PV Montreal Bureau
The Front Commun (Common Front) of public sector trade unions in Quebec stepped up workplace actions in late October with a rotating strike across the province, as negotiations with the Couillard Liberal government remain stalled. The actions are the first in a sequence of escalation including one-day strikes and walkouts.
The Front Commun is a long-standing tactic of public sector unions of Quebec going back to the 1970s. This year’s alliance brings together labour organizations representing more than 400,000 workers in the health systems and social services, education, higher education and the public service of Quebec. The rotating strike involves teachers, care professionals, professionals, technicians, support and administrative staff, as well as workers and officials in health institutions, social services, school boards, colleges, government agencies and the public service.
The strike actions follow one of the largest recent mobilizations of trade unionists in Quebec and Canada at the beginning of October. That’s when 150,000 people from across Quebec filled the streets of Montreal, rallying behind the banner of the Front Commun and against austerity cuts. The following week over a hundred unionists occupied the offices of the tax and financial advisory firm KPMG, to highlight the issue of corporate tax evasion and massive bank profits.
For its part, the government appears to be digging in its heels. The workers’ contracts expired at the end of March and negotiations remain at a deadlock. Members recently gave their unions a six-day strike mandate which will initially impact all regions of Quebec over a two-week period.
The main sticking points include a package of austerity cuts imposed on the public sector, including a two-year wage freeze and pension cuts. If negotiations remain stuck, an additional two day strike is planned for November 9. A Quebec national-wide three-day strike is planned on December 1, 2, and 3. Speaking earlier to the press, union officials said they hoped the strike will be like a “giant toothache” for the government.
“It’s the intransigence of the government forcing us to use the strike as a last resort,” Daniel Boyer, president of the FTQ (Quebec Federation of Labour) said in a media release. “We used, to date, all the means at our disposal; we have gathered more than 150,000 people in the streets of Montreal, we have shown openness and good faith at the bargaining table, but despite this, government negotiators still have no mandates to advance the negotiations.”
“The government is showing an alarming irresponsibility,” said Jacques Létourneau, president of the CSN (Confederation of National Trade Unions). “They are proposing a totally unrealistic financial framework which will result in massive cuts in all our public networks. Meanwhile, the government is carrying out unprecedented attacks on the working conditions of its employees which not only undermine their ability to deliver quality services, but might cause dramatic loss of expertise in our public networks. The entire population of Quebec who would suffer the consequences. That’s why we are on strike starting tomorrow: to stop this demolition, caused by the Liberal Party, now.”
In its briefings on negotiations the Front Commun have highlighted a series of areas of particular concern: wages, pensions, pay equity, regional disparities, as well as work organization and quality of work life. Other issues including outsourcing and privatization, job security, renewal of the workforce, and professional autonomy.
Speaking to People’s Voice, Pierre Fontaine leader of the Parti Communiste du Quebec, noted that the government has proposed a two year wage freeze, followed by one percent by year for the remaining three years. Fontaine agreed with the Front Commun’s assessment that this proposal will have a harsh impact on their members. Because of successive neo-liberal cutbacks, the Front Commun cites a growing pay differential between Quebec provincial employees and that of federal and municipal workers in the rest of Canada.
“But perhaps more importantly, while a certain perception exists that public sector workers receive better wages than their counterparts in the private sector, it is now proven by official government statistics that public sector wages, for comparable work, are seven percent below the private sector,” Fontaine said. “If the government’s current proposal for a wage freeze is adopted, the gap will widen to 15 percent.”
“Compared to Ontario, Quebec was relatively industrially under-developed because of national oppression,” Fontaine added. “With the Quite Revolution, the public sector was massively and quickly expanded. At the same time, in the 1960s, the workers were organized. Like negotiations in the manufacturing sector in Ontario, such as auto, which have historically influenced wages for the rest of the working class across the province, public sector negotiations in Quebec have been similarly significant.
“To this day, the public sector in Quebec has a higher rate of unionization than the private sector. Almost all public sector workers are in a union. This compares to no more than twenty percent in the private sector. The pattern of negotiations and what is adopted by the public sector indirectly effects the negotiations for all workers across the province, almost like national-level negotiations as exists in some countries.
“Unless the Front Commun is able to reverse this trend with its current strike, there will be a significant downward pressure on the wages of all the working class in Quebec,” Fontaine said. “This is what is at stake and why, together with the question of the dangerous reduction of public services, the PCQ is calling for strong and broad public support of the Front Commun strikes this autumn.”