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Quebec against austerity: what’s next?

By: 
Chantal Sundaram

January 18, 2016

The Quebec Common Front was an alliance of 400,000 public sector workers across Quebec. It was allied with teachers in a separate union and had broad support in the community: they came together to win a deal that would restore years of both underfunding and salary erosion in the public sector. At the same time, member unions of the Common Front were engaged in 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 essentially the same deal. The FAE leadership rejected the offer, choosing instead to ask its members to relaunch an action plan to fight for something better.

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.

While the FAE simply refused an offer and chose to continue bargaining, the FSSS called for a rejection of the deal achieved by the coalition it was a part of. Yet both were understood as a major break with the resolution offered by the government to the Common Front and with the Common Front leadership’s acceptance of the offer.

The Quebec Common Front was a huge step forward in resisting the usual attempts to carry out austerity through divide and conquer. What explains the dissent?

Salary erosion

Public sector salaries in Quebec have been under pressure for 35 years. And in the age of increasing austerity, from 2004-2014, public sector total salary increases totaled 14.5 per cent while inflation (CPI) was 19 per cent. In addition there are big inequities within the public sector, and there were always going to be huge challenges in getting a fair deal for everyone at a central table.

Nonetheless, it was an important step to try, especially because the Common Front strategy also helped exert pressure at the local tables where non-salary issues were being fought out. But 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. 

The salary deal for all was portrayed by the Common Front leadership as representing 9.1 per cent to 10.25 per cent over five years, but included four components that affected people differently. The first is an across the board increase of 5.25 per cent over 5 years, with zeros in the first and fifth years, well below inflation. There were lump sum payments included to make up for the zeros but those were not added to base salary and so don’t accumulate over time: they are one-time only payments, not “raises.” And, even these one-time lump sums were based on an average public sector salary, so they fall even shorter of making up for a raise on a higher teacher’s salary.  

The deal also includes other things that would benefit some but not all. There are premiums for night shift, high risk work and department heads. And it includes a salary “relativity” exercise to collapse 100 pay categories into 28 and reduce some inconsistencies and inequities, but this also will not benefit everyone equally: it is based on average salary on a huge range, and some, like FAE teachers, will only see around a 2.5 per cent increase and even that not until 2019. And members of the FSSS- CSN earn less than the union average in the entire public and broader public sector. Around 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.

It is a fair assessment that this deal hardly offers the “catch-up” on salary erosion the Common Front organized itself to fight for, and after five days of strike action by nearly half a million people it is understandable that some have campaigned against it. And the question of massive underfunding of public services remains. 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.”

The context for 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 public education, and while they continue to negotiate at the table, the leadership insists that improving learning conditions for children is a social issue that goes well beyond the limits of government negotiations.

The funding that has been cut from public schools amounts to $1000 per child; in December, as part of the response to the mobilization by the FAE and the Common Front, the government did promise to restore some funding, but only a fraction of what was cut. In fact, the FAE has been pushing to put government promises for restored funding formally into a deal, and into their union collective agreement. As FAE President Sylvain Mallette says, “nothing is less certain than a Liberal promise.”

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 promised to demonstrate this in the streets.          

The FAE began with an appeal 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 of teachers, parents, students and supporters marched past schools that serve children with special needs or who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. “Why did we choose this neighbourhood?” said FAE President Mallette. “Because the choices of Phillippe Couillard are harmful to all, but particularly to the most vulnerable. We also wanted to clearly tell the government that they are affecting the daily life of Quebecois.”

The January 16 rally showed that people in Quebec are still prepared to defend public education, both in support of the FAE and against the long term crisis of austerity in public schools, and to demand the reinvestment of the billions of dollars that have been cut over the last decade. 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.

What’s next?

The next step for the FAE will be general assemblies in their eight affiliated unions to vote on the relaunch of an action plan that may include more strike days. It is intended to send the message: “Nous ne plierons pas!” (We will not fold).

As for the FSSS-CSN, in response to their call to reject the Common Front deal, Treasury Board President Martin Coiteux threatened in the media that if its 110,000 members do so they can’t count on a new start in negotiations—and certainly nothing better. Media has speculated about the possibility of a special law to force a deal on them, a spectre that has haunted these entire Common Front negotiations since the beginning. Coiteux has so far avoided the question of legislation in the media, expressing his confidence that FSSS members will accept the deal.

Whether they do or not, the courage to take things further is in the spirit of what brought the Common Front together. And it is what will give courage to others to continue a broad challenge to austerity.

To access a motion of support for the FAE in its defence of public education, click here.

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