Quebec is undergoing a rapid change to its basic social order. After ten years of “paix sociale” – so-called social peace – under the Parti Quebecois, the election of Charest’s Liberals has signaled a sharp polarization between the classes, and added another factor of stress to an already tense situation. The “re-engineering of the State,” as Charest famously termed it, has amounted to rapid-fire assaults on the unionized working population of Quebec. Taking his cue from the neo-conservative governments of Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia, Charest cites the need to “streamline” government and bring public spending under control after years of PQ social spending and business subsidies. Elected on promises to increase funding to education and health care, the Liberals instead began talking about a “review” of the long-standing tuition freeze in the province and any aid to health care has yet to be seen. The state-run $5-a-day daycare system, long held up as a model across the country, was immediately subject to a fee increase to $7 dollars and closures of daycare centres to boot. The security of public service employees is threatened by new legislation that will allow contracting out of services to non-union corporations. The dismantling of the “social peace” has jarred the lives of workers across Quebec. The state is being unmasked for what it really is – an instrument to protect the interests of private capital.
The objective of Charest’s labour agenda is to break the backs of the unions and their bothersome political clout. In order for the capitalists to regain their rate of profit they must attack the working class’ ability to fight back. With the high rate of unionization in Quebec, (40.4%, the highest in North America), and the long history of labour militancy in the province, there is no guarantee that Charest will win this fight. Charest’s so-called economic justifications are merely propaganda as the attacks on workers actually cut the consumer market (as seen by the economic malaise induced by the BC Liberals). The popularity of the Liberals has plummeted steadily (a 63% disapproval rating, according to a CROP/Leger poll recently.) The last few months have seen strike after strike in both the private and public sectors, and they are becoming increasingly politicized. The three main union federations of the province – the Federation des travailleurs et travailleuses du Quebec (FTQ), the Confederation des syndicats nationaux (CSN), and the Centrale des syndicats du Quebec (CSQ), as well as several smaller federations – have begun the process of coordinating their efforts in a common front against the Liberal “demolition” of the province.
Anti-government demonstrations in front of the National Assembly, which drew crowds of tens of thousands of workers from across the province, and a one-day, CSN-led, “day of disruption” of services across the province, were a taste of where things are likely headed.
As a union member in Quebec, I have witnessed the implementation of the Charest agenda over the past few months with a growing feeling of nausea. My sector, the garment industry, has been singled out as a target for a lowering of basic working conditions. The garment industry is one of the most vulnerable sectors of Quebec’s labour force: the social composition of the workforce is 75% immigrant, and predominantly female. This fact especially makes it susceptible to attack, and it did not escape the notice of Liberal policymakers. For sixty years, the basic standards of employer-union collective agreements in the garment sector were guaranteed by law. Even with these protections, however, the garment industry had the lowest standards in the entire manufacturing industry. The work is repetitive, menial, and generally on the “piecework incentive” system. Workplace conditions, even within union shops, generally vary from tolerable to appalling.
The most recent legislation eliminated the minimum guarantees of workers’ rights in the garment industry, it abolished the unionized pay scale in favour of simply the minimum wage, it contained a reduction from 10 to 8 paid holidays, no pay for the year-end break, and increased the work week from 39 to 40 hours.
The new legislation has a direct impact on the lives of 60,000 garment workers who subsist at the lowest rungs of Quebecois society. In all likelihood, all this is only the first in a progressively worsening series of legislative decisions. As Quebec’s large garment manufacturing sector is an important source of foreign investment, Charest’s move is yet another confirmation of his position as defender of bourgeois interests. The objective, here as with the rest of the anti-worker agenda, is to make it possible for the bourgeois class to increase its profit margins. The garment industry in North America has been rapidly transferring its operation overseas, taking advantage of cheaper labour and lax working standards in the sweatshops of the Third World. In order to keep the bourgeoisie, (it doesn’t matter if they are federalist, nationalist, or foreign), investing in Canada’s economy, the Liberal administration is moving to drive down working conditions to compete with these more exploitable, more profitable, labour pools. This is the textbook “race to the bottom”, however on the terms of capitalist globalization there is no way Quebec workers can compete with $1/day workers in China.
I gained a whole new appreciation for exactly what Charest’s union-busting law would mean for us garment workers recently, in a conversation with my neighbour down the hall. He’s an immigrant worker in a non-union garment factory. He had been working overtime every day – 12-hour days, 6-day weeks – for several months, the only way he could afford to send money in support of his family back home. The airborne, microscopic lint from the clothing forces everyone to improvise masks to protect their lungs- the company does not provide them. (He told me that at one point, he noticed a co-worker’s nose bleeding. Calling attention to the problem, the foreman shrugged at him and said, “Sometimes my nose bleeds too.”) Then, just a few days ago, the employer cut off overtime, claiming he had lost one million dollars paying for overtime in the 2003 fiscal year. The lie was obvious; the company had spent about $300,000 that year on new equipment alone- an unlikely move in times of financial crisis. Now my neighbour can barely afford to support himself.
The new law against the garment workers took effect January 1, 2004. The announcement only came to us, via the news media, in late November 2003. When I showed up for work on the morning of December 1, 2003, tensions were palpably high. Workers, cursing in three languages at “le gouvernement Charest,” could scarcely contain their worry and rage. They needed no one to tell them that life was going to get a lot harder. The news came at a point when rumours of layoffs had already been circulating, and we had already had several cutbacks on working hours. For the first time, politics was a regular topic on the shop floor, and everyone was reading the union contract. Coffee breaks, lunch breaks, and the bus ride home – all were scenes of concerned discussion as to what our future held. The FTQ, the federation representing us, lost no time in issuing a statement condemning the abolition of our legal protections.
These are all symptoms of a growing undercurrent of contempt for the Charest government, and a deepening of the ever-present resentment toward management. The actions of the Charest government are precipitating a radicalization of workers across the province. According to FTQ press releases, there have been at least 125 separate affiliated unions who have officially demanded a general strike. There appears to be significant support for this idea among rank-and-file workers as well, and the Federation has brought up the possibility once again in the weeks following the holiday season. However, the behaviour of labour leaders has so far proven ambivalent on the issue. Despite their public support for the idea of a general strike, the “common front” has yet to become reality as a unified whole – a step that must be complete before moving to such a large-scale act. Demonstrations are still being organized separately by each federation, and do not yet include all affiliated unions. It seems that the leadership of the union movement is contenting itself with symbolic protests, rather than planning to concretely defeat the Liberal agenda. The workers however do not have the option of being “content”.
There is a belief, entirely false of course, amongst the trade union leaders in Quebec that the unions and workers in Quebec were building something together with the state and the ruling class, particularly under PQ governements. The trade union leadership in Quebec is now trying to create a feeling of nostalgia for the good old days of PQ governments, social peace, and corporate unionism. There was a period in the 1970s, under the first PQ government, where there was a high degree of cooperation between the unions and the government. The unions, and particularly the union leaders, attained powerful positions in society, and things seemed to be good – for a time. By the 1980s the unions were absolutely under attack from the PQ government. This feeling of nostalgia is a pipedream, because even under the PQ in the 1990s, unions, such as the nurses, teachers and other public sector unions came under attack. The union leaders have only picked
up on this idea of nostalgia in hindsight, mainly since the victory of the Liberals. It is undoutedly true that with the victory of the Liberals last year, the unions have come under an all out attack. However, it was the policies of the PQ that laid the basis for these attacks. The union tops use the arguments of nostalgia and social peace they suposedly had under the PQ in order to keep a massive surge to the left amongst rank and file workers in check. The rank and file are getting ready and pushing for a massive struggle with the government and the ruling class. This is something the bureacrats don’t want, because it threatens their cushy jobs and their positions of power, and this is why they are trying to inculcate a feeling of nostalgia amongst rank and file workers for the ‘good old days’ under the PQ. It is simply a means of letting off steam, in the hopes that the demands of the workers won’t go beyond demands for a return of the PQ and vague nationalism and move towards demands for a genuine class struggle and genuine socialism The nationalist card has poisoned the tops of the unions into actually believing that the working class should unite with the bosses and ‘build a nation’. Eventually, pressure will build in the rank and file, and the nationalist union leaders will be swept aside and a genuine struggle of the working class will commence.
The fate of the working class in Quebec will have huge ramifications for workers across Canada. The Paul Martin administration is rapidly breaking with Chrétien’s policy. Chrétien “contracted-out” the class war by cutting transfer payments and letting the Provinces do the dirty work; Martin however wants to take the lead when it comes to attacking workers. The class agenda of the bourgeoisie has never had a better ally in the Prime Minister’ s Office. The defeat in the House of Commons of Bill C-328, a bill which would have outlawed the use of scab labour during strikes, is a sign of things to come at the federal level. The policies of Charest in Quebec will no doubt serve as a testing ground for policies at the federal level. The success or failure of workers in Quebec will serve either as a warning or an encouragement for policies Mr. Martin is likely considering.
Working-class unity needed
These conditions underscore the need for a genuine class alternative to be brought to the fore in Quebec party politics. A Labour party with a genuine class agenda, while respecting the right to self-determination, is the only way beyond the lying, anti-worker Liberals and the PQ’s inability to deliver on its promises. While it is encouraging that the UFP (Union des Forces Progressiste) and the NDP are gaining ground, neither can claim legitimacy at this point as a mass workers’ party in Quebec. Rank-and-file workers in Quebec urgently need to keep pressure on their leaders to maintain the momentum of the unions against the Charest government and the class it represents, and to strengthen links with workers outside Quebec. Class unity – in deed, not just words – can only strengthen the position of workers in Quebec. The union movement should take this opportunity not only to defend our interests as a class, but also advance them: by consistently mobilizing rank-and-file workers to action, broadening union democracy by involving workers at every step of the struggle against Charest, and politically educating every worker through the events that are unfolding. It is not enough to just fight Charest on the industrial field; we must also face him on the political field with our own party. These preconditions will lay the groundwork for an advancement of the working class’ interests in Quebec and elsewhere.
Back at my garment factory, a couple of months have passed since the announcement of the oppressive reductions to our working standards. The rumoured layoffs went through on New Years’ Day, and at least sixty workers at my factory lost their jobs. The slow economy in the US has reduced demand for our products, work is scarcer than it has been in years, and so those workers who remain are simply thankful to be employed. Union leaders are waiting for a move on the part of employers before they act. We workers have no choice but to wait apprehensively for the other shoe to drop. Like so many other things, hope is yet another luxury that no one can afford just now. And in the meantime, we have to get back to work.