Biggest strikes in Quebec since 1972

by Robbie Mahood (Montreal, December 2015)

Leaders of Quebec’s Common Front of public sector unions and the provincial Liberal government of Premier Philippe Couillard announced a tentative agreement on December 17. The deal covers wages and pensions. Working conditions are negotiated separately by sector. Grouped in the Common Front are the unions representing government employees affiliated with the major union centrals, notably, the CSN (Confédération des syndicats nationaux) and the FTQ (Fédération des travailleurs du Québec), as well as several non-affiliated unions.

The agreement came on the heels of a one day general strike involving over 400,000 workers of the Common Front and affecting schools, health care facilities and government services across the province. While picket lines were set up at work sites, 40,000 marched in downtown Montreal and another 20,000 in Quebec City.

The December 9 strike was the biggest since 1972. That’s when the original Common Front launched a work stoppage of 200,000 government employees that in some communities saw strike committees commandeer radio stations and take charge of government services, and ended only after union leaders were imprisoned.

Preceding the December strike was an autumn punctuated by big mobilizations. A mass union demonstration in Montreal on October 3 opposed the austerity agenda of the Liberal regime. The Common Front launched a series of rotating strikes. Community organizations, students, the feminist movement and climate justice activists also took to the streets. Teachers camped outside the Minister of Education’s office, picketed schools, and marched in their thousands, supported by a parents’ group dedicated to defending “our public schools”.

As negotiations wore on, public opinion shifted perceptibly against the government. The workers’ demands are seen by many as protecting the integrity of Quebec’s public health care and educational institutions. There is sympathy as well for the underpaid and largely female workforce who keep government services running. Average pay for government employees in Quebec lags 8% behind their private sector counterparts.

Support for the Liberal austerity drive has also been undermined by the government’s obvious class bias and hypocrisy. A $1.2 billion bail-out of Bombardier, Quebec’s flagship in the global corporate world, and a 34% pay increase awarded to the province’s doctors were announced during negotiations with the Common Front!

Both the union leaders and the government for separate but convergent reasons wished to avoid a prolonged stand-off and the risk of an escalating confrontation. A repetition on a grander scale of Quebec’s epic student strike of 2012 is something both parties would prefer to avoid.

The agreement in principle was widely hailed in the media. It was billed as an 11th hour ‘miracle’ that, thanks to compromise on both sides, would meet the government’s austerity targets while at the same time “avoiding (sic) the impoverishment” of its employees, to quote the FTQ’s chief negotiator.

A closer assessment indicates that compromise came overwhelmingly from the union side. Salary increases will be limited to under 2% annually for the next 5 years and this after years of retrenchment.

The agreement reached after a 13 hour secret session in the office of Martin Coiteux, Quebec’s President du Conseil du trésor (effectively the Finance Ministry), was not exactly a charade. But it has the character of shadow-boxing between two ‘frères ennemis’ (brother enemies), as some in Quebec term the relationship between the union tops and the employers.

It remains to be seen how easy it will be to sell this package to the ranks. Already there are signs of discontent. Delegates to the council of the FSSS (Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux – Federation of health and social service workers), representing about a quarter of the Common Front members, have recommended rejection. Likewise opposed to the agreement, even though outside the Common Front, are leaders of the FAE (Fédération autonome de l’enseignement – Autonomous Federation of Teachers) representing 34,000 Montreal area teachers.

Voting by members of the unions will take place early in the New Year. Rejection of their leaders’ advice will take courage and would pose the question of how to take the struggle forward. In particular, it would raise the perspective of a general or social strike, since nothing less will be required to defeat the Liberal government.