After just five days, the Quebec government has legislated an end to the construction workers’ strike. This is the second time in just four years that the provincial government has taken away the right to strike for the 175,000 construction workers in Quebec. In the epoch of capitalist crisis, this kind of draconian attack on union rights has become the norm during labour conflicts in Quebec.
From the very beginning of the strike, the Liberals threatened the workers with back-to-work legislation. The construction bosses, knowing very well that they can count on the Liberals to do this, showed no real interest in actually negotiating. And why would they? The union leaders denounced the Quebec Construction Association (ACQ) for negotiating in bad faith, intentionally trying to derail the negotiations knowing full well that the government would simply legislate an end to the labour conflict.
With negotiations breaking down and left with no other option, the union alliance representing the workers called a demonstration in front of the National Assembly in Quebec City on Monday. Thousands of angry construction workers bused in from all over the province to denounce the government as they debated the proposed back-to-work legislation. The raw class anger was palpable. This was evident from the many placards that the workers displayed. “The boss is stealing from my pocket,” “My family is worth more than your profits,” “This is a class struggle,” and “Fuck your back-to-work legislation!” were just a few.
The militant mood was displayed clearly near the end of the demonstration when a large section of the demonstration approached a line of riot police which had encircled the parliament building. The workers threw projectiles at the police and yelled insults with some workers referring to the them as “Couillard’s praetorian guard.” This situation continued for approximately an hour and a more severe conflict was only avoided when Michel Trépanier, the spokesperson of the union alliance, was called in by the police to speak to the workers using the riot police’s megaphone. He thanked the workers for their engagement, but told them that “There must not be mayhem.”
Obviously scared at what this angry gathering of workers might do, the provincial government delayed the implementation of back-to-work legislation. Bill 142 was instead adopted the following day and came into effect on Wednesday. This put an end to the strike and enforces a mediation period of five months. To add insult to injury, it imposed a 1.8 per cent wage increase which is lower than the last offer from the employers of 1.9 per cent. The union leaders have told their members to respect the law but are not sure that they will follow orders. As Michel Trépanier told CBC Montreal’s Daybreak, “I hope everything will go well, but my feeling… I don’t like the situation right now because people are angry, really angry, so we’ll see.”
The trap of bourgeois legality
Construction workers in Quebec have a proud and militant tradition. They also hold immense economic power as one in twenty workers in the province works in the construction industry and it costs the economy $45 million per day when they go on strike. The 10-day construction strike that took place in 2013 resulted in Quebec’s GDP taking a hit of 1.1 per cent! This power needs to be fully harnessed and the leaders must be prepared to take the movement as far as it needs to go in order to win.
While there was clearly a very defiant mood among the rank and file, the union leaders have been holding the workers back by insisting that the law be respected. As was mentioned previously, the implementation of back-to-work legislation is not a new phenomenon in Quebec but is now used anytime a significant section of the workers goes on strike. Negotiations play out in a series of bluffs with the bosses, ultimately being the only party willing to play the final hand. The bosses count on the fact that the union leaders will accept the law so they have no reason to back down in the negotiations. If the union leaders are not prepared to defy the back-to-work legislation then the movement will be handicapped right from the get-go.
On top of this, the entire movement was organized in a very insular manner and union leaders made virtually no attempts to build a broader movement against the government and appeal for solidarity from other unions and the wider community. In fact, when our activists contacted the CSD-Construction (Confederation of Democratic Unions) to ask if we would be able to board the union buses to attend the rally in Quebec City, we were told that our solidarity “was not appropriate,” as this was not a political movement. This ridiculous answer reflects the general narrow view of the union bureaucracy that doesn’t want things to get out of hand.
While the bosses and the government have managed to put an end to the strike at the moment, the anger and frustration of the workers has not dissipated. What is needed to defeat anti-democratic legislation is a perspective within the union to defy unjust laws and to reach out to other unions to build a broader social movement.
At the end of the day, the law is just a piece of paper that cannot be enforced if it is defied en masse. This is one of the main lessons from the 2012 student strike. When the Quebec government adopted the anti-democratic “Law 78,” the refusal by the ASSE to accept the law created a social explosion and made the legislation virtually inapplicable. This is what is needed to defeat the bosses and the government.
Anti-democratic back-to-work legislation must be defied!
Union leaders must not hold back rank-and-file militancy!