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After 18 months of tension, workers at 26 branches of the Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC), members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 5454 (CUPE 5454), are back at work. Their strike, one of the longest in the Canadian public sector over the past five decades, comes to an end against the backdrop of a Common Front of public sector unions that has the province in upheaval.
A significant 85% vote approved a new collective agreement, introducing substantial improvements to working conditions at the public cannabis dispensary. For Lucas Gizard, third key at SQDC and union activist, "it's not insignificant that [this offer arrived] at the same time as the Common Front strikes."
Indeed, the talks, bogged down for over a year, would have seen a significant breakthrough during the first day of the unified public sector strike on November 6. "They miscalculated," he tells North Star. The presence of CUPE 5454 at the Common Front demonstrations and the prospect of a long and difficult confrontation with its employees would have made the government fold.
"We fought for a wage of about $21 an hour on our return," explains Gizard. The previous starting wage was $17.12. Although they didn't manage to win their entire demand, "We got a start with $20.20. We'll also get a bonus depending on what the Common Front wins, so that's really positive for us. For example, if the Common Front manages to get an increase of, let's say, 10%, we'll get a 10% bonus too."
With three years' seniority, SQDC workers will be able to earn up to $26 an hour and will benefit from a few extra days of floating vacation as well as greater control over their schedules. All this is in addition to their victory over the government's intimidation:
"They illegally deprived us of our vacations while we were still on strike, and that was illegal in relation to Article 7 of the Labor Code. They took them precisely to serve their interests and tire us out, but there, too, they're going to have to give them back to us."
After enduring many challenges throughout their protracted struggle, the SQDC employees are particularly looking forward to returning to work. "It's everything we've been waiting for," Gizard shares with North Star.
He deplores the fact that the government has wasted tens of millions of dollars of public money over the course of the strike when his union was only asking for 3 million. These losses are due not only to lower sales, but also to legal fees, time spent in court, and injunction costs. "It was on an ideological level; they preferred to lose a lot rather than give us satisfaction, whereas we're always ready to work, we're always ready to help."
Following their victory, Gizard predicts difficult negotiations with the Common Front for the Legault government. He is convinced that public sector workers will now see that the government can grant raises and improve working conditions. As for CUPE 5454, "We're going to get stronger, that's for sure, but we'll also be with the Common Front to support them until they get their demands and it ends well for them too. Solidarity is really important."
He adds in conclusion, "Even with a small committee, even with less than half the SQDC branches, we managed to get a decent offer. It wasn't a total victory, nor was it a watered-down agreement. We got something decent, so, for me, the message I want to pass on to the public sector is: we must not give up."