Fighting Austerity?

The Public Sector and the Common Front in Quebec – Published on Socialist, by David Mandel, July 25, 2010.

The previous round of negotiations in Quebec between the rightwing provincial Liberal government of Jean Charest and the public sector unions in 2005 was ended abruptly by the adoption of a special law that unilaterally imposed wages and conditions on the workers, while providing draconian penalties for any disturbance to the normal functioning of public institutions. The special decree (Bill 142/Law C-43) was quite a remarkable attack on public sector collective bargaining, even by the standards of the Quebec state.  

As a result, according to the unions, the workers suffered 4 per cent decline in real wages over the five-year period of the imposed contract. Further, in the estimate of a government agency set up to monitor the relationship between public and private sector wages in Quebec in order to facilitate public-sector negotiations, the wages of provincial workers had already fallen 8.7 per cent behind those of the private sector by 2004. The government, however, now argued that public sector workers enjoy the advantage of job security compared to private sector workers (which is the case for at most three quarters of public sector workers).

A Common Front Forms: … //

… The Accord and Public Sector Worker Setbacks
The agreement with the Quebec government signed by the Common Front leaders on June 27 was very far from their initial demands. The unions were asking 11.5 per cent over three years. The agreement is for five years and gives between 7 per cent and 10.5 per cent over that period. The higher figure depends on whether GDP grows faster than expected. In that case, the workers will get 0.5 per cent, 1.5 per cent and 1.5 per cent more in the last three years. The agreement not only gives up the goal of recouping the lost wages of 2005-10 but it accepts a further decline, since inflation over 1.2 per cent annually will be compensated by only 1 per cent more for the entire five years. As for the additional 3.5 per cent if GDP grows faster than expected, that is quite hypothetical in current circumstances.

The accord was signed and presented as a victory by the union leadership without sounding out the rank and file. It still has to be ratified by the local-union assemblies, but a significant revolt seems unlikely, given the weakness of left wing currents in a union movement in Quebec that has increasingly embraced the corporatism of ‘social partnership’ and social investment funds over the past 30 years.

Despite the ‘common front,’ the conclusion of the agreement means the abandonment by the Common Front of the 55,000 nurses of the FIQ (La Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec – Federation of Nurses of Quebec), who have not signed their sectoral agreement. Their main demands concern workloads (vast amounts of overtime) and the widespread use of agency labour. In a way, the Common Front experience of 2010 repeats the earlier failure of the big federations to support the nurses in the summer of 1999 when, in defiance of their own leaders and in the face of extremely punitive laws, they struck, with much public support, for two weeks. The federations reaped the bitter fruits of their inaction when in 2005 they saw their own union rights trampled underfoot by similarly repressive laws.

David Mandel teaches Political Science at the Université du Québec à Montréal UQAM. (full text).

Link: The Leaders of the Common Front Have Betrayed Us (scroll down), by Dominique Boivin, July 25, 2010.

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