This article was originally published in French on La Riposte socialiste on June 4.
After 15 months of exhaustion, mandatory overtime, negotiations that lead nowhere, and contempt, health-care workers in Quebec are about to go on strike. All other pressure tactics have been exhausted. With the public health-care system on the brink of collapse, it is high time for a militant struggle to save it.
The CAQ is preparing
The strike votes so far have been passed overwhelmingly. At the Alliance of Professional and Technical Personnel in Health and Social Services (APTS), which represents 60,000 workers in the health sector, a 10-day strike mandate was approved by 92.4 per cent. At the FSSS-CSN, representing 110,000 workers, although the percentages were not disclosed, the union reports overwhelming support for an indefinite strike mandate. The management of the Interprofessional Health Federation of Quebec (FIQ), which brings together 76,000 nurses, will finally survey its members with a view to a potentially indefinite strike.
You don’t have to look far to understand why this is happening. We have explained elsewhere the hell that health workers have been going through since March 2020 as well as the general deterioration of conditions that dates from long before the pandemic. And anyone who personally knows a nurse or healthcare worker will know they are all at their wits’ end. But the CAQ won’t budge from its contemptuous offer of a five per cent salary increase over three years, while the FIQ-APTS alliance is demanding 12.4 per cent.
But if the health unions are preparing for a fight, it is clear that the CAQ government is also getting its weapons ready.
The CAQ, for example, commissioned a survey with questions that leave no doubt as to its intentions. Respondents are asked whether or not they agree with statements like “After a year, negotiations have gone on long enough” or “Unions should accept government offers.”
It looks like an example of a biased survey for a statistics course at CÉGEP. Vincent Marissal, a Québec solidaire MNA, rightly states: “These are biased questions that are being asked to build the government’s case for back-to-work legislation.”
François Legault himself, while denying that back-to-work legislation is on the table, did hint at what could lead to it: “As long as the negotiations are going well and there are no significant pressure tactics, we will continue the negotiations.” (our emphasis)
So if the workers don’t use pressure tactics, that’s okay. But woe if you dare to use the strike tactic too effectively!
Likewise, Christian Dubé, the minister of health, recently let it slip at a press conference when he said that the public health emergency, which gives the government exceptional powers to bypass collective agreements for health care workers, would remain in place “until we settle the collective agreements with the Treasury Board.” This clearly shows how the CAQ is prepared to use all the legal means at its disposal to attack the unions.
For a united plan
How can we win the upcoming strike?
In any sport, the team with a consistent and well-executed game plan has a better chance of winning. But in the current negotiations, each player on the union team has their own separate plan. In the absence of a common front this year, it’s every man for himself.
It must be said: this lack of a common front is a mistake that only benefits the government. In addition, the CAQ has long suggested that it would give more crumbs to teachers and orderlies than to the rest of the public sector, with the goal being to divide and rule. The government reached an agreement with the Autonomous Federation of Teachers (FAE) and a tentative agreement with the FTQ was reached with significant increases specifically for orderlies. Pressure is being put on the other unions to settle the dispute quickly.
In other unions, such as the CSQ, strike mandates have been for five days and are used here and there. The same goes for most of the unions affiliated to the CSN. The various trade union leaderships have not coordinated their plans. At times, school support staff were on strike, but not teachers, and vice versa!
It’s hard to believe that these one-off and isolated strikes, with no common plan or open prospect of escalating the struggle, are really putting pressure on the CAQ. These strikes give the impression that the union leadership is mainly concerned with letting the workers blow off steam rather than really mobilizing the troops to put pressure on the CAQ. This tactic is not working, and could even undermine the idea of a strike among a certain layer of union members.
Unfortunately, in health care as well, the union leadership does not yet have a unified plan. The FIQ and the APTS in particular are supposed to form an alliance for the current negotiations, but the APTS will be going on strike alone on June 7-8 and no common plan is apparent. The FSSS-CSN has a mandate for an indefinite strike, while the APTS has 10, and it is not yet clear what the FIQ leadership will propose.
This piecemeal mobilization will not be enough. If we want to win, the various health care trade union leaderships must have a common plan, and a joint strike must be organized. A joint strike by 250,000 health care workers would have a much greater immediate impact than an isolated strike by the APTS, the FIQ or the FSSS-CSN. There is strength in numbers!
For an all-out strike
Legault explicitly implied this fall that there would be no wage increase above inflation for nurses. If we want to win against this government, we will have to be ready to intensify the struggle. Only an all-out strike can put maximum pressure on the CAQ.
The FSSS-CSN already has a mandate for an indefinite strike. The FIQ-APTS alliance should do the same! We must demand that our union leadership put this proposal to a vote at general assemblies, and we must mobilize the rank-and-file to bring this proposal directly to the assembly.
Also, the movement will increase its chances of winning if it is truly in the hands of the members. Within the Quebec labor movement there is a tradition of secrecy in the planning of pressure tactics. For example, the nurses in the FIQ are not even aware of the leadership’s proposed plans yet. We must break with these methods. The rank-and-file must be fully involved in decision-making on pressure tactics and mobilization.
Rank-and-file committees to mobilize the workers could play an important role in engaging members directly. Such committees could organize actions, mobilize solidarity among workers in other sectors, and put pressure on the union leadership not to back down. Members should feel that they have control over the movement.
The spectre of the nurses’ defeat in 1999 still looms over the movement today. This is a recurring argument against the idea of organizing a health-care strike. But after 20 years without a strike, the situation couldn’t be worse than it is now. The health-care workers’ movement is a movement to repair decades of damage to the system, courtesy of the PQ, the Liberals and now the CAQ. There is nothing left to lose, and everything to gain!
As mentioned above, it is certain that the CAQ will not hesitate to pass an emergency law or a decree to force the health personnel to back down, if the pressure tactics are “too great”. We must prepare accordingly.
The nurses defied back-to-work legislation twice in 1999. Unfortunately, at the time, the FIQ was alone against the PQ government of Lucien Bouchard. This is why a common plan by the FIQ, the APTS and the FSSS-CSN is absolutely necessary here too!
The union leadership must come up with a concrete plan to defy back-to-work legislation and to continue the strike when it comes. What is particularly important is to call on other unions or groups of workers to join the picket lines and organize solidarity actions. If the CAQ has the nerve to violate the rights of those it calls its “guardian angels,” its disgusting hypocrisy will be exposed to thousands of people. Nurses and health-care workers have enormous respect in the general population, and they would certainly find significant support in the fight against back-to-work legislation. Such a movement of solidarity would make the CAQ tremble. This is what we must build towards.
Stand with health-care workers!
Towards an all-out strike!
Defend the right to strike, defy back-to-work legislation!