After a year of negotiations on the renewal of public sector collective agreements, and in light of the inflexibility displayed by the government of Quebec, its refusal to listen to workers’ demands and its unjustified attacks on their working conditions, the Front Commun, a common front of unions representing public sector workers, launched strike action on 6 November.
In a letter addressed to Prime Minister François Legault, Education International (EI) supported the legitimate demands of the Front Commun and expressed its deep concern at the Quebec government's refusal to open negotiations. This refusal is tantamount to a non-recognition of the thousands of public service workers.
Worrying working conditions in the public sector
More than 500 walkouts were staged across Quebec to counter the government’s attacks and to secure significant improvements in working conditions. Some 420,000 workers in the education, higher education, health and social services sectors voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action (95%) and came together as a united front on picket lines to press the government to negotiate.
The Front Commun brings together public sector workers – Centrale des Syndicats du Québec (CSQ), the Fédération des Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Québec (FTQ), the Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux (CSN), and the Alliance du Personnel Professionnel et Technique de la Santé et des Services Sociaux (APTS).
For the Front Commun, if the government wants to be an employer of choice, this should be reflected at the negotiating table.
The CSQ pointed out that, “before turning to strike action as a last resort, the Front Commun had spent months arguing that the government’s offers were not acceptable in the context of such dire working conditions in the public sector” and “a 95% vote in favour of strike action is a historic high”.
The union centre described the proposed pay rise of 10.3% over the next five years as “insulting” in the context of such high levels of inflation. It also said that “the attacks on the pension scheme are unjustified and the flexibility demanded at every turn by the employers’ side is outrageous”.
For the CSQ, the government, with its negotiating stance, “is once again demonstrating its inability to understand the difficulties faced in the public sector and the urgent need to save the sinking ship. It also shows how completely out of touch the government is with the anger felt by exhausted workers who are shouldering the burden of ever weaker public services.”
Workers from the six trade union centres representing teaching, administrative, and support staff in primary, secondary, and college education are particularly affected by staff shortages and recruitment challenges.
Unions reject attempts to narrow negotiations
The FNEEQ-CSN teachers’ federation underlined that “the outcome of the strike consultation was that the union organisations comprising the Front Commun had given it a historic mandate”.
It explained that in the general and vocational college sector (CEGEP), all the unions affiliated to the FEC-CSQ college education federation and the FNEEQ-CSN had voted in favour of a walkout that could go as far as an unlimited general strike.
This, it said, sends the employers’ side a clear message: “The current offers are inadequate, unsatisfactory, insulting even, and members are ready to continue mobilising, turning to this ultimate form of pressure.”
Following a mass demonstration by the Front Commun on 23 September, which saw over 100,000 people gather in the streets of Montreal to defend public services, the Quebec government ordered the employers’ committees at the sectoral negotiating tables to streamline the demands, narrowing them down to just five or six.
“In addition to the content of this prioritised submission, what emerges from this streamlining process and the negotiating spectacle that the government is inviting us to engage in, is the Treasury Board’s undue control over the sectoral talks,” stressed the FNEEQ-CSN. “ The teachers represented in the negotiations (Teachers United) refuse to reduce the bargaining process to a few managerial priorities, in the same way that they refuse to allow the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) – the political formation that formed a majority government following the general election in Quebec on 1 October 2018 – to monopolise the public space on this issue. We know that the gains made by the unions in these negotiations are also essential to maintaining quality public services, a collective aspiration that has been highlighted by the pandemic. We will be stepping up our efforts over the coming weeks to bring our talks to a successful conclusion.”
Public sector workers will be on strike from 21 to 23 November. Other unions representing public service staff who are not part of the Front Commun have also announced their intention to join the indefinite general strike.