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On Monday November 6, 420,000 public sector workers in Quebec, represented by a United Front of unions, took part in a half-day strike. Despite massive support for an unlimited general strike, with 95% of votes in favor, and a large demonstration bringing together more than 100,000 workers in Montreal on September 23, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government proposed only a 10.3% wage increase over five years on October 29, 2023.
This proposal is seen as "another slap in the face" and as "derisory" by United Front workers, especially when compared with the 30% increases granted to parliamentarians and the 21% proposed for Sûreté du Québec police officers. "It's an insult. It's too little, too late," declared the coalition of unions at the time of the proposal. It believes that, given the 16% inflation since 2020, this proposal would actually amount to a reduction in the real wages of public sector workers.
By comparison, the United Front's demands include an immediate wage increase of $100 a week, indexation of wages to inflation, as well as a 3% increase in 2024 and 4% in 2025, preservation of the pension plan, improved insurance premiums and recognition for whistle-blowers.
The United Front workers' strike comes against a backdrop of almost three decades of successive government reforms in Quebec that have progressively dismantled the public sector. This has resulted not only in the deterioration of working conditions, but also of infrastructure, service quality and administrative functioning in general.
"Our members are exhausted, we have no one to take over, people are leaving," Nathalie Moreau, president of the union Alliance du personnel professionnel et technique de la santé et des services sociaux du CHUM (APTS-CHUM) and a laboratory technician, explained to North Star. "In recent years, I've lost about 10% of my members per year." According to her, many leave their profession entirely, and those who remain "are overworked or sick."
Instead of challenging this trend, the current CAQ government seems intent on going even further along the same lines as previous reforms, notably in education (PL-23), healthcare (PL-15) and housing (PL-31). Ms. Moreau stressed that these successive reforms are ineffective without investment. Workers lack control over the organization of their work, and she criticizes the government for "not talking to the workers on the floor. They're in their ivory towers."
On this subject, Nathalie Chalifoux, national representative for the APTS, told North Star on Monday that "the government makes choices, it says it has no money, but there is money. It's just that they've decided to put some in batteries and to give people cheques to gain electoral popularity. We say it's up to him to put the money in the right places. If they're going to keep the public network healthy, they have to invest."
Faced with a stalemate in negotiations, the United Front has already announced the next round of strikes scheduled for November 21-23, 2023, while raising the possibility of an unlimited general strike if necessary. Should this happen, most experts believe the government is likely to use back to work legislation, making the strike illegal. This likelihood is all the greater given the precedent set by the confrontation with the United Front in 1972.
Nevertheless, the workers on the CHUM picket line in Montreal didn't seem discouraged by the prospect. Nathalie Moreau, when asked about the possibility of special legislation, said: "Am I ready to go to prison? Yes, I'll go, there's no problem. What we want is to negotiate, and if we have no choice, we'll go on an unlimited general strike. If they have the nerve to pass a back to work law... They're going to lose what little credibility they currently have."