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Feeling Their Power

In the wake of last month's general strike, rank-and-file workers in Quebec are pushing for a stronger agreement with the government.

O>n December 17, Quebec public-sector unions organized in the Common Front reached a tentative agreement with the government of Premier Philippe Couillard.

The agreement followed an explosive fall filled with rotating regional public-sector strikes and anti-austerity protests that culminated in the largest general strike in Quebec’s history, when more than four hundred thousand workers stayed off the job and shut down most government services on December 9.

The wave of militancy forced the Liberal Party’s Couillard to back down from his most extreme demands for concessions in negotiations with the unions. Trumpeting the need for a zero-deficit budget, he had offered only a 3 percent wage hike over a five-year contract, while demanding an increase in the retirement age to sixty-two, along with a long list of givebacks in working conditions.

Couillard didn’t help his case when he violated his own supposed principle. He gave doctors, who comprise a significant constituency within the Liberal Party, a 42 percent wage increase; raised the salaries of ministers of the National Assembly by 31 percent; and finally bailed out Quebec’s aerospace manufacturer to the tune of $1.3 billion.

By contrast, the unions had the wind in their sails heading toward the end-of-the-year showdown. The student movement had already turned Quebec against austerity in 2012 with their Maple Spring strike, which shut down the province’s higher education system for months. They brought down the previous Liberal government of Jean Charest and stopped his attempted tuition increase.

With that precedent, the unions were in a strong position after their contracts expired last spring. In negotiations, they started by demanding 13.5 percent higher pay over a three-year contract, no increase in the retirement age, and improved working conditions. When talks broke down at one point late last year, Quebec Treasury Board President Martin Coiteux declared the two sides were still “light years apart.”

But in the wake of the general strike and an opinion poll showing that 51 percent of people in Quebec supported the unions, the government retreated on its more egregious demands.

The Common Front negotiators therefore came to a tentative accord that they say boosts wages by a minimum of 9.1 percent — and as high as 10.25 percent for some workers — over five years. They compromised on the retirement age, agreeing to let it rise to sixty-one in 2019. Most union federations have also signed on to side agreements preventing the worst concession demands on working conditions.

Both the government and Common Front negotiators have celebrated the contract as a victory. “At the end of the day,” Couillard said, “it’s a good deal for the taxpayers — for the patients in the hospitals, for the kids in the schools and their parents — and also for our public-sector employees.”

The president of the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec (FTQ), Daniel Boyer, said, “We succeeded in the course of these negotiations in forcing the employer to abandon most of its demands.” Louise Chabot, of the Central des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), stated, “We can announce that the work has been rigorous and fruitful, and that we have an agreement in principle that we will quickly recommend to our members.”

The Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), which represents 65,000 nurses and was negotiating with the government separately from the Common Front, has also agreed to a tentative contract, with the same 9.1 percent raise over five years and increased retirement age of sixty-one.

They had already reached a provisional agreement on working conditions that included a higher ratio of nurses to patients, bonuses for working critical-care shifts, and more full-time positions. A spokesperson for the union announced it as a “historic victory.”

Boyer rightly called attention to the importance of the strikes and demonstrations in forcing the government to retreat, saying, “It was the mobilization that made the government move.”

But several unions and many rank-and-file militants think the Common Front could have won an even better deal.

Some are now agitating for union members to vote down the agreement. Robert Green, a teacher in Montreal, called the contract “a hollow victory” in an article for the Ricochet website.

Contrary to union leaders’ claims, Green writes, in the first and fifth years of the contract, workers will get not salary increases but lump sums of $250 and $500 respectively.

Green also says the Common Front leaders included separate agreements on step increases in wages. Once inflation is factored in, teachers, for example, “will have suffered a 2.35 percent reduction to their purchasing power by the end of the contract.” The same will be true for most other workers.

So while the Common Front did beat back the worst concessions, its deal on pay is far from what public-sector workers wanted or deserved, especially considering inflation-adjusted wages have shrunk by 4.5 percent since 2004. That’s why the radical teachers union, La Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE), recommended that its members reject a similar deal the government proposed to them.

Like the FIQ, FAE is not under the Common Front umbrella. It represents 34,000 teachers in French schools, mainly in Montreal and the western areas of the province. Union President Sylvain Malette blasted the accord, declaring, “To suggest that the lump sums are wage increases is demagoguery. On the eve of the New Year, our members are more likely to get rich by buying a lottery ticket.” The FAE has promised to continue the struggle and may vote on more strikes this winter.

In perhaps the most important development, the Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux (FSSS), which is inside the Common Front and represents over 110,000 workers, most of them low-wage employees in the health care sector, came out against the agreement after a stormy meeting of over six hundred delegates on December 22. The delegates overruled their elected leadership, who had come to the meeting suggesting members green light the deal.

FSSS is instead proposing ten more strike days this winter — quite significant from a union that accounts for over a quarter of the Common Front’s four hundred thousand members.

Another union, Syndicat regroupant l’ensemble des professionnels du gouvernement du Québec (SPGQ), which represents white-collar workers, has also has not approved the accord, nor struck a side agreement.

Benoit Renaud, an adult education teacher and member of FAE, underscored the importance of the FSSS joining his union in rejecting the deal. “Many of us were worried that we would be isolated with just our 34,000 teachers if all the Common Front unions agreed to the deal,” Renaud said. “But now, with FSSS bringing its 110,000 members into an ongoing struggle, we have more confidence for the ongoing fight.”

Lutte Commune, the newly organized network of rank-and-file militants which formed in the run-up to last fall’s strikes and protests, is organizing a “no” campaign. They have prepared leaflets to distribute at meetings where union locals and federations will poll members on the tentative agreement.

These votes will proceed over the next several weeks. Leaders of the main Common Front unions will push hard for ratification.

Speaking for them, retired CSQ leader Réjean Parent argued in an article titled “Call to Order” that this is the best unions can get. Any more strikes, he wrote, would risk provoking the government into imposing a special law forcing workers back to work and imposing a contract even worse than the one brokered by the Common Front. Parent attacked the most militant unions, FAE and FSSS, saying, “They may have the appearance of being revolutionary, but their members will pay the price.”

Given such pressure from officials, union members may vote “yes.” But even in unions that do approve the deal, there will be a sizeable minority of people who think more could have been won. This militant minority will be an important force in continuing to push for all public-sector unions to stand in solidarity with the FAE, FSSS, and SPGQ, along with the broader anti-austerity movement.

That will be essential, because Couillard remains determined to impose further cuts in public services, despite being forced to relent on his most severe attacks. While the confrontation with unions has weakened his position, he has little opposition in the National Assembly and doesn’t face an election until 2018.

The opposition parties, the Parti Quebecois (PQ) and the smaller conservative party Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), support Couillard’s austerity measures and are mired in problems of their own. The PQ’s standard-bearer, Karl Péladeau, is a billionaire media mogul who has bungled his first year heading up the party.

While the new left party Quebec Solidaire has put itself forward as the main parliamentary voice of the anti-austerity movement, it has just three representatives in the National Assembly and is therefore not yet a threat to the Liberals.

So despite its retreat, Couillard’s government will continue to push austerity, especially as the Quebec economy remains stagnant amid a slowing global economy. Unions still without an agreement and Lutte Commune will have to agitate to ensure labor leaders don’t back on their promise to fight austerity.

For example, Louise Chabot, president of the CSQ, said that the

agreement in no way constitutes an approval of the Liberal government austerity policies . . . We know that the government continues to want to cut back significantly in child care, health and education, and that’s a no-go for the ensemble of Quebec society. If we do not stop it, it will cause considerable damage to our society.

The first chance to do so will be to build solidarity with FAE, FSSS, and any other union that votes down the agreement and continues to struggle for a better deal. If these unions are able to succeed, they can raise expectations for other unions to fight for more.

The unions also have the opportunity to stand behind the struggle against public education cuts led by parents organized in Je protège mon école publique. As they did on the first of each month throughout the fall, the group has called on parents, students, and teachers to form human chains to defend their schools from austerity.

No doubt as the spring approaches, the Red Hand Coalition, which brings together community organizations, students, and unions, will keep organizing protests. The student union ASSÉ will also agitate for demonstrations against reductions in the public sector and in higher education. All this will culminate in the annual May Day protests, which have played a key role in galvanizing the anti-austerity movement.

However the vote in the union federations turns out, the upsurge in the fall and winter seems to have laid the groundwork for continued struggle in the spring.

As Philippe de Grosbois, a CEGEP teacher and elected leader of his union local in Montreal, observed: “We have to remember what’s been built through the struggle this fall. There’s been a generational turnover among public-sector workers. So the workers who went on strikes and protests were doing so for the first time. They felt their power, and they gained in confidence by fending off the worst attacks, even if this agreement is not that good. That’s very important for the future of the movement.”

Adapted from Socialist Worker.