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Quebec’s fight against austerity: what’s next?

Chantal Sundaram, Pam Johnson and Nora Loreto

March 10, 2016

Over the past few months, has covered the incredible standoff between every major public sector union in Quebec and a neoliberal Liberal government bent on enforcing an austerity agenda on public sector salaries and services.

The development of the Common Front, as well as the community resistance supporting it, represents the most militant expression of the labour movement in Canada in recent history. Sadly it has been almost completely ignored by both the media and the labour leadership in English Canada.

But now, a contradiction has opened up within Quebec: the salary deal negotiated with the Quebec government by the Common Front, a coalition of public sector unions representing 400,000 workers, faced opposition from some important sections of the public sector, notably teachers.

Fight over salaries and services

The Common Front rejected a concessionary government contract offer and undertook a series of rotating strikes in the fall of 2015. This culminated in a one-day general strike on December 9 that brought 450,000 on to the streets and was the largest coordinated trade union action in Quebec since the 1972 Quebec General strike.

It achieved a deal in December for the common table that was negotiating salary and benefits for all, which was approved by the majority but opposed by a significant minority as falling short of expectations. For many the deal was represented as twice the salary increase that it will really mean for many in reality, and includes zeros in the first and final years of a 5-year contract.

During the fall, along with official trade union activity, parents organized their own actions in support of public services, including creating human chains around public schools. And on February 7, even after the Common Front deal,  there was a demonstration of  20,000 people in Montreal in support of child services. That demonstration is an indication of the willingness to continue a fight for public services and restoration of government funding beyond the fight over salaries.

But the fight for salaries and service funding are linked. Many had hoped that the legal fight over salaries would spill over into a wider fight for services.

What fueled the Common Front’s show of strength is the ongoing  anger and frustration at the Quebec government’s austerity agenda that sees cutting public services and public sector jobs while keeping corporate taxes low as the solution to economic stagnation. This frustration, felt everywhere, has seen similar expression in other public sector negotiations, including recent ‘no’ campaigns against concessionary bargaining in Ontario’s public sector.

The other backstory in Quebec is the success of the student strike of 2012 that won its demands for a tuition freeze, brought down the Liberal government of the day and became a beacon for austerity struggles in Canada and internationally. There was an attempt to revive a student strike movement in spring 2015, but then all eyes turned to the fall when the unions might take things to the next level.

Passing the torch from unions to community

There is clearly a willingness to continue the fight for services and to find the next angle in the fight against austerity. The No votes against the Common Front deal are not a rejection of solidarity but a legitimate expression of dissataifciation with how far this particular battle was able to go.

The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once said that when we try to change the world we learn through a series of “successive approximations” that get us closer to understanding what is necessary to achieve the change we’re looking for.

In Quebec, for the time being, the torch is being passed again, this time from the unions to back to the community in this ongoing fight against austerity. And this time, it’s not students but parents and others who use the services under attack who are asked to take the torch and carry it.

This was a pledge made by the Common Front leadership: to continue to mobilize beyond salary negotiations for restoration of government funding to education, health and other public services. And union involvement in community mobilizations does appear to continue, as on the rally for child services on Feb 7.

The most important backstory is that although salary demands were key to bringing together the entire public sector on a united basis, the real question was always the radical restructuring of the public sector, with massive cuts to health, education, and childcare, and unions were focused on that as much as the common salary negotiations. The funding cuts will ultimately undercut whatever is negotiated in salary. But the government has been able to divide and conquer by offering different local deals outside of the common deal, at least for now.

On the ground in Quebec: interview with Nora Loreto

For some perspective on how those struggles developed on the ground, spoke with Nora Loreto, author of “From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement.” Nora is a writer, blogger and activist based in Quebec City, and an active member of Québec Solidaire.

What was the significance of the Quebec City and Sherbrooke teacher locals voting no to the Common Front agreement?

Every day in January I saw another announcement of another union voting against either the local sectoral agreement or the Common Front agreement, or both. The teachers’ rejection of the deal is significant because the Quebec City teachers' parent union federation (the CSQ) had recommended adoption.

It demonstrates that the rhetoric of the campaign is felt deeply among the grassroots: that the Liberals are trying to destroy public education and that the unions are one of the few options that exist to stand in the way of that. I'm not sure that the leadership calculated for the members being ready for such a fight.

It also helps having the FSSS (union representing health and social service workers) out in front denouncing the agreement. They represent a sector that can't really strike, so it's not surprising that they're ready to be more militant, but the impact that it has to build confidence among other workers in other sectors is clearly important. And the militancy of the FAE [autonomous teacher’s federation] is important too. They're outside of the Common Front and were able to push their members towards further strike action [in opposition to an offer identical to the Common Front deal].

What does this mean for the solidarity the Common Front tried to represent? 

The Common Front has been amazing in bringing together a union movement that has been divided in Quebec, even if that unity was brief. But it is also fraught: while there are common negotiations, the government has been able to offer enough side deals through local agreements that it's really undermined their effectiveness. This is the situation in bargaining: in the streets is another matter.

Also, the failures or challenges of the model in Quebec are specific to the fact that they even have the capacity to mount a Common Front of unions in bargaining on this scale at all, which should be appreciated outside of Quebec where this has not yet been possible.

What would you say about the state of things right now, with the Common Front leadership declaring that their part in the struggle is over?

There is mobilizing happening here against austerity, and the unions are involved, but it's being lead by the community organizations, through the “Coalition du main rouge” (“Red Hand Coalition”).

(The “Red Hand Coalition,” also known as La Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatisation des services publics (“Coalition Against User Fees and Privatization of Public Services”) was active in mobilizing the community in support of the 2012 student strike, and continues now with more than 50 actions organized in the lead-up to the Quebec budget.)

In the end, the radical language against austerity used by the Common Front leadership was probably more successful than they themselves even expected. Despite the outcome of the deal, the Common Front again raised the possibility of bringing down a neoliberal government, and many who were listening believed them.

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