By Robert Green
As if to remind teachers of the reason they would be walking the picket-line, many teachers throughout Quebec woke up on the first of several rotating strike days to the news that the government had found $1.3 billion dollars to once again bail-out Bombardier.
For months the Quebec government had been telling its teachers that there was no money to maintain limits on class size, no money to maintain the weighting system that ensures that classes with a higher proportion of students with special needs are either reduced in size or supported with additional staff, no money to maintain budgets for the resource teachers that staff school resource rooms where students can go for one-on-one help, and no money to offer Quebec’s teachers, already the lowest paid in Canada, anything more than a paltry 3% over 5 years.
Now suddenly when it came to bailing out a corporation that had in recent years moved 1700 Quebec jobs to Mexico, been exposed for hiding approximately half a billion dollars in a Luxembourg tax haven and hired former Liberal Finance Minister Raymond Bachand as its chief lobbyist, the government had over a billion dollars to play with.
This indicated to both teachers and the public-at-large several things. First it indicated that the government’s claim to have no choice but to remove services from needy students was a lie. When asked by the CBC about the money going to Bombardier, Quebec’s economy minister Jacques Daoust crowed about what a great investment it would be for taxpayers to buy into Bombardier’s failed C-series jet program. When the CBC host then asked Mr. Daoust if spending on public education was not also an investment in Quebec’s future, all Mr Daoust could say was that the government was already spending a lot on education. This revealed clearly that it is not the ability to pay for investments in public education that is missing, it is only the political will to do so.
Second this announcement indicated that the campaign upon which the Liberal Party had been elected was essentially a massive fraud. Neither Couillard nor any of the candidates he ran with had said anything about the radical transformations the Liberals are now attempting to impose upon Quebec’s public education system. At no point did they announce their intention to rid teachers’ contracts of nearly every clause that protects the learning conditions of students. Instead, in the wake of the PQ’s fractious charter of values debate, they presented themselves as a party offering political stability. Ironically about the only thing they said about education during the campaign was that they saw it as an investment in Quebec’s future.
Finally this statement illustrated the extent to which Quebec’s Liberals are out of touch with the population and losing political legitimacy by the day. Since last spring a movement has emerged of parents, teachers and school support staff surrounding schools with human chains on the first day of every month. These human chains have been a potent symbol of the public standing united against government efforts to destroy the learning conditions of students by attacking the working conditions of teachers. On October 1st over 300 schools around Quebec organized human chain actions including for the first time a significant number of schools in Quebec’s English school boards. The government’s announcement of its billion for Bombardier could not have been a clearer indication that the massive public outcry about cuts to education was falling on utterly deaf government ears.
Though the prospects for this strike succeeding in fending off government attacks and winning a reasonable salary increase for teachers are not particularly good, the outcome is far from certain.
The biggest reason for pessimism amongst teachers is the fact that the government has likely already prepared the law it will eventually use to legislate us back to work. Like our colleagues in so many other provinces, Quebec teachers are having to deal with a government that prefers the easy route of back-to-work legislation to the hard work of negotiating in good faith. Quebec’s teachers have been legislated back-to-work so many times in the past it is hard to argue that the right to strike even exists for them.
There are however some reasons for optimism. A recent supreme court ruling that reinterprets the freedom of association as including the freedom to bargain collectively means that teachers throughout Canada may have legal recourse when government’s use special laws to avoid bargaining in good faith. While this may eventually result in Quebec teachers winning the right to strike that in practice has never really existed, it will do nothing to stop the immediate attacks on public education. It is also important to note that provincial governments hold the trump card of the notwithstanding clause which would allow them to ignore the supreme court and continue using legislation as the primary means of resolving labour disputes with public employees.
A much more important source of optimism is the growing public support for teachers and sense of outrage over government attacks on public education. The Fédération autonome de l’enseignment (FAE) which represents teachers in French school boards in and around the island of Montreal has lead the way with campaigns aimed at mobilizing public support. It was the FAE that worked with parents to get the movement of human chains (‘Je protege mon ecole’) off the ground last spring. Since then the other Quebec teachers federations have followed suit with social media campaigns also aimed at mobilizing public support. The http://teaching-in.quebec/ website recently set up by the English teachers federation has served as a hub for teachers and parents to share information and discuss their concerns about government proposals. This kind of social media campaign is a new tactic for Quebec’s unions and may end up being a game changer.
The pressure being generated by parents and the public actively supporting teachers has recently caused some of the first signs of progress to emerge at the negotiating table. Not long after the October 1st human chain action, government indicated some willingness to back away from some of its most odious proposals with respect to the learning conditions of students. Though it is certainly a step in the right direction that government is showing openness to maintaining the range of supports for students with special needs, the government currently seems to want to maintain these services by making cuts elsewhere. If we are to avoid this kind of shell game and actually convince government to invest in maintaining and improving the quality of education, the bonds of solidarity between teachers and parents will have to grow even stronger and louder than they already are.
A final note of cautious optimism involves the wild card of Quebec politics: the student movement. After a failed and perhaps premature attempt at organizing a strike movement against austerity and in solidarity with public sector workers last spring, Quebec’s largest student federation ASSÉ has called for a national day of action on November 5th with several ASSÉ-affiliated student associations, including two faculty associations at Concordia University, already passing successful motions to hold a student strike from November 2nd to 6th.
While the leadership of the common front coalition of public sector unions has thus far shown no interest in a convergence between the student and labour movements, this might change as the prospect of a special law looms ever nearer and the anger of union members and the public grows.
While the outcome of such a convergence would be impossible to predict, anyone who follows Quebec politics knows that in such circumstances victory for government is anything but certain!