combating the government’s attacks. Sensing the seething anger from the rank-and-file, they had to at have an outlet, in order to release a little steam. The 75,000 person demonstration provided this outlet. The sell-out, however, only serves to demoralize the rank-and-file, especially the tens of thousands of public sector workers who normally do not take part in political action. This betrayal by the trade union leadership could disillusion them for a whole period.
For a socialist perspective!
In the current epoch, a short-sighted and narrow vision will not suffice. The main reformist ideology of the trade union leadership seeks not to overthrow the capitalist system and replace it with socialism, but to reform the system bit by bit. In the current epoch of capitalist crisis, this ideology becomes reactionary. In this period in which the system cannot offer any reforms, trade union leaders, who do not have an anti-capitalist perspective like the leaders of the original 1972 Common Front, end up selling out in order to be “pragmatic” and “reasonable” in this period of capitalist austerity.
This further leads to the tendency of trade unions fusing with the state as Trotsky mentioned above. The true independence of the trade unions, acting as democratic healthy organs of struggle in the interest of their members, is only possible if the trade unions take up a socialist perspective. As Trotsky wrote, “In the epoch of imperialist decay the trade unions can be really independent only to the extent that they are conscious of being, in action, the organs of proletarian revolution.”
This sell-out has been touted as “historic” by both Jean Charest and the Common Front leadership. In a sense, they are right. This is historic because they gave up more easily than they ever have in the past. The province of Quebec hasn’t successfully negotiated collective agreements with its public sector since 1990. The ease in which the government achieved its aims, and how the union leadership has presented this as a victory, is sickening.
Technically this contract still has to be ratified by assemblies of union locals. This will obviously be presented as a victory by the union leadership, and will be justified by the fact that the economy is in recession and the government has posted a record deficit and is also in massive debt. This may win a grudgingly unhappy majority. With the absence of a socialist alternative, apathy and hopelessness can rule the day.
In this situation it is clearer than ever that capitalism offers no way forward for the working class. Wages are stagnating, or falling, in real terms; public services are being slashed; tuition is rocketing; healthcare fees are being implemented; hydro rates are increasing; and general austerity measures are being implemented across the board. Within capitalism, there is no other way but to accept these conditions being imposed on us, as the Common Front leaders have done so easily.
The only other alternative is to fight for a socialist leadership of the trade union movement. With the understanding that capitalism is not capable of even protecting the gains of the past, a general fight back against these attacks can be carried out, and the demands of the public sector workers won. The anti-capitalist perspective and traditions of the first Common Front must be re-discovered and the power of the working class unleashed once again.