Five unions, which represent a total of 175,000 construction workers across Quebec, went on strike as of Sunday midnight when negotiation broke down. This is the first province-wide strike of construction workers in 20 years. Union leader Yves Ouellet said, “We have the right to strike and that’s what we are going to do.” Construction across the province has ground to a stop, hurting the bosses’ pocketbooks.
The strike has halted construction at major projects across the province, making them look like abandoned sites. Some of these projects include the MUHC super hospitals, Quebec City’s pro-hockey arena, and the $8.5-billion La Romaine hydro-electric facility. Instead of hammering, drilling, digging and the sound of large construction machines, we see cheering and chanting construction workers as they hold picket lines everywhere.
At the heart of the dispute is that the bosses want to force construction workers to take less pay while working longer hours. The bosses want to reduce overtime pay from double time to time-and-a-half, which would mean a pay-cut of up to $3,000 per year. At the same time, they also want to introduce a six-day work-week and a 14-hour-day. The workers balk at these attempts to cut their living standards. Furthermore, the bosses can only offer one-per cent wage increase, while the unions are demanding three per cent in the first year, and 2.75 per cent in the next two years.
The Quebec construction sector represents about 15% of GDP and $51-billion worth of investment. This strike is a big blow to the Quebec economy, but it is a risk that the Quebec capitalists are willing to take in order to wring concessions from the workers. During more “stable” periods, the construction bosses may have been able to reach an accommodation with the unions, hence the fact that there hasn’t been any construction workers’ strikes since 1986. However, the world economy is now in dire shape. The ruling class is forced to extract every little bit of profit that they can from the working class.
Yves-Thomas Dorval of the Quebec Council of Employers has said, “In 2013, the inflation in Quebec will be one per cent. Economic growth will be two per cent, but the ask from the unions is for 3.7 per cent. There are no other sectors where they go beyond what is the current economic growth or the inflation.” (Emphasis added). Across the country, this is the agenda being put forward by the ruling class — workers are going to be forced into accepting cuts to their living conditions. This is the reality of today’s capitalism, one which can no longer provide a better working condition for the people.
Up until recently, the provincial PQ government has said that it is up to the construction bosses and the union to reach an agreement to the strike. Labour minister Agnes Maltais has said, “This will be settled by negotiation.” However, as the strike continues and valuable construction projects remain idle, the PQ’s patience is wearing thin. As this article is being written, Quebec premier Pauline Marois has threatened to bring in a “special law” if negotiations between the unions and bosses do not advance. Marois and the provincial government are in a bind; on the one hand, they face pressures from the ruling class who do not wish to continue to lose money from the strike. The mayor of Quebec City, Regis Labeaume, has gone on record by saying that he “would not hesitate” to legislate an end to the strike. But, back-to-work legislation could seriously damage Marois’ fragile minority government. We have seen how heavy-handed action from governments can provoke a much larger reaction; the Quebec Liberals burned their fingers last year with the imposition of Bill 78, and more recently, a wildcat strike by Alberta prison guards sent shockwaves through that province. Furthermore, Marois and the PQ must be careful to not be seen as being too close to the corrupt construction bosses, a scandal which has brought down two Montreal mayors and called into question the entire legitimacy of the province’s political apparatus.
The outcome of this strike could be significant for the labour movement in not only Quebec, but also in the rest of Canada. This is one of the largest strikes seen in Quebec in the recent period and the bosses would like to send a message to the rest of the labour movement; if the bosses can force such a large and important sector to accept cuts, it will harder for other smaller unions to fight against similar attacks to their working conditions. On the other hand, a victory by construction workers could embolden workers in other sectors of the economy that it is possible to fight and beat back the capitalists’ austerity agenda. Thus, this struggle is not just about the five unions and the 175,000 workers currently on strike; this is a struggle that affects the whole of the labour movement.
Therefore it is pertinent for the whole of the labour movement — this includes the trade unions, the student unions, Quebec Solidaire, and the NDP — to throw its full support behind this strike. In addition to statements of support, concrete actions need to be taken, such as solidarity demonstrations and visits to the picket lines. Only through such unity the construction bosses can be beaten back.