By Robert Green
Prior to the holidays, teachers, parents and students in Quebec received some hopeful news: the Common Front, consisting of unions representing over 400,000 of the province’s half a million public sector workers, had overcome their final hurdle and arrived at an agreement on salaries. The news was filled with stories of satisfied union leaders trumpeting the fact that they had persuaded the government to move from their initial offer of 3 per cent in salary increases over five years to an increase of between 9.15 per cent and 10.25 per cent per year.
It may therefore come as a surprise to readers to learn that many public sector workers are preparing to vote against the deal. Delegates for the federation representing health care workers, which represents nearly one-quarter of the Common Front’s membership, have already voted to reject the deal. The FAE labour federation, which represents 34,000 teachers in the province’s French school boards (but is not a member of the Common Front), is recommending that its members reject a similar deal.
Why are Quebec workers, who have been without a contract since last April, skeptical of the proposed settlement? Because, on closer inspection, the deal on offer is not at all the victory that the Common Front leaders are claiming.
First, the deal has to be understood in the context of inflation. Over the last 20 years, inflation in Quebec has averaged a little over 2 per cent annually. Indeed the Quebec government’s own projections for 2016 predict a rate of 2.1 per cent. This means that any deal that averages less than 2 per cent per year will likely result in a decrease in purchasing power.
The purchasing power of public sector workers has already eroded by 4.5 per cent since 2004. It is quite understandable then that there is little appetite for accepting further reductions, particularly when the government has no trouble finding money to give MNAs a 31 per cent raise, doctors a 34 to 42 per cent raise and Bombardier $1.3 billion in corporate welfare.
One-time payments are not raises
The deal’s four components also need to be analyzed.
The most straightforward component is the salary increases of 1.5, 1.75 and 2 per cent in years two, three and four respectively. This represents roughly a 5.25 per cent salary increase over the contract’s five years.
The second element of the deal is the lump-sum payments of $500 and $250 in the first and fifth years respectively. To be clear, a one-time lump-sum payment is not the same as a salary increase, which benefits workers in the year of the increase and every subsequent year they work. That the union leaders are calling these lump-sums a salary increase and including them in the claimed 9.15 to 10.25 per cent salary increase is manipulative to say the least. It is particularly so given that teachers just gave government a lump sum in the form of lost pay from strike days, which for most teachers adds up to twice the amount the government is offering back in lump sums.
The third element of the deal for teachers is a 2.4 per cent salary increase related to what is being called “salary relativity.” This is about a separate set of negotiations that began years ago and whose aim was to reduce the number of different pay scales in the public sector from over a hundred down to 28 and to do so in a way that is fair to the various categories of workers.
From the outset, union leaders had announced that this process was supposed to be completed before contract negotiations began. One of labour federation CSQ’s own info documents on salary relativity clearly states that these negotiations are separate from the question of salary and should not be considered as compensation for proposed salary freezes from government.
It is therefore highly dubious that the Common Front leaders are now presenting this increase as part of a salary deal and claiming that this represents some of the distance government has moved from its original 3 per cent salary offer. By counting this 2.4 per cent at the end of the process but not at the beginning (i.e. not adding it to the initial 3 per cent offered by government) the Common Front leadership is giving the public the false impression that government has moved much further than it actually did.
Also dubious is the fact that the relativity deal only goes partway in ensuring fairness for teachers. “Teachers will be among the few professionals who do not advance a step on the salary scale twice a year for the first eight steps,” pointed out FAE president Sylvain Mallete. “Also, they remain the only ones in Canada to have to wait 17 years to reach the maximum of the salary scale and will remain the lowest paid early in their career.”
Another issue of relativity that has not been addressed in these negotiations is that teachers in English school boards are the only Common Front members whose contract does not contain an annex protecting family-work balance. An online petition has already been launched demanding that the unions address this glaring omission that disproportionately affects women.
The fourth element of the agreement, which represents the difference between the 9.15 and 10.25 per cent, is made up of two components: investments in additional resources and bonuses related to things like department head work. It is bad enough for union leaders to present bonuses that will not be enjoyed by all workers as a salary gain, but to present investments in resources as such is downright deceptive. Should teachers then consider the $1 billion in resources cut from public education over the last five years as a salary loss?
And speaking of deception, there may be one element of the deal that the Common Front leaders neglected to mention in their press conference. According to the FAE, the deal it was offered also includes a freeze on the salary scale in the first and fifth years of the contract.
While this would have no effect for senior teachers already at the top of the pay scale, it would cost teachers in the last five steps of the pay scale about $1,000 per year and would eventually cost all teachers below that about $2,000 per year. If this provision is also part of the Common Front’s deal, it essentially wipes out any salary gains made in these negotiations for the vast majority of teachers.
Those wondering if the unions would be so bold as to withhold information in order to get a contract approved should recall that in 2010, teachers in Quebec’s English school boards were never informed that the contract they would eventually vote for contained a clause requiring school boards to track teacher absences not by the day, half day or even by the hour, but by the minute. Teachers learned of this attack on their professionalism only after the vote had taken place and the agreement had been signed.
However, to give the Common Front leaders the benefit of the doubt, let’s presume that the deal does not include this freeze on the salary scale that is in the FAE’s “offer.” Further, let’s ignore the loss with respect to lump-sum payments and include the relativity issue as a salary increase. Even if we do all of that, teachers are looking at an increase to salaries of only 7.65 per cent over five years or 1.53 per cent on average per year. This means that if inflation remains near its historical average, teachers will have suffered a 2.35 per cent reduction to their purchasing power by the end of the contract.
If we consider that the relativity agreement was a done deal irrespective of the final salary offer, then we are looking at the government having moved from 5.4 to 7.65 per cent. This is a far cry from the massive jump from 3 to 9.14 or 10.25 per cent reported by the leadership of the Common Front.
One would expect government and corporate media to spin the numbers to look more generous than they actually are. When the source of this spin is the leadership of the Common Front, it says some rather disturbing things about the state of Quebec’s labour movement. If the pressure to reject this unacceptable offer continues to grow, union members should also demand democratic renewal and a change in leadership.
If Quebec’s public sector workers are ever to reverse the longstanding trend of constantly eroding conditions of employment, they will need unions led by people who are actually interested in educating, empowering and mobilizing union members. The current leadership of the Common Front has once again demonstrated that it would rather manipulate members into consenting to their continued impoverishment than take on the serious work of fighting for real gains.
This article first appeared at Ricochet