Montreal

How did we get here? Quebec public sector unions take page from past to fight today's labour battle

As thousands of hospital, school and other public sector staff gear up for Monday's strike, a look back to how we got here tells a story of workers who feel they are losing out.

'If I didn't do my job, these kids would get nothing,' says striking school pyschologist

People striking.
Thousands of public sector workers with the common front took to the streets in 1972 to demand better wages and working conditions. On Monday, several thousand workers with the common front are expected to hit the picket line. (CSN archives.)

One thousand. That's how many students Quebec psychologist Janet Strike-Schurman has in her care. 

Every week, Strike-Schurman puts in hundreds of kilometres on the road, travelling from school to school, from Châteauguay all the way down to where rural Quebec meets the American border. 

When she started the job over 20 years ago, she used to spend her time figuring out ways to help children struggling with learning disabilities like dyslexia. These days, it's one crisis after another, a surge of children dealing with trauma and suicidal thoughts. 

"We just don't have the resources to deal with these cases," she said. 

For the past decade, full-time psychologist job openings have gone unstaffed because few people are lining up to replace Strike-Schurman's colleagues who have burned out or gone to work in Ontario for double the pay, she said. 

"If I didn't do my job, these kids would get nothing … The children and families don't have the resources or even the ability to go for private support and sometimes the CLSC will have waitlists of, like, years," said Strike-Schurman.

"It feels belittling that the premier puts the work of saving children as a low priority," she said. 

Fed up, Strike-Schurman is picketing on Monday under the banner of the common front — a collection of four different union federations representing some 420,000 public sector workers — in what is expected to be the largest mobilization since the common front was founded a half century ago, to demand better wages and working conditions.

Armando Rafael will also be joining the picket lines. As an orderly at Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital, he has fed, changed and cleaned up after countless sick and vulnerable patients. 

"You're the gofer of all the medical staff," said Rafael.

In some parts of the hospital, patients are ringing the bell, waiting more than an hour because there aren't enough orderlies on staff — a situation that will only deteriorate if the government doesn't raise wages, he said.

Squeezed by the rising cost of living and low pay, he said the few orderlies on staff are tired of working on their days off for the overtime pay to make ends meet.

A nun holds up a sign.
A nun protests the jailing of the three common front union leaders jailed in 1972. (CSN archives)

Common fronts of past and present

Turn back the clock to 1966. It's a time of upheaval in Quebec society — the Quiet Revolution.

During the province's first major public sector strike, workers win big at the bargaining table. They walk away with provincewide pay scales, rights to vacation time and greater job security, said Jean-Claude Bernatchez, a professor of labour relations at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. 

In 1972, the common front formed to negotiate with Quebec, uniting government, education and social service workers. A 10-day general strike followed, capped off with the imprisonment of three union leaders who called for workers to defy back to work injunctions. Thousands of workers in the province walked off their jobs.

In the end, the common front emerged from talks with boosted wages and pension plans. Today's public sector workers are looking for similar gains, from salaries indexed to the cost of living and access to retirement to manageable workloads, said Bernatchez.

But the two sides remain far apart.

According to the Quebec Treasury Board, the government has offered a package worth almost $8 billion to be paid by taxpayers, and it must respect its plans to balance the budget in the next five years. It told CBC its offer — including premiums and additional increases available to some workers — puts salaries above projected levels of inflation.  

Jim Stanford, an economist and the director of the Centre for Future Work, isn't buying the government's math.

Stanford said the current deal the government has tabled — a 10.3 per cent base pay increase over five years — coupled with historic high inflation, means workers are effectively being offered a pay cut.

"They're actually getting paid less than they were two years ago," said Stanford, adding that inflation has boosted revenue for Quebec's coffers. 

"The Quebec government has the biggest surplus in Canada of any provincial government, measured against its GDP, so there's no argument that the Quebec government cannot afford to make better wage increases that would keep up with inflation," said Stanford. 

A woman stands in a hallway
Janet Strike-Schurman is assigned to 1,000 students from the ages of four to 21. 'It feels belittling that the premier puts the work of saving children as a low priority,' she said. (Submitted by Carla Shaw)

New era of labour militancy 

Barry Eidlin, a professor of sociology at McGill University, said the standoff echoes the 1970s. Quebec has the "strongest labour movement in North America," he said, and the current mood is one of greater militancy as workers want to make up for "decades of losses."

Issues of forced overtime, stagnating salaries, unpredictable schedules, job insecurity, eroding pensions and a lack of family-leave policies have all piled up, especially after the pandemic, he said.

"The cognitive dissonance between the rhetoric of hailing these public sector workers as essential workers and heroes, but then the reality of being treated as disposable when they show up at work, really stuck with people," said Eidlin.

But Quebec's labour dispute isn't happening in a vacuum. 

It comes at a moment when unionized workers, from British Columbia ports to Manitoba liquor stores to automobile plants in the United States, are putting strikes back on the agenda in a way that hasn't been seen in decades.


However, the success of the strikes starting Nov 6. will depend, in part, on how the public reacts.

"The way that unions exert power is through mass mobilization. It's ultimately based on disruptive capacity, the capacity to make everyday, day-to-day life grind to a halt for people. In the public sector, that basically creates a political crisis for the state that the state has to respond to," said Eidlin. 

Although the public has expressed more scepticism about striking workers in recent years, he thinks the unions are raising issues that are resonating with workers across all sectors, in Canada and abroad.

"People understand that quality public service depends on quality working conditions for public sector workers," he said, adding that for many, maintaining the status quo — whether that means waiting hours to see a specialist at the hospital or an overworked nurse making a mistake in caring for a patient — is more disruptive than a strike in the long run. 

A man poses for a photo.
Barry Eidlin, professor of sociology at McGill, says the current mood is one of greater militancy as workers want to make up for 'decades of losses.' (Submitted by Sarah Mongeau-Birkett)

Unions shaken up

Andrea Talarico, a professor of labour law and labour relations at the Université du Québec à Montréal, said, 20 years ago, Quebec started to shake up the way the province's unions collectively bargain.

The government forced unions — which had previously negotiated with their local school boards, hospitals and other workplaces — to deal directly with the provincial government on monetary issues.  

"When you lose your ability to negotiate locally, what you're doing is you're effectively relinquishing control," said Talarico.

"Workers lost their representatives. They effectively lost their union structures. So that was a feeling of disenfranchisement."

And the shakeup hasn't gone unnoticed by the International Labour Organization, which she said has repeatedly criticized the Quebec government for "excessive intervention" in public sector bargaining. 

However, unions across the country scored a major victory in 2007 when the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the right to bargain collectively as protected under freedom of association.

Then in 2015, the court ruled that the right to strike for public sector workers was protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Manitoba government had to pay nearly $20 million in damages to faculty for interfering in a strike at the University of Manitoba.

Public sector workers, especially those that provide care, are often talked about by politicians as if they are "lay nuns" who are expected to sacrifice themselves in the line of duty, she said, a framing that is not applied to workers in other sectors when they strike.

"We look at them and we say, 'well, why are they doing this? Don't they care about the work that they're doing?'' said Talarico.

"We see this discourse come forward every time these professionals exercise their constitutional rights to either bargain or to strike."

WATCH | Public sector workers want better pay and better conditions:

'Exhaustion on a daily basis' among reasons why Quebec workers are striking

4 months ago
Duration 1:00
Some education and health-care workers say they're walking off the job because they're overworked and underpaid.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Bongiorno is an author, former high school teacher and a journalist at the CBC. He has also reported for Canadian Geographic, Maisonneuve, Canada’s National Observer and others. You can reach him at joe.bongiorno@cbc.ca.

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