Striking workers from the education, health, and social services sectors affiliated with the common front of Quebec unions were joined on the picket lines this week, by nurses and care professionals who began a four-day walkout on Monday. The members of the Front commun plan to end their seven-day strike action on Thursday.
Public sector unions all rejected the most recent offer by the government of a 12.7 per cent salary increase over five years, saying this offer falls below current inflation estimates and would mean a pay cut for employees. Both the common front and the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), which represents 80,000 nurses and other care professionals, submitted counteroffers to the government late last week. The FIQ is proposing a 20-per cent increase over four years, while the common front has agreed to negotiate a longer-term contract as well – up to five years – but only if this includes an indexation clause and salary catch-up.
The four union leaders of the common front have said they will meet on December 18 and 19 to take stock of progress at the negotiation tables. If they have not received a serious offer from the government at that point, the union group says it is prepared to call an unlimited general strike after the holidays.
“The intensity of the negotiations has definitely picked up,” says Nick Ross, the president of the Chateauguay Valley Teachers Association (CVTA). He notes that the negotiating teams at the provincial level are meeting almost daily and trying to work out the best possible scenario for the workers. In the meantime, he confirms the morale among local CVTA members remains high. “It is great to see all of the workers from the education sector together at mobilization activities: support staff, blue-collar, professionals, and teachers standing side-by-side in solidarity,” he says, noting striking workers are keeping things upbeat and positive by playing music and dancing to keep warm.
“The support of the community is unprecedented, and everyone appreciates each small gesture whether it be a honk and a smile or a delivery of coffee, hot chocolate, muffins or cookies,” says Ross, who reiterates that area teachers do not want to be on strike, but it is necessary to move things forward with the government.
Stress on the network
Michael Helm, the director general of the New Frontiers School Board, says the strike is starting to stress the education network. He says he is concerned about the number of teaching days that have been lost. “Our focus is going to have to be on essential learnings,” he says, suggesting that if the strike continues there may be less time for enrichment or self-exploratory work with students. He says there has been no word from the Education Ministry to date about compensating for lost time. He is also keenly aware that over the course of the winter, there will likely be more school days cancelled due to weather.
Helm says he is also concerned about NFSB staff, students, and their families. “It has an impact on many levels, and everyone is still pretty fragile,” he says.
Nurses and care professionals also frustrated
For Dominic Caisse, the interim president of the FIQ-syndicat des professionnelles en soins de Montérégie Ouest, the government is not being fair. “Flexibility, efficiency, power: these are all words the government talks about, but what we want our patients and the public to understand is that it can’t be a one-way street,” he says.
“We too want the flexibility to be with our families; stable and efficient work teams to provide better care; and the power to set our own schedules. Authoritarian management is no longer acceptable to care professionals,” he states, while suggesting care professionals deserve to be paid what they are worth and won’t stand for a reduction in purchasing power.
Premier François Legault has said he is willing to increase the salary offer, but only in return for concessions on the part of the different unions.