The common front’s list of demands has been tabled and the government’s offer has been sent. The 2023 collective bargaining for the public sector is underway. This time, unlike the 2020 negotiations, a common front has been formed. It brings together the FTQ (Quebec Federation of Labour), the CSN (Confederation of National Trade Unions), the CSQ (Quebec Labour Congress), and even the APTS (Health and Social Services Professional and Technical Employees Union), which represent a total of 420,000 public sector workers. The terrible inflation of 3.4 per cent for 2021 and 6.8 per cent for 2022 has hit public sector workers particularly hard, as they are stuck with inadequate contracts and wage increases well below inflation. This time, the union leadership will have to fight to the bitter end to stop the generalized impoverishment of Quebec workers.

The common front takes on inflation

Public sector workers, particularly in health and education, are at the end of their rope. Workers are quitting because of the miserable working conditions and stagnant wages. This reinforces the burdens of overwork and burnout in a never-ending vicious cycle. The 2020 collective bargaining agreement, which saw the government get a discount, did not resolve these long-standing problems. They are now worse than ever. In this context, the Common Front has put forward demands to address these issues. The FIQ (Quebec Interprofessional Health Federation) and the FAE (Autonomous Federation of Teachers), which have not joined the common front, have also tabled comparable demands.

With regard to wages, which are particularly important in the current inflationary context, the front is asking for an increase linked to the consumer price index. It has also demanded a nine per cent increase over three years, which is not too much to ask for in order to compensate for the wage losses since the signing of the last collective agreement. Indeed, workers received a six per cent increase over three years for 2020-2023, while inflation for the year 2022 alone was 6.8 per cent.

These demands may seem very bold when compared to the agreement reached at the end of the last round of bargaining, but in fact they are the bare minimum to avoid further impoverishment. Public sector union members are not rolling in money. A recent ISQ (Quebec Statistical Institute) statistic showed that their salaries lag behind the private sector by 11.9 per cent, and by 3.9 per cent if benefits are included. The nine per cent over three years will not be enough to make up for the past decades of cuts and attacks on the public sector. To accept less would be to accept the equivalent of a pay cut. The common front leadership will have to stand firm and defend its demands to the end.

Legault declares war

True to form, the Legault government is laughing at the public sector employees who held the fort throughout the pandemic, by presenting an offer of a nine per cent increase over five years. Not only is this offer already below the usual two per cent annual inflation rate, but with inflation now hovering around six or seven per cent, it is a guarantee of impoverishment for the public sector. 

To top it all off, the government thinks it can sweeten the pill by cynically offering a lump sum of $1,000. The message is clear: Legault is declaring war. The common front of course unanimously rejected the government’s first offer.

The Legault government’s behaviour should come as no surprise. From the perspective of the bosses, it is entirely consistent with Quebec’s economic forecasts for 2023. Finance Minister Eric Girard’s most recent economic update speaks of stagnation at best and a recession at worst. Capitalism is in crisis, and the government will not give gifts; according to the logic of the system, it cannot. The system demands austerity, while workers demand the indexation of wages and a halt to their continued impoverishment. The positions are irreconcilable, and everything points to major class conflict.

Legault maneuvers

There is no doubt that the CAQ will not accept this. Not only is the threat of recession forcing it to prepare for austerity, but it must make an example of the common front. If the common front wins wage increases indexed to inflation, it could set a dangerous precedent for all the bosses in Quebec by inspiring other workers to fight back. The government is attacking the labour movement where it is biggest and strongest to intimidate the rest.

In this sense, François Legault is already actively seeking to discredit the common front by using dirty lies. In a recent Facebook post, he wrote: “I could understand if the government wanted to cut the wages or working conditions of nurses and teachers, but it’s the opposite: we want to improve their conditions!”

What’s more, the government, in a deceitful manoeuvre, is attempting to move bargaining away from the normal negotiating table by creating central “discussion forums” alongside the usual bargaining. The idea is that instead of having a series of bargaining rounds dealing with different issues in different areas, where unions can get tailored solutions, the government wants to dissolve the specific demands of the unions into a centralized forum and impose conditions as a block package. In the same publication, he claimed that the unions do not want a dialogue because they do not want to participate in these forums. 

These manoeuvres by Legault are as old as trade unionism itself. Legault is trying to prepare public opinion, to turn the general population against public sector union members, by making them bear the burden of the difficulties of bargaining. He is not afraid to do so by using lies, presenting his offer as an “improvement” that he wants to “discuss”, when in fact it is a cut in the real wages of union workers.

Some union leaders maintained the idea that it would be possible to discuss and make the CAQ listen to reason. The president of the CSQ, for example, wanted a “social dialogue” with the CAQ government. It would be naïve to take such an approach. The CAQ does not intend to dialogue nicely. When it does engage in dialogue, it lies and offers impoverishment. It is not through bogus forums, or by the unions simply sitting at the negotiating table that the CAQ will bend to the demands of the common front. It is through militant pressure, it is on the streets, that we will be able to force the CAQ to not only come to the negotiating table, but to accept the demands of the common front.

Strike for better wages

Even without the FIQ and the FAE, the fact that there is a common front is a clear improvement over the 2020 negotiations. Negotiating separately allows the government to play the unions off against each other, making concessions to some to isolate the others, and taking advantage of their weakness to impose bad conditions. For the working class, unity is strength. If no one signs until everyone is satisfied, the government cannot take advantage of the weakness of the smaller unions. 

However, simply having formed a common front does not guarantee a victory. One does not have to go very far back in history to see this. The unsatisfactory results of the 2020 round of bargaining cannot be explained solely by the lack of a common front for that year. In 2003, 2010, and 2015, common fronts were formed, but they all eventually folded in the face of back-to-work legislation, or when faced with the threat of such legislation, before signing bad deals. This time, we must take whatever means necessary to win, including preparing for back-to-work legislation.

In late January, the president of the APTS warned that the unions are “absolutely” ready to strike, and ready to fight to the bitter end for their members. This is good news, because that is exactly what is needed. Given the irreconcilability of the positions of the unions and the government, faced with the dishonesty of the government, an escalation of pressure tactics leading to a strike must be put on the agenda and planned with the massive democratic participation of the membership. This could start with a 24-hour strike of the entire public sector. But knowing the CAQ, this will probably not be enough to break them, and we will have to be prepared to go further.

In the current context, there is no way the government will accept a COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) wage increase without resistance. It will use every means at its disposal to force the common front to accept its wage cuts. It will use smear campaigns in the media, as it is already doing, but also the entire legal apparatus, and no doubt the threat of back-to-work legislation. Too often in recent history, the Quebec labour movement has accepted back-to-work legislation or the mere threat of such legislation. But recently we have seen that it is possible to overturn these laws that break our strikes.

Last fall, in their struggle against the Doug Ford government, Ontario education workers, organized in the OSBCU, demonstrated to the entire Canadian labour movement that it is possible to defy back-to-work legislation. The government had introduced legislation to prohibit them from striking. The law came with a notwithstanding clause, which meant that the OSBCU did not have the option to have it struck down through the slow, years-long process of challenging it in courts. The union had to defy the back-to-work legislation with an “illegal” two-day strike, and then threatened a general strike, which resonated throughout the labour movement, not only in Ontario but in the rest of Canada. The Ford government backed down and withdrew its legislation, a first in Canadian history. 

In fact, there are only so many ways to win a union battle. Even if nobody wants it to get to that point, with 420,000 workers, the common front has the power to bring Quebec to a standstill with a strike. It is the only pressure tactic that can bring about the long-awaited gains in the public sector, and to make the Legault government back down on its austerity plans. The union members of the common front are the ones holding our health-care system and our schools together despite all the sabotage by the government. That is why, no matter how much Legault tries to smear them, there is no doubt that the common front would have broad public support, provided they take a bold approach and lead an inspiring strike.

A common front victory would be a huge step forward in the fight against the CAQ government, in the fight against the inflation crisis, and would benefit the entire Quebec working class. We must be prepared for a potential major class conflict. If we want to win better wages, we must prepare for a strike!