For Quebec’s unions it’s either solidarity or austerity

Union workers protest Bill 3 in Quebec City this past August.
Union workers protest Bill 3 in Quebec City this past August.

By Nora Loreto

When the Liberals were elected in Québec last April, most progressives knew that it marked the start of a difficult four years.

The Liberals had only been out of power for 18 months. In 2012, they were tossed from office by an electorate that was fed up with corruption and austerity measures, most clearly demonstrated by the massive protests that marked the late winter and spring of 2013. The PQ had wavered while in office, triggering an election over the divisive Values Charter in a bid to win a majority. It was clear during the election campaign that the Liberals stood a good chance of re-taking power.

“The unions have tried the Common Front strategy several times in the past, only to succumb to government divide and conquer tactics. The challenge this year will be to maintain solidarity in the face of deep public sector cuts.”

On March 16, 2014 Québec’s three main union federations united to create the Common Front (Front commun). Together, the Secrétariat intersyndical des services publics (SISP), la Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) and the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ), announced that they would meet the next government as a united force. It was mid-election campaign and the unions knew that they would need to fight, regardless of the victor.

The Common Front announced that they would coordinate the collective bargaining of some 400,000 public and para-public sector workers and focus on wages, regional discrepancies and pension regimes. The unions have tried the Common Front strategy several times in the past, only to succumb to government divide and conquer tactics. The challenge this year will be to maintain solidarity in the face of deep public sector cuts.

When the Liberals were re-elected in April, they released test balloon after test balloon: from threatening to increase daycare fees to eliminating parental leave, to see what garnered the greatest outrage. Around the same time as the Common Front emerged, so did La Coalition syndicale pour la libre négociation, a group that vowed to fight against the first target of pension reform: municipal workers.

On the morning of the Throne Speech last May, tens of thousands of unionists protested outside of the National Assembly. Workers were bussed in from across Québec to send a message to the Liberals: their austerity measures would be met head on.

Bill 3: The Attack on Municipal Pension
The first battle the Liberals chose to pick was with municipal workers’ pension funds. To do this, the Liberals presented le project loi 3. It seeks to unravel defined benefits pension plans and increase employee contributions to equal half of employer contributions. Over the course of the spring, summer and early fall, workers staged protests across the province. Many workers are on uniform work-to-rule (my bus driver the other day was wearing an NFL jersey).

At the heart of the battle is the Liberal government’s desire to balance the books through workers’ pension funds. They want workers to pay a higher percentage of their pensions to help offset ballooning municipal costs that were downloaded from the province in the mid-1990s. That, combined with “pension holidays” where the employer didn’t make payments during particular years because there was no shortfall in the pensions, has created a crisis where there isn’t enough money to pay out the expected expenditures.

“Because public sector workers are facing the brunt of the Liberals’ austerity measures, negotiations around salaries and pensions are just a part of the story. The Liberals are seeking to dismantle many public services…”

The fight has huge implications for the Common Front and other public sector workers across Canada. Already, signals have been sent from the government that indicate its desire to go after university professor pensions next. As CBC’s Don Pittis wrote in August, “… if Quebec gets away with cutting municipal worker pensions, which have been eaten away through mismanagement by the very people doing the cutting, then watch this phenomenon spread.”

On October 30, the Common Front presented their demands to the Treasury Council: salary increases of 4.5% over three years. They also announced their intention to fight austerity in the streets, and joined students and social movement activists in the streets of Montréal on October 31.

Dismantling public services
The broader context is where cracks in the Common Front may emerge. Because public sector workers are facing the brunt of the Liberals’ austerity measures, negotiations around salaries and pensions are just a part of the story. The Liberals are seeking to dismantle many public services: they have promised to eliminate Health and Social Services Centres, an important level of bureaucracy that the Liberals created to help coordinate health services at the regional level across the province. They intend to cut provincial music conservatories, cut $19 million from CÉGEPs, the publicly funded pre-university colleges in the province, (for a total of $100 million over the last five years) and cut $300 million from municipalities, to name a few.

They have even floated the idea of working with pharmacy chain Jean Coutu to offer “super clinics” for health services, ignoring the CLSCs, the system of public clinics that exist across Québec already, in favour of privatization.

These cuts threaten the solidarity that holds together the Common Front. They have formed on the condition of no-raiding each other’s members. If the Liberals impose the cuts to the health care system they want, raiding will be a necessary conversation: fusing together health units will force workers to decide which federation represents them.

The Common Front might find itself at ground zero in the fight to save Québec’s public services and it’s unity will be critical to its success. As buses across the province have been plastered by municipal workers with signs that say, “We’ve stolen nothing,” labour is working to remind Québec that the real culprits here are politicians, not average working people.

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