Labour actions escalate in Quebec over stalled negotiations

Photo: Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante ( ASSÉ ) facebook gro

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Hundreds of thousands of public employees are on one-day strikes this week. They're protesting stalled labour negotiations.

Collective contracts expired on April 1 of this year. The Quebec Liberal government has been refusing to budge, as has been the case with its cuts to many services, notably health care and education.

Despite considerable opposition, the Couillard's Liberals have stuck firm to their austerity agenda, eroding what is collective in favour of privatization and services available only to those with money enough to pay.

Labour unions are understandably focused on their collective agreement negotiations. Other groups, including students, are also planning to escalate their pressure tactics in what they see as a broader struggle against neoliberal economics and the capitalist system.

The strike actions this week signal an escalation of pressure tactics. A further step is planned for early December when over 400,000 people plan to be on strike if labour negotiations remain unresolved. 

Consistent and mounting pressure

While the federal election took eyes away from developments in Quebec, organizers there have been steadily strategizing and planning. 

Junior college (CEGEP) teachers have already held strike actions this fall, with 34,000 teachers walking off the job on September 30. Cuts to education funding, increases in class sizes, increased work hours, and austerity in general have been their focus. 

A demonstration of 150,000 people took to Montreal's streets October 3. The event was put on by labour unions organizing together under the banner of the Front commun (Common Front), which altogether represents over 400,000 workers.

This week, on Oct. 26, 27, 28, and 29, strike actions continue all over the province (full listing, in French). Health-care workers and others will be joining teachers in withholding their labour. According to labour law essential services like health care will not be affected significantly.

The front commun is planning the largest strike action in view, to be held on December 1, 2 and 3 with over 435,203 set to be on strike, assuming contract negotiations remain stalled.

Workers have been asking for asking for a 13.5 per cent wage increase over three years while the Quebec government is offering three per cent over five years. 

"This intransigence of the government is what is forcing us to use the strike as a last resort. To date we have used all the means at our disposal," says David Boyer, President of the FTQ (Quebec Federation of Workers). 

Pushing against austerity outside of salary negotiations

CEGEP teachers are by-and-large not included in those negotiations, and are protesting conditions like class sizes and work hours, as opposed to salary. Parents, students, and teachers have formed human chains around schools this fall to symbolically protect their schools.

ASSÉ, the umbrella organization of radical student associations, is returning to the anti-austerity scene after internal battles around the Printemps 2015 (Spring 2015) mobilization. 

The organization has created a a mobilization hub, unmouvement.org (One Movement), describing the problem of austerity and explaining the need for escalation of pressure tactics up to and including a strike. ASSÉ also initiated an informal coalition, Rassemblement Syndical en Education (Union Gathering for Education) to unite and strategize anti-austerity efforts of various unions in the education sector.

Several campus associations have strike mandates for a day or more the first week of November. To coincide with strikes, ASSÉ is organizing a demonstration in Montreal on November 5 called We Know We Are Not Alone: For a Massive Reinvestment in Public Services.

Community groups will also be on strike for parts of that week, protesting austerity and the dismantling of public services.

Maintaining communication between the moving parts in Quebec is no easy task, but groups are trying, like the Red Hand Coalition (full translated name: Coalition Against User Fees and Privatization of Public Services). 

The Red Hand Coalition, ASSÉ and others share a similar perspective in opposing austerity and neoliberalism. It now remains to be seen how unions, deep in contract renegotiations, use their collective power to fit into other broad struggles. Will organized labour push for gains in the rest of society, or leave the stage if and when they secure sufficient gains in their own contracts?

Winning anything, including current salary demands, from this Quebec Liberal government would be a significant victory. But many in Quebec are hoping for a wider resistance. Parts of the scene will play out as tactics escalate through the fall and strike numbers mount.

David Gray-Donald is a journalist and community organizer based in Montreal and Toronto focusing on social movements and privilege.

Photo: Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante ( ASSÉ ) facebook group

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