On May 24th, 175,000 construction workers in Quebec began a province-wide general strike. The collective agreements expired on April 30 and the workers in an alliance of trade unions voted decisively for strike action. The overall mandate was 93 per cent, with votes as high as 99 per cent among the workers on the north shore. The trade union alliance is comprised of FTQ-Construction, the Provincial Council (International), the Quebec Construction Union, CSD Construction and CSN-Construction. This includes construction workers in residential construction, civil engineering and roads, industrial, institutional, and commercial construction. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has already openly threatened the workers with back-to-work legislation. This is the latest in a history of assaults on the collective bargaining rights of construction workers in Quebec.

An all-out attack by the bosses

Over the past few years, labour disputes in the public sector, as in the private sector, have seen the employers make increasingly heavy demands on the workers. The current negotiations are no exception.

The construction industry is the only sector in Quebec where it is not possible to negotiate clauses that apply retroactively. Michel Trépanier, a spokesperson for the union alliance explained that the bosses use tactics that cause the negotiations to drag on. This delays the application of possible gains for workers. “Our workers are currently losing $51 per week due to the fact that there is not a retroactivity clause in our industry,” he said. If this pressure alone is not enough to induce workers to accept compromises, back-to-work legislation is summarily imposed.

In the institutional, commercial and industrial construction sectors (IC/I), employers want to make work more “flexible”. This entails a lengthening of the working day, with shifts beginning at 5:00 am instead of 6:00 am, and ending later, around 7:00 pm or 8:00 pm. Workers oppose this attack on work-life balance.

In terms of wages, the bosses’ offer is just as contemptuous. While the union alliance is asking for salary increases of 13 per cent to 17 per cent (including benefits) over a four year period, management is offering 1.6 per cent a year, which amounts to 6.4 per cent over four years. Considering that inflation is at 1.6 per cent since last year, the current offer amounts to stagnating wages.

The 2013 Strike

The last round of collective bargaining in 2013 also saw the workers engage in a sector-wide strike. That was the first strike in the construction industry in 20 years. During the negotiations, management wanted to force the workers to do more work for less pay. They wanted to introduce a six-day work week and the 14-hour work day, while reducing the overtime premium from double-time to time-and-a-half. This was a direct assault on the workers, and these new demands from the employers are in the same vein. After two weeks of strike action in 2013, the Marois government passed back-to-work legislation forcing 77,000 trade union members from the IC/I sectors to return to work. The bill also extended the expiring collective agreement by one year.

In the summer of 2014, when the collective agreement had again expired, Minister of Labour Sam Hamad said that he was in the process of drafting new back-to-work legislation, stating that there would be no labour disputes “because it is not acceptable.” The result was the signing of a collective agreement in July 2014 containing a 2.3 per cent wage increase over three years and an arbitrator-imposed policy of time-and-a-half for the first hour of overtime.

Construction workers have a bitter memory of this episode. As the spokesperson for FTQ-Construction, Daniel Doré stated: “It has been around six years that we have not been able to ask for anything… we are the only ones who do not have retroactivity when the agreement is signed.” He added that the use of back-to-work legislation has come to be relied upon by employers in construction labour disputes.

Fightback against the attacks of the capitalists!

Given that the construction industry represents 12 per cent of the GDP in Quebec, the Quebec Construction Association (ACQ), which represents construction management, underlined that “a strike could have negative repercussions on the entire economy of Quebec.” Similarly, Philippe Couillard stated that: “Quebec’s economy is at stake. It is the best interests of Quebec that is at stake and I want everyone to know the rationale I am using in this situation: it is not that I prefer the bosses or the unions. It is, what impact does this have on our economy, on our jobs.”

The Liberal government has been clear in its intentions. Premier Couillard initially stated last week that he would not “sit idly by faced with a slowdown of activities, causing significant economic consequences, without acting.” This morning he added that he intends to pass back-to-work legislation if progress is not made “quickly” at the negotiating table. Since the Quebec National Assembly is in parliamentary recess this week, we should expect back-to-work legislation to be adopted as early as this coming Monday if an agreement is not reached.

There is no reason to be surprised. The Liberals cannot allow a lengthy labour conflict, as they want to have the best economic results possible heading into the 2018 provincial election. In addition to this, the ruling class in Quebec doesn’t want a long strike in an important industry during a time when there are large projects that need to be quickly completed.

Following the public-sector negotiations of 2015 that were betrayed when the trade union leaders de-mobilized the workers and accepted a lacklustre deal, it is now the private sector workers that are vulnerable to attacks on their working conditions. This is not a coincidence. Austerity and attacks on working conditions are fundamental features of the crisis of capitalism that we are currently living through.

The striking workers are faced with immense pressure from the bourgeois media, management, and their allies. Already, the argument that the strike represents a threat to the economy is being pushed from all sides. In addition, the bosses have the support of the state as they know that back-to-work legislation will be able to put an end to the strike.

Striking workers should prepare to defy back-to-work legislation in order to defend their union rights. The last round of negotiations demonstrated that the government, whether it is the PQ or the Liberals, is a loyal ally of construction bosses. They can always count on their friends in the National Assembly to criminalize the strikers. The law is here, as always, in the service of the powerful, but a law is useless against the masses when they refuse to obey it.

Construction workers should learn from the last strike and remain united in the negotiations, in spite of the various pressures that the bosses apply to divide the workers in order to weaken them. Furthermore, all unions, even those not directly affected, should show their support and plan solidarity strike action.

All of the anti-austerity forces should demonstrate their solidarity with the striking workers. Québec Solidaire (QS) should openly support the construction workers and use their visibility to denounce the use of back-to-work legislation, and call on all workers to support the striking workers. This is in fact a fantastic opportunity for QS to expose the Liberals as well as the PQ and call for the formation of a mass party of the working class, separate from the capitalist parties.

An injury to one is an injury to all. Conversely, a victory for the construction workers would be a source of inspiration for workers in other sectors and would contribute to revitalizing the entire labour movement in Quebec.

Victory to the construction workers!

Defy back-to-work legislation!