Quebec teachers prepare for lengthy walkout with no strike pay

A Montreal high school teacher says she's willing to stand on the picket line in the late-November cold despite the lack of income. She is not alone, as thousands of educators prepare to walk off the job next week.

Province pushes for agreement, mulls extending school year if strike drags on

Marion Miller she's ready to do what it takes to show the Quebec government how serious teachers are about getting their needs met. (Submitted by Marion Miller)

Marion Miller teaches high school in Montreal and she's going on strike next week, even though it will halt her income.

"I think that it shows a really strong perseverance and engagement of teachers to say we're willing to go on this unlimited strike without any form of strike pay," she told CBC News.

"It is stressful, but we're willing to go — and stay out if we need to."

She's a member of the Fédération autonome de l'enseignement (FAE), which represents 65,000 members who work in the French school system. The union is going on an unlimited strike Nov. 23, and Miller said there is no strike pay.

Striking will definitely be a burden, Miller said.

"We have a deal with a bank so that we can get some short-term loans during the strike," she said.

"But it's definitely hard, especially on families with young children or families where both people are teachers, which can often happen — or just where one person is working and one person, for example, is going back to school."

Tens of thousands prepare to strike

How long the strike will last is unclear, said Miller, but she knows she will be among those walking the picket line five days a week despite the cold and lack of income.

"Because we really believe that we have to do it to make things change and to make the government move," Miller said.

Service centres and school boards across Quebec have announced that schools and child-care services will be closed as of Tuesday due to striking workers — some for an undetermined period.

The Front commun syndical and the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), which together represent Quebec teachers, school support staff and nurses, will be walking off the job. The Front commun syndical hits the streets from Nov. 21 to 23 and the FIQ Nov. 23 and 24.

And then there's the FAE, which comprises nine unions in 12 school service centres, including the largest French-language service centre in Montreal.

Catherine Beauvais-St-Pierre, chair of the Montreal teachers' alliance, said the lack of strike funds was agreed upon by members, but there's no question that a lack of revenue is stressful for those going on strike.

At the same time, it shows how serious union members are, she said. The alliance is orienting members toward the different ways they can get financial assistance if needed, she said.

Education minister remains optimistic

Education Minister Bernard Drainville has acknowledged the challenges this strike will impose on everybody.

"Nobody wins with a strike. Nobody," he said. "The kids are not going to win with a strike. The parents, obviously, are not going to win with a strike, and I don't think, in the end, the personnel will win, because it's costly. A strike is costly."

However, Drainville remains optimistic that a deal can be reached to avoid a strike. The clock is ticking, but negotiations are continuing.

If a deal isn't reached, Drainville has not ruled out extending the school year if students miss too many days. The law requires 180 days in class, so if and how long the school year is extended depends on how long the strikes last.

A man wearing glasses and a navy blue suit speaks at a podium in front of a Quebec flag.
Quebec Education Minister Bernard Drainville remains optimistic that the negotiations could resolve before strikes begin next week. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada)

Quebec Treasury Board President Sonia LeBel said she is making colossal efforts at all negotiating tables, whether in education or health, to avoid strikes as tens of thousands of public sector workers are also threatening to continue their own protests.

LeBel said the negotiations are crucial, not just for employees who need better working conditions but also for citizens and all this comes in the midst of a labour shortage. 

"We must find solutions to be able to reorganize work," she said.

Regardless of those efforts, FAE president Mélanie Hubert said on Wednesday that an agreement is still far off. Hubert agreed LeBel sincerely wants to move forward, but what will happen remains to be seen as negotiations continue this week.

Mélanie Dufour-Poirier, an associate professor with the school of industrial relations at the Université de Montréal, said it's reached a serious breaking point when staff are willing to halt their income to strike and potentially extend the school year.

While unions may be able to get loans from banks,there are financial consequences to such debts, she said. This willingness to take on these hardships demonstrates the determination of union members, she said.

with files from Steve Rukavina and Radio-Canada