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Interview: Benoit Renaud on the public sector fight in Quebec

June 24, 2021

Socialist Worker spoke with Benoit Renaud, a teaching advisor for public schools in Gatineau, Quebec. He is a member of the Fédération des professionnelles et professionels de l’éducation, a union representing 2,000 education professionals who are not teachers (psychologists, speech therapists, etc.). Benoit is a socialist and member of Québec solidaire.


Quebec public sector workers currently in negotiations have voted for militant actions from multiple-day strikes up to unlimited strikes. How has this come about?


Our collective agreements ended in 2020, it’s been more than a year without contracts. We have been in a long period of negotiation already. More than 500,000 workers are involved, all of these people have been in negotiations. 


The only union that voted for an unlimited general strike was an autonomous teacher federation, Fédération autonome de l'enseignement (FAE), about 50,000 which split from the larger teachers union. But they never had to implement it because they were the first union to reach an agreement with the government with a 90% ratification vote, they got sizable wage increases and a few other concessions from the employer.


The problem is, that was the most militant section of the Quebec working class. When they reached a deal, then everybody else was left with nothing. A good example of the limitations and problems with having an autonomous federation and negotiating by themselves.


In the rest of the public sector unions, most have the right to strike, but most workers in the health care sector don’t have the right to strike, because they are deemed essential workers.


The more typical tactic from unions has been to get mandates for 5 days of strike. 


My own Federation is going to have its third half day of strike this week. So we have used one and a half of the 5 days we voted for. And there has been a strategy of sectors striking at a different time. The ‘pro’ of that tactic is that there is always something going on. Also, it allows each sector to get some media attention for its issues.


There is also a strong argument to be made, and I have made it several times, for us all to go strike at the same time! Now the Cegeps (colleges) can’t go on strike because the semester is almost over. So, the rest of us are left hanging at the moment. And negotiations are not going well, so there is a possibility we will still be negotiating in the fall.


From the point of view of English Canada, it looks quite militant in terms of strong mandates for strike actions. Can you comment on this?


I would say that there is a deep pool of potential militancy because people have been living with the consequences of austerity policies and budget cuts. Successive governments have all tried to make public sector workers do more with less. It’s led to people quitting, going to the private sector, and burnout. For the health care sector, it is particularly intense. You are dealing with other people’s lives and your own health is being pushed to its limits and beyond on a regular basis.


People are angry, people are really pissed off! So, the potential for very strong mobilization is there. The fact that when there were strike votes taken, they were usually over 90% in favour, all across the public sector unions. At the same time, people are hesitant to get into an outright confrontation with the government because of previous governments history of legislating the contracts. 


We have a majority government at the moment that is probably the most right-wing since the 1950s. They would probably not hesitate to impose contracts, if they thought we were causing too much trouble. There is a bit of fear that if workers go too far, we might have that situation.


So there is a bit of contradiction there between the potential for mobilization and how careful the unions are to use their strike mandates. There is that tension going on.


Another big problem is that we don’t have a Common Front. Each union is negotiating on its own. Also, the public sector unions are fragmented because of a restructuring of the unions under the previous Liberal government. This forced a complete reshuffling of union affiliations.


Overall, we end up in a situation where we have no agreements between the public sector unions. In 2015, there was a Common Front that brought together most of the public sector unions into some kind of alliance. But this is the first time that there is no common front between the public sector unions since the 1960s. 


That explains why the government was able to reach a deal with one group of workers and ignore another. The government can play with those divisions and improve their own bargaining position.


In 2015, the Common Front was able to pull off the biggest general strike ever in Quebec history.  


The unions ended the mobilizations before they had to and didn’t use their strike mandates. They ended up going for a so-so deal when the potential for mobilization was obvious.


How has the pandemic shaped the political terrain?


The first thing that happened is that the government tried to use the pandemic as an excuse to force the unions into accepting shitty deals. They went to the bargaining table with nothing but a short two-week deadline to pressure the unions into deals. Governments, not just here, have used the pandemic to be authoritarian, ‘How dare you contemplate going on strike—there is a pandemic!’


That didn’t work at all! Not a single union went for that. 


But, because of the pandemic, It is even more difficult now, especially for health care workers, to do any kind of workplace action. Also, the government has used the pandemic to improve the wages and conditions of some health care workers—but only temporarily, a pandemic bonus. But, it has also created a tightening of authority of management over the sector. We are going to give you more money but, don’t cause trouble, is kind of the deal.


The pandemic has also highlighted how poor and understaffed our health care system is. The main reason for the lockdowns was not that too many people were going to get sick, but that there was not going to be enough staff to care of them. That was the criteria.


For example in my region, we had very few cases of COVID, but because our hospitals are so brutally understaffed and underfunded, we were declared a red zone, the same level as Montreal, with many more cases. 


The public awareness of how important the health care sector is and what bad shape it is in is stronger than it would have been. That’s to the advantage of workers, but there are so many things pushing in the other direction that it is hard to tell how the pros and cons will balance themselves out. But the pandemic has changed the overall conditions of the struggle.


One key thing is that the government’s handling of the pandemic has been well accepted. It could have been dangerous for the government. But, all of the media was focused on the pandemic and it has been to the advantage of the government. There is no space for the opposition parties.


For Quebec Solidaire, the initial strategy was to encourage people to follow the government’s rules, any criticism would be taken up privately with the government.  But that meant that there was no public voice of any kind for critique of the government policies. Some of the membership was critical of this, even as the leadership was shifting. The QS position now is to support the public sector workers and criticizing the government for not backing their demands. 


The pandemic also impacted the activist networks and QS members meetings, there was almost no activity and it took awhile to get the ball rolling again.


In terms of the prospects going forward, there is a complicated dance going on for the unions who are still in negotiations. There is a tension between the teachers who have an agreement and those who don’t.


Almost all of the health care workers still have no agreements. There is a big question about how this is going to end. It is kind of half done. Will the government impose deal or will negotiations will continue. Could there be strikes in September?


The deals are only for three years so, bargaining will be beginning almost before the current negotiations end. This could be a good thing, a situation of permanent mobilization.   



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