he so-called “blue collars” of Montreal (municipal employees who perform non-bureaucratic functions), have recently been subject to attack by a court of arbitration. They had formerly enjoyed a guarantee of a four-day, 35-hour work week. Following the decision of arbiter Gilles Lavoie, this important gain for a section of the working class has just been jettisoned in the interests of the City’s bottom line. In addition to imposing cuts to wages and benefits (as usual), the decision calls for a 36-hour work week and, instead of a four-day guarantee, this aspect of the collective agreement will have to be negotiated individually with each of Montreal’s 170 boroughs.

While to many in other lines of work, even the current decision may seem like easy living, the fact is that it merely represents the first wave of an assault on the working class as a whole in Quebec. The elimination of living standards which allow for an increased quality of life is, in itself, a step backward for workers’ interests. Furthermore, it is an indication of what is to come for workers who are far less protected and have far less power than do the well-organized City workers.

This episode is (as any worker knows firsthand) no isolated trend. Across the industrialized world, gains that took decades of workers’ struggle to secure are being eliminated by the same bourgeois state which we pressured to concede the gains in the first place. Since capitalism is no longer productive enough to generate the same amount of wealth that it previously did, the employing class or bourgeoisie is seeking every means of cutting corners and saving on labour expenses. While a certain section of the bourgeoisie chooses to export labour to cheaper markets in the Third World, another section uses its clout to pressure domestic governments into retracting protective legislation. This requires the tactic of union-busting, which renders the working class weaker and more vulnerable to exploitation. The state, a tool in the hands of the ruling class, can be relied upon to perform this function.

The decision of the arbiter, according to union president Michel Parent, was simply an enforcement of the will of the City of Montreal. For its part, the position of the City is a reflection of the overall policy climate of the Charest government – which is seeking to reduce the level of overall unionization in Quebec, make the labour market more “flexible,” and use the fragmentation of the working class to reduce living and working standards for workers. Quebec has the highest rate of unionization in North America (at 40.4%), and this presents an obstacle to the ability of government and employers to simply do as they please. Since public employees come directly under the jurisdiction of the government, they are the first targets in the war of the ruling class against the working class. (It also doesn’t hurt that the municipal government is the employer in this particular dispute.)

The “blue collars,” much to their credit, have angrily refused to accept the arbiter’s decision. As of the time of this writing, they are pursuing an appeal before the Supreme Court of Quebec to annul the ruling. As one of the most militant sections of organized labour in Quebec, they are a force to be reckoned with. They have promised to use other means of persuasion – beginning with a “go-slow” in which heavy machinery is being moved from one borough to another without authorization, with the effect that all tasks involving this machinery are disrupted. Nine hundred employees are facing maximum fines of $5000 or 12 months imprisonment for “contempt of court.”

Less time at work means more leisure time for workers to participate in political life, personal development and social contact, and generally realize their potential as human beings rather than simply functioning as units of labour power. The struggle for the shortened work week is a struggle which has been ongoing since the first workers’ organizations. The movements for the 12-hour and then the 8-hour day were giant strides forward in advancing the interests of working people; the weekend was a similar conquest after decades of struggle.

However, more and more people are being forced to work overtime, on weekends, and for less pay than before. If we do not fight to defend what we have won, as the blue collar workers in Montreal are doing now, we will continue to lose ground.

The interests of the capitalist class and its hold on wealth are the only argument for the backward trend in labour legislation. Capitalism cannot function in the interests of workers; struggle with the ruling class is, unfortunately, inherent in the advancement of workers’ interests. One of the first and constant tasks of socialist society is the use of labour-saving technology, which will allow people to work less while producing more. However, in order for this to take place we must first stop subsidizing the parasitic class of employers (whose only claim to the profits that workers generate is that they own the machinery which workers operate). Furthermore, we must plan the economy according to need, so that we do not waste time, effort, and wealth producing more than is necessary. No one is better able to decide how much workers need and how workers will produce it, than workers themselves. (This can be summed up in the phrase of a “planned economy under workers’ control.”)

The only society that can function in the interests of workers is one which workers themselves rule: a socialist society. Under capitalism, we can only expect more bills, more taxes, and ever more work.

(For more information on the topic of technology and the reduction of labour time, see http://www.marxist.com/science/alienationandthefuture.html)

November, 2004