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Quebec against austerity: what’s next after the Common Front?

Chantal Sundaram and Pam Johnson

February 4, 2016

It has been a roller-coaster ride in the fight against austerity in Quebec over the last five months.

In December and January the Common Front, the largest concerted challenge to date by organized labour to the assault on public sector jobs and services, produced both a massive general strike and significant dissatisfaction at the deal resulting from it.

That deal was accepted and recommended by the Common Front union leadership overall, but there was a call to reject the deal by sections of local union leadership and membership, and also some surprise votes against the deal by members of unions within the Common Front who went against the recommendation of their own union leaders.   

What was the Common Front?

An alliance of 400,000 public sector workers across Quebec, over the past year the Common Front was engaged in legal bargaining with the Quebec government over salaries and other working conditions. It was allied with teachers in a separate union and had broad support in the community: they came together to fight for a deal that would restore years of underfunding and salary erosion in the public sector.

 At the same time, member unions of the Common Front negotiating local agreements in their own hospitals, schools, and government service offices on issues that affected both working conditions and access to services.

Following a general strike of nearly 450,000 on December 9, the Quebec Liberal government arrived at a tentative agreement on salaries with union leadership at the central table of the Common Front on December 17.

On December 21, the 34,000 members of the Quebec autonomous teacher’s federation, the FAE, outside of the Common Front but coordinated with it, was offered the same deal. The FAE leadership rejected the offer, choosing instead to ask its members to relaunch an action plan.

And on December 23, the FSSS-CSN (Federation of Health and Social Services), the largest union in health and social services and a major section of the CSN—one of the major trade union federations inside the Common Front—announced that it intended to oppose the deal and asked its 110,000 members to vote against it. This was the only voice of opposition from official leadership within the Common Front, but it was a major one.

Salary erosion

Public sector salaries in Quebec have been under pressure for 35 years. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some felt the courage to say the offer was not enough, especially in the context of a high level of visible resistance to austerity in Quebec.

The underlying question was: who should pay the price for provincial budget “shortfalls”? The strike movement pushed the Liberals to promise a certain amount of restored funding in addition to salary. But the truth is that both fall far short of what they owe both public sector workers and the public.

According to the deal most FAE teachers will only see around a 2.5 per cent increase (and even that not until 2019) and 15,000 of FSSS-CSN members will see no increase except the 5.25 per cent over 5 years, far below inflation and cost of living—and although this is a minority of its 110,000 members, some of whom will see higher increases, the leadership called for all members to vote against the deal in solidarity.

This deal hardly offers the “catch-up” on salary erosion the Common Front organized itself to fight for, much less a challenge to publice service underfunding, and after five days of strike action by nearly half a million people it is understandable that some have campaigned against it. In the words of FAE negotiator Michel Lauzon: “We didn’t mobilize just to live five more years of poverty in public schools in Quebec.”

Public education

This was also a fall of massive public support for public education, particularly by parents. At the beginning of each month, parents staged human chains around schools with their kids, leading up to a demonstration for public education in front of the National Assembly in Quebec City prior to the general strike of early December.

Support from parents is clearly what has given confidence to the FAE to hold out for a better deal. The FAE message now is that their struggle is not just for a union agreement but for the defense of learning conditions for children.

In a press conference about why they are turning down the same salary deal offered to the Common Front, the FAE emphasized that this is not just about salary but about funding: “there are those who say we should be less demanding. But to defend teachers, students, and public schools, IS demanding.” The FAE stated that they believed their rejection of the offer to be the will of thousands of citizens, especially parents, who continue to mobilize to protect public schools.        

The FAE appealed to parents and the community to show their support on January 16 in Montreal. They called a demonstration for the defense of public schools in the low-income neighbourhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, where three schools have closed due to their poor state. On that day hundreds marched past schools that serve children with special needs or who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Parents were visibly represented under the banner of the human chain movement, “Je protège mon école publique.” (“I protect my public school”).

And, significantly, the FSSS-CSN was also visibly present at the January 16 education rally, marching alongside the FAE.

Resistance continues

At the time of this writing, the final vote on the Common Front deal is unknown. What is clear is that voting on the deal in individual union locals has not been a rubber stamp. Significantly, two large teacher locals, in Quebec City and in the Eastern Townships (between Montreal and Quebec), voted to turn down the deal  As more unions hold votes, it remains to be seen whether the Common Front agreement will stand.

But it is not only voting and that will shape things. The struggle will continue on the streets. The parents’ group that organized human chains around schools in the fall has vowed to continue mobilizing parents. They have called for a mass rally in Montreal  on February 7.

From the ballot box of union deals to the streets of protest – and to the everyday lives of those who use public services – resistance continues.  

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