The fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage, which has spread to hundreds of cities across North America, was the direct inspiration for an unlimited strike that shut down Montreal’s Old Port in late May and throughout all of June.
On May 27, around 200 unionized employees of the Old Port of Montreal began a legal strike for an entry-level wage of $15 an hour minimum, from the current $10.67 an hour. They are members of the Syndicat des employé-e-s du Vieux-Port de Montréal (SEVPM, or the Montreal Old Port Employees' Union), a local of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) of the region of Quebec.
According to union president Konrad Lamour, 47 per cent of Old Port employees earn less than $15 an hour. Overall there is a $5 to $7 an hour gap between Old Port wages and those at the Olympic Park and Jean-Drapeau Park, where employees perform similar work. Negotiations began last January for a contract that expired March 31, and the May 27 strike was well-timed for the tourist season. Yet one of the employer’s excuses for refusing the $15 an hour demand is that they hire many students during the summer. Members gave their union an 80 per cent strike mandate.
Within two days of the start of the strike, the strikers were served an injunction limiting their right to rally near the Old Port. Then the employer hired a number of scabs – which they can do because the union operates in a port and so is under federal jurisdiction, and therefore is not protected by Quebec's anti-scab legislation.
However, even though basic services of the Old Port could operate with scabs, the Science Centre, Clock Tower Beach, and the Marina, all big sources of revenue for the employer, were shut down. The union represents educational and sales staff at the Science Centre, ticket sellers, event planners, maintenance staff, parking attendants and security staff. Even bathrooms ran on a limited schedule throughout June. The union and employer returned to the table on June 30 with a mediator.
The Old Port workers have declared their solidarity with another group of workers also on unlimited strike for a minimum wage of $15 an hour: employees of private seniors' residences, members of SQEES-298-FTQ. On June 28 and 29 in Montreal, SEVPM members toured the struck private seniors’ residences, and in a media release for the event SEVPM President Konrad Lamour stated: “Our goal is the same. We demand as they do a decent salary to live with dignity. So it is normal to join them, particularly since the Old Port is preventing us with an injunction from entering and demonstrating on the site.” In the same release, SQEES-FTQ President Richard Belhumeur declared: “We welcome the support of our brothers and sisters of the Old Port who have to strike in spite of an injunction and the federal law that allows scabs. For them, as in private residences for seniors, and for all workers, $15 an hour should be a minimum.”
On the first day of their strike, the Old Port workers were joined by Québec solidaire for a picket line rally, where QS MNA Amir Khadir and QS national spokeperson Andrés Fontecilla told the media: “This is the second union within months that has struck to demand a living wage. Others will surely join them. Québec solidaire has forced the debate in the Legislature last week on the question of the minimum wage. With pressure from the ballot box and from the street, the government will have to listen to reason.”
The federal government will have to listen as well. On June 16, a contingent of Old Port workers took the fight to Parliament Hill to confront the employer, the Canada Lands Corporation, a crown corporation. But despite being under federal jurisdiction SEVPM members are classified as “federal workers” instead of “public servants,” which allows them to be underpaid for doing the same work. The strikers were joined on the Hill by activists from Ottawa’s local “$15 & Fairness” campaign.
And solidarity goes both ways. On the morning of June 1, 50 members of the SEVPM in turn joined the “Fifteen and Fairness McGill” Coalition to welcome Lawrence Rossy, founder of Dollarama, who was receiving an honourary doctorate from McGill University. As SEVPM bargaining team member Jacques Fontaine stated: “It’s well-known that the Rossy family made its fortune of hundreds of millions by paying its employees the minimum wage, sometimes less.”
Negotiations linked to the “Fight for 15” from the start
Beginning last January, the Old Port union began talking about the relevance of the “Fight for 15” campaign to the past and future of decent work in the Port, which has evolved from factory and warehouse jobs to jobs in the recreational and tourist industry.
According to Jacques Fontaine, a member of the bargaining team: “Out of a total of 250 workers in the winter – 350 in the summer, in the height of the tourist season – only 100 are full-time and have access to a pension. Only these same 100 get sick leave. For those who work on a precarious basis like me, hours of work can vary between 0 to more than 50.”
The union resisted concessions in negotiations two years ago, and their strategy this time was to prioritize the demand for $15 in part to widen their network of support through the Fight for 15 campaign in Montreal. As Pierre Veilleux explains, « contracting out is slowly replacing unionized labour with non-union…the employer often pays non-union workers more in order to make their work more attractive. For example, non-union maintenance workers are paid $17 an hour, or $4 more than unionized. But these workers don’t have sick days or vacations and don’t have access to a pension…This is why we continue to mobilize with our brothers and sisters in the union as well as in the campaign for a $15 minimum wage.”
In addition to the new entry wage the union also proposed sick days for all employees, vacation days, reimbursement of sick days not taken, and compensation for night and weekend shifts.
The “15 plus” campaign in Quebec
The campaign slogan of the “Fight for 15” movement in English Canada, “15 and Fairness,” is translated in French as “15 plus,” or “15 and more.” Workers in many Quebec regions and workplaces participated in the campaign’s April 15 pan-Canadian day of action, and on May 1st, the annual marches and rallies by Quebec unions and community organizations to mark the international workers’ holiday focused on raising the minimum wage.
Quebec has two major union federations, the FTQ and the CSN. The FTQ has launched its own campaign for a $15 minimum wage, progressively with a target of 2022. Unlike the FTQ, the CSN is calling for $15 “as quickly as possible.” The confederated council of the CSN, at the proposal of its health and social services member union, the FSSS (one of its largest members and one which rejected the Common Front salary deal last December), as well as the Montreal Central Council of the CSN, are backing this demand for $15 immediately.
This is the same demand being made by Québec solidaire (QS), which launched its minimum wage campaign this spring as well. QS MNA Manon Massé will be presenting a petition to the Quebec National Assembly in September that calls on the Quebec government to raise the minimum wage to $15 “right now and to index it automatically to the cost of living for all workers in Quebec, regardless of immigration status, schedule, place of residence, or type of work.” The party is circulating the petition with a flyer that reads: “It is unacceptable that in 2016 a million workers who earn less than $15 an hour have trouble making ends meet. That’s a quarter of the Quebec labour force! $15 is 0.3% of what went to the CEO of Québecor in 2014!”
The emerging connections in Quebec between unions, non-unionized workers, and the left around the “15plus” campaign will be key to its success. The impact it has already had stems from the groundswell of opposition to austerity that has remained a feature of Quebec political life since the 2012 student strike through the Common Front movement of last fall.
Hopefully this movement will not be so easily ignored in English Canada as other struggles have been, but will instead build a bridge of solidarity with workers and students in Quebec.