In addition to being back on the front lines during the second wave of COVID-19, health-care professionals in Quebec are in negotiations to renew their collective agreement. Despite the terrible working conditions putting the health-care system on the edge of collapse, the government refuses to budge. Sooner or later, the question of a strike will have to be raised.
Already at the end of their rope prior to COVID-19, the CAQ government’s handling of the pandemic has made things even worse for nurses. The ministerial order adopted last March allows management to impose unbearable conditions on nurses. “Currently, we don’t have a life,” said one nurse. Recourse to mandatory overtime has tripled within a year and average overtime for Quebec nurses is the highest among all the provinces! Nurses are leaving the system in the hundreds. Furthermore, no fewer than 17,000 health workers have contracted COVID-19. This cannot continue.
Nurses in Quebec are also the lowest paid in Canada. It’s not for nothing that the nurses are demanding a 21.6 per cent raise over three years. But Premier François Legault has clearly stated that there will be no salary increases above inflation. The latest offer from Legault to health professionals is an insult: five per cent over three years and one-time bonuses of $1,000 for those at the top of the ladder. This has been categorically rejected, with good reason.
The union leaders regularly denounce the government which they say “negotiates in bad faith.” But why should we expect anything else? This is the same government which has done nothing to fix the situation within the health system since it has been in power, and which has offered nothing to solve the crisis provoked by the pandemic, instead placing further pressure on nurses with a ministerial order.
In spite of thousands of denunciations, demonstrations this spring and fall, the #baslesmasques and “Stop à l’omerta” movements, and bridge blockages in Montréal and Québec City, the CAQ has made no significant concessions. Aside from empty words, the nurses and health-care personnel have been completely abandoned. A conciliatory attitude will not work in the face of a government which holds us in contempt. Weakness invites aggression. The time has come to ramp up the pressure tactics.
Sooner or later, we will need to talk about the elephant in the room. To be effective, we must be ready to take things right to the end. The greatest power the workers possess, including health-care workers, is refusing to work: the strike.
So far, it has seemed taboo to speak of a strike. But if the CAQ knows there will be no strike, it will give nothing but crumbs. Never in the history of the workers’ movement have we seen a government retreat without, at the very least, a serious threat of a strike.
But it’s not combativity that is lacking. The nurses are at the end of their rope and want to fight for better conditions. The spontaneous sit-ins that we’ve seen over the last two years testify to this.
In fact, the FIQ (Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la Santé du Québec) took steps in this direction in October when it submitted its demands to the Tribunal administratif du travail (TAT) for a legal strike. Unfortunately, it seems no serious preparation has been done. The FIQ does not speak about a strike to its members, nor to the media. It’s necessary, starting now, to prepare the entire membership to mobilize in order to win this struggle. If we won’t organize a strike, we might as well admit defeat right away.
Nurses have a rich history of struggle. But their last strike, in 1999, unfortunately went down in defeat. This led Régine Laurent, former FIQ president, to declare that strikes should be avoided in general. This fear of struggle has been damaging and has led to the deterioration of working conditions. It is time to free ourselves of this fear. We haven’t gone on strike for 20 years, and all that we have gotten is more mandatory overtime, stagnating wages and working conditions that push many of us to quit for the private sector. We can’t let the health system crumble while doing nothing.
The lesson of the 1999 strike is not that strikes should be rejected. What was missing at the time was the active support of the broader workers’ movement.
The pandemic means that it would be difficult for most nurses to actively be on strike. But the nurses are not alone. The whole system is in crisis, and everyone wants things to change! A nurses’ strike would certainly generate sympathy from other health workers.
In this way, the nurses’ struggle can be strengthened by solidarity picket lines organized collectively with other unions in front of all the hospitals. If nurses must remain on the front line against the pandemic, then the other sectors of the working class should be called in to back them up!
The entire public sector is after all in negotiations. The government definitely has more enemies than friends. Through united picket lines, we can advance the struggle of all public sector employees. Only a united movement can scare the CAQ and make them back off!
The CAQ will say that a strike will put patients in danger. Does the CAQ, responsible for the carnage in the old folks homes, really have lessons to give us on how to provide health care? Health workers themselves are the best situated to decide which essential services must be maintained. It would be slanderous to say that nurses would let patients suffer during a strike.
Undoubtedly, many nurses will have concerns. A strike is not decided upon lightly. It is necessary to be ready to fight until the end. It is necessary to be ready for all sorts of attacks by the government, institutions like the TAT, and the media. They are in the back pocket of the ruling class.
But do we have a choice? Are we going to allow the CAQ to continue to destroy our public services and lead us all to burnout? Our union leadership has the duty to develop a concrete plan for organizing a strike through to the end. This must include a plan to mobilize the broader union movement, and to defy laws aiming at breaking the movement.
It is entirely possible to build a movement for a strike. We even have a recent inspiring example. On Oct. 26, wildcat strikes erupted in around 50 hospitals in Alberta to fight back against massive job cuts announced to the system. There is no reason we can’t have a strike here as well, especially if we are well prepared in advance.
The population would certainly rally behind a mass movement of nurses. If our union leadership puts forward a concrete plan for how to get there, and shows that it is ready to lead a struggle, skepticism in our ranks will rapidly be swept away. We need to agitate in our unions and promote this perspective. This is what La Riposte syndicale proposes—join us to make it happen!