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Aftermath of Quebec’s Common Front

By: 
Chantal Sundaram

March 28, 2016

The Common Front of half a million Quebec public sector workers that coordinated negotiations and general strikes between health, education and government employees last fall was an inspiration.

Even though some members of the Common Front rejected the deal on salaries negotiated with government at the central table, in the end they too came to a deal despite the Quebec government’s threat to invoke a special law against them.

Ultimatum

After the Fédération de la Santé et des services sociaux (FSSS, the Federation of Health and Social Services), the largest section of the CSN federation, itself one of the most important players in the Common Front, rejected the deal in December, the government began threatening them with a special law. The FSSS was the only unit in the CSN to reject, so even though it numbers 114,000 members the threat of isolation was real.

Also isolated was the FAE, the Autonomous Teachers’ Federation, which was outside the Common Front but negotiating and striking in tandem with it. They had also rejected a salary deal identical to the one rejected by the FSSS-CSN and accepted by the rest of the Common Front.

Since then both the FSSS-CSN and the FAE have maintained that the Common Front deal falls far short of catching up for salary increases much lower than inflation in the period 2004-2014.

But the momentum of Common Front mobilization, both in the streets and at the table, had waned with the acceptance of the deal by most in January and February.

On Friday March 4, the Treasury gave the FSSS-CSN and the FAE an ultimatum and a deadline to reconsider the same deal signed by the rest of the Common Front and which they had rejected.

On March 8, the FSSS-CSN reached a deal that the leadership is recommending to its members. The very next day, on March 9, the FAE also reached a deal. While both deals fall short of what was hoped for, in the end they were concluded without having a special law imposed – and under the shadow of that threat.

Autonomous Teachers’ Federation (FAE)

The 34,000 members of the FAE, who make up a third of preschool, primary and secondary teachers in Quebec, finished their ratification vote on March 23, so it is known that their agreement maintained the same salary parameters the government set with the Common Front.

At a press conference March 23 it was announced that the majority of members voted to accept. But the vote was divided, with three of the FAE’s eight member unions voting to reject, and the five others voting in favour, totaling only 70 per cent acceptance.

FAE president Sylvain Mallette announced the results with bitterness, saying that teachers are still not compensated for the time they spend working outside of class hours, and salaries have not risen with the cost of living.

Mallette emphasized his pride in the mobilization by teachers and parents, but said the Common Front did not take advantage of it: “We have to recognize that the government stuck to its gameplan. We as a labour movement have to ask ourselves some questions. We had a historic and unprecedented mobilization, people were in the streets, citizens were supporting our struggles. And the government gave itself a financial framework and in the end it stuck to it.”

However, the FAE did make three important gains. They got 250 new permanent positions in adult education and professional training, which will improve job security for many teachers in precarious employment; they reduced the average number and the maximum number of students per class in junior and senior kindergarten by one student, notably in underprivileged areas; and 30 million dollars was added to services for students with special needs.

Federation of Health and Social Services (FSSS-CSN)

Members of the FSSS-CSN will be voting to ratify until April 22. On its website, the union affirms that the deal is an improvement and represents an investment of an extra 80 million dollars by the government. It includes 14.5 million a year for group insurance, retroactive premiums for dangerous work, and higher classifications for certain job titles.

However, the union was forced to withdraw its salary equity complaints for personnel in nursing and cardiorespiratory care because the main nurses’ union, the FIQ, withdrew theirs as part of negotiations, and the Treasury therefore insisted the FSSS must as well. The FSSS-CSN denounced the damaging precedent created by the FIQ’s willingness to trade away the right to salary equity and the government’s insistence that they do the same.

FSSS-CSN President Jeff Begley states that the government “gave the FSSS-CSN a heart-rending decision: to withdraw its complaints on salary equity or face a special law. It is a mistake to link salary equity with negotiations because it is completely contrary to the spirit of the law. We will take necessary steps to ensure that no government can act this way in future.”

Nonetheless, both the bargaining team and the federal council of sectoral bargaining are recommending that members vote for the deal. But Begley reminds the members: “our determination allowed us to make gains in the fight that we continue for a better share of the wealth. And this fight must continue!

“This is why we must continue to mobilize in the coming weeks to defend more than ever the public network of health and social services.”

Join the conference Ideas for Real Change: Marxism 2016, including the sessions “Why is capitalism in crisis,” “Unions organizing in a time of precarity,” and the panel “How do we get real change,” with Québec solidaire activist André Frappier, NDP MPP Cheri Dinovo, and labour activist and socialist Ritch Whyman. Register today and join/share on facebook. 

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