On Nov. 23, close to 600,000 public sector workers in Quebec were on strike. Considering that Quebec has around 4,439,000 people active in the labour market, this represents 13.5 per cent of all workers in the province! It is safe to say that everyone personally knows at least one person who went on strike that day: teachers, nurses, support staff and specialists in the fields of health, education and social services. This is the largest strike in the history of Quebec.
This mass strike took place in the context of collective bargaining negotiations which began last spring. While all of the unions involved have an open-ended strike mandate voted everywhere with more than 90 per cent approval, only the FAE, representing 66,000 teachers, has been using it since Nov. 23. The others—the FIQ (the nurses’ union) and the Common Front, which brings together 425,000 workers from four different union federations (CSN, FTQ, CSQ and APTS, representing a wide-range of public sector workers sector jobs)—have organized separate strike days here and there in November.
The unions’ demands are primarily aimed at countering the record-high inflation of recent years. The FIQ’s demands include an 18 per cent pay rise over three years, a better caregiver-to-patient ratio to guarantee better care, and an end to compulsory overtime. The Common Front is calling for a cost-of-living adjustment, as well as wage catch-up to offset the loss of purchasing power caused by years of wage stagnation. The FAE is focusing on demands related to class sizes and working conditions for teachers, which have massively degraded over the years.
These demands are the bare minimum needed to halt the exodus of healthcare workers and teachers caused by decades of cuts to public services. Premier François Legault, who referred to nurses as “guardian angels” at the start of the pandemic, has been increasingly arrogant and out of touch. His government has been putting forward one miserly offer after another that don’t even come close to covering the projected inflation, let alone offering a real catch-up on previous wage erosion.
A recent poll showed that striking workers enjoy the support of 71 per cent of Quebecers. The vast majority of the working class sympathizes with what the public sector workers went through during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Legault government has plummeted in the polls and Legault’s personal popularity is at an all-time low. One good push and the unions can win!
Strikes and discontent: The new norm
In recent years we’ve witnessed a resurgence of class struggle in Canada as a whole. This can be seen in the increased number and scale of strikes across the country. We need only recall the illegal strike by 55,000 education workers in Ontario in the fall of 2022, which forced Premier Doug Ford to withdraw the back-to-work legislation he had introduced to preemptively strip workers of their right to strike; or the strike by 155,000 federal public service employees last spring, the first of its kind in 30 years. Nor can we ignore the strike by the 7,400 longshoremen in British Columbia last summer. Already 2023 has seen a resurgence in the class struggle with the most strike days lost since 2005.
Across Canada, the working class is suffering from inflation, the housing crisis, rising interest rates and attacks on their working conditions. Workers are seeking to defend themselves by the main means at their disposal: withdrawing their labour. The two-week strike by federal employees alone is estimated to have reduced Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.1 per cent. The Vancouver longshoremen’s strike cost $9.9 billion, or 0.3 per cent of Canadian GDP. More and more, workers are becoming aware of their role in society and are ready to fight for better living conditions.
The Quebec public sector strike is a continuation of this process. The teachers of the FAE are on their first open-ended strike since 1983. As for the nurses, it is their first strike since 1999. The last time a Common Front was organized was 2015, where there was only one day of strike before a poverty contract was accepted by the union leadership. The 2023 strikes mark a new chapter in the class struggle in Québec.
As capitalism pushes more and more workers to the brink, we can expect this tide to continue rising. The bosses and governments do not want to provide concessions, and workers can’t afford to let their living standards fall any more. The stage is set for a period of heightened class struggle. If the Quebec public sector workers win, they could set a positive example for the rest of the labour movement.
The conditions are in place for a victory. The last two polls show the CAQ in second-place behind the Parti québécois, after years of massive support. The CAQ had not been in such a position since Sept. 2018.
Moreover, a poll conducted at the end of November revealed that in three months, Legault’s approval rating had dropped 16 points to 31 per cent, making him the least popular premier in Canada. By comparison, a year ago, his approval rating was 57 per cent. What is even more interesting is the reason people are unsatisfied with Legault. Forty-four percent of people cite his “inability to improve healthcare and education” as the main reason!
This drop in popularity is also due to the fact that Legault and his MNAs gave themselves, in this year of public sector negotiations, a handsome wage increase of 30 per cent. How could they not expect a backlash is anyone’s guess. Together with other broken promises and lies (like the building of a new tunnel in Quebec City), and as they shower companies with public money (notably a bizarre and very unpopular handout to the Los Angeles Kings to come and play a preseason hockey game in Quebec City), the CAQ’s mask is slipping off. It cannot be denied that the long honeymoon of the CAQ is over.
United we stand?
The strikes so far have been impressive. The unions in Quebec are extremely powerful—it almost seems easy to bring these tens of thousands of workers in the streets. There is nothing more powerful than the working class, once it is mobilized and organized.
However, one weakness is that the three union groups are still refusing to join forces and combine their strike actions. While all have an unlimited strike mandate, as mentioned earlier, the FAE is currently the only union to use it. They have already held on for two weeks—and the FAE is the only union without a strike fund. The Common Front is now planning a week-long strike for Dec. 8-14, and the FIQ will strike only on Dec. 11-14.
This atomization of the struggle poses a serious danger. While the Common Front are joining for a week-long strike starting Dec. 8, we have to ask: why don’t they immediately join the FAE in an open-ended strike? Many rank-and-file FAE members told La Riposte socialiste comrades visiting the picket lines that they don’t understand why their unions don’t all mobilize for an all-out strike together. The same mood can without a doubt be found amongst the rank-and-file of the Common Front and the FIQ. Unfortunately, the union leadership in the FIQ and Common Front don’t seem to have any plan to use their open-ended strike mandate.
Precious time has been wasted, but it is not too late to go all-in against the CAQ, and rank-and-file workers should press their leadership in that direction. The Common Front and the FIQ leadership should join the FAE in an open-ended strike, instead of ending their next strike on Dec. 14. This would send a clear message to the government that the unions mean business, and are not ready to back down.
The unions are facing a weak government. There is probably nothing that premier Legault hates more than being unpopular, and never has he been so hated in five years of government. He pathetically begged the teachers to stop their strike last week, but that didn’t seem to connect with anyone. The population supports the workers, despite the usual barrage of anti-strike propaganda in the media.
In the past, governments in Canada have never hesitated to use back-to-work legislation to break strike movements as soon as they got too big, even if doing so is unconstitutional. While Legault is probably weighing his options, it is not certain that he would resort to that nuclear option, considering how unpopular he is and the risk of becoming even more hated. But if it does get to that, 600,000 workers totally have the power to defy such a law. We saw precisely that in Ontario last fall, when 55,000 education workers defied a back-to-work legislation, went on illegal strike and forced the conservative government to back down. It is entirely possible to do it again, if the CAQ decides to go down that road.
The union leadership must stand firm. Too many times in the past, the union leadership accepted bad deals. These created the conditions where there is an exodus of nurses and teachers, and where social services are collapsing. Forty years ago, public sector workers were better paid than the private sector; now it is the other way around. It is time to turn the tide.
We cannot back down on the cost-of-living adjustment and the wage catch-up. No union should sign an agreement before all workers get a satisfactory offer. The workers have momentum on their side, and they also have the support of the majority of the population in Quebec; there is no better time than now to go on an all-out strike to win!
Capitalism destroys public services: Let’s destroy capitalism!
Under the rotting system of capitalism, public services will always be under siege. With each new crisis, the ruling class tries to save its profits by making the working class pay, by cutting working conditions and wages, but also social services such as education and health care. The crisis we are currently experiencing is unprecedented: our schools are in ruins, our forests are on fire, our healthcare system is collapsing, rent prices are skyrocketing and record inflation is eroding the quality of life of all working people. The capitalists have nothing to offer us to get us out of this crisis and those that will inevitably follow. Every concession to the working class is a cut in the capitalists’ profits, and this goes against the very logic of the system. Under capitalism, austerity is like a sword of Damocles hanging over workers’ heads. To get rid of it once and for all, we need to get rid of the system that exploits and impoverishes us.
Only by workers taking control and transforming society can we establish a society free from exploitation and the profit motive, where everyone has access to quality public services. This society has a name: communism. This is the society we Communists are fighting for.