Front Commun picket line, Quebec Front Commun picket line, Quebec. Photo: Syndicat des enseignantes et enseignants du Cégep de l'Outaouais (SEECO), Facebook

Huge, co-ordinated strike action by workers in Quebec echoes a wave of militancy from fifty years ago, and points the way towards a decisive battle against austerity, argues John Clarke

As I write this, 420,000 public-sector workers in Quebec are nearing the end of a seven-day strike against the right-wing provincial government of François Legault. This huge round in the struggle grew out of previous actions and was unleashed as the ‘latest push to get the Quebec government to pay them more and improve their working conditions.’

The week-long strike, conducted by a coalition of unions known as the Front commununfolded as teachers from the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE) continued an unlimited strike that has been underway since 23 November. The leaders of the Front commun have made clear that a more decisive challenge to the Legault government is likely.

The Front commun unions have scheduled two days of meetings later in December and Robert Comeau, the president of the Alliance du personnel professionnel et technique de la santé et des services sociaux (APTS)has suggested that this should be seen by the government as an opportunity to table an acceptable offer. ‘If not, we’ll have no choice but to take stock of the situation with our members and we don’t see any other solution other than a general unlimited strike.’

The Front commun has refused to accept a 12.5% pay increase over five years as ‘a step back’ that they will resist. The Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec, (FIQ), representing 80,000 nurses and other health-care professionals has rejected a similar offer and the teachers have also refused proposals from the government that fell short. At this point, Legault is suggesting that larger pay increases are possible but they would have to be tied to ‘flexibility from the unions in terms of scheduling.’

The combined actions of the Front commun and the other public-sector unions have involved 570,000 workers, making it the largest strike action in Canadian history. There is enormous support in the general population for the struggle to defend workers’ rights and safeguard public services. ‘A poll this summer shows that 87 percent of Quebecers agree that the government needs to improve public-sector working conditions, 86 percent agree that public-sector salaries should at least be indexed to the cost of living, and 75 percent agree that improved conditions will result in improved public services.’

At the same time, Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government is seeing a major decline in its popularity and it is strikingly losing support in areas that have been its strongholds. Decades of austerity and social cutbacks have now been compounded by the cost-of-living crisis of the recent period and, in this situation, a lead given by striking workers is resonating among wider layers of working-class people. There is a widespread understanding that a major and decisive fight back is not only necessary but long overdue.

The powerful strikes underway in Quebec are both a necessary response by the workers directly involved and a call to action to others impacted by the same assault on their living standards and past gains. Without doubt, the ‘strike’s outcome will not only affect the involved workers but could also set a precedent for future labor movements in the province and beyond.’

Militant history

The present round of struggle in Quebec is in many ways a rediscovery of a militant past. In the 1970s, an earlier generation of public-sector workers took up a fight that shook the governing authorities and created a legacy of working-class resistance that has never been extinguished. This struggle took place in the midst of a very turbulent period in the life of the province. ‘The Quebec workers’ militancy, radical politics, and campaign for an independent Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s shocked many observers across the country. Unions had grown in strength during the post-war period in the face of ‘strenuous corporate resistance backed by Maurice Duplessis’ extreme anti-union provincial government.’

The union alliance of that time was linked to the La Presse strike that unfolded in 1971. Workers from several different unions organised a mass march in solidarity with the strikers and it was ‘brutally suppressed by police, leading to riots that wounded many and resulted in the killing of Michele Gauthier, a student activist.’

The police repression, however, ‘created common ground for the coming together of normally competitive and divided unions … The Common Front of 1972 was an alliance between the Confederation of National Trade Unions, the Quebec Federation of Labour and the Quebec Teachers Corporation as well as several smaller unions to present a united set of demands during negotiations with the provincial government.’

Representing 84% of public-sector workers, the alliance demanded an 8% wage increase, a minimum wage for all categories and improved working conditions. ‘When the government was unwilling to cede to these demands, the Common Front struck, and on April 11, 1972, 210 000 workers walked off the job.’

In the uncertain economic conditions of the time and, faced with the growth of the nationalist Parti Québécois, the Liberal Quebec government of Robert Bourassa decided that the ‘swelling wave of change that was sweeping Quebec society… needed breaking’ and it decided to crush the strike.

Striking hospital workers were hit with court injunctions, with thirteen of them imprisoned for six months and fined the equivalent of a year’s wages. ‘Overall, 103 workers were sentenced to a total of 24 years and fined half a million dollars during a few days.’ Legislation was then passed that ‘forced unionized workers back to work and banned all fundamental trade union rights for two years.’

When the three union leaders, Louis Laberge, Marcel Pépin and Yvon Charbonneau, urged workers to defy the legislation, they were arrested and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. ‘The profound unfairness of sending the three men to jail triggered popular outrage across Quebec’s working class.’

The upsurge continued to build and over ‘the month of May, work stoppages broke out across the province in public and private workplaces – construction and metal workers, miners, machinists, auto and textile workers, salespeople, print-shop employees, the staff of major news media, teachers and some hospital workers.’ The level of militancy went beyond defiant strike action and involved widespread occupations. ‘Radio and television stations were occupied by the union members, who broadcast their messages.’

This explosive situation forced ‘the government to back down. The labour leaders were released from jail after serving four months and many of the Common Front’s demands were agreed to during negotiations.’ To this day, union density in Quebec ‘remains among thehighest in the country.’

Today’s struggles

The class battles of the 1970s are casting their shadow over the present fight against the Legault government. It is a political formation that has shown its readiness to impose an austerity agenda and that will do all it can to undermine the rights of public-sector workers and decimate the services that they deliver.

Yet, five decades after workers in Quebec unleashed one of the most significant struggles in North American trade-union history, the lines are drawn again. Already public-sector workers have taken strike action on a scale even greater than in the 70s, and they are on the verge of taking the struggle to entirely new levels.

At moments like this, the need for rank-and-file pressure to ensure trade-union leaders don’t settle for less than is necessary is always at a premium. However, the workers within the Front commun unions are determined to make real gains, and they are backed by massive support in the broader working class. Without a retreat by the Legault government, an unlimited strike and a decisive class battle is looming in Quebec.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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