By Nora Loreto
Public sector negotiations have been going on for months. From the start of the bargaining (indeed, from the start of the Liberal mandate), it’s been clear that the Liberal government would not bargain in good faith. They’ve barely bargained at all. Unions, anticipating this at the start of negotiations, have built an impressive and important common front, and it’s nearly reaching its fever pitch.
The negotiations are historic not because of what the workers stand to gain, or even because they’re close to victory (they’re not). They’re historic because for the first time ever workers and social movement organizations are connecting their struggles and aiming to stop Phillippe Couillard’s austerity agenda.
Public sector workers bargain at the same time in Québec. This has lead labour leaders to form a common front: public sector workers who are members of the CSN, the FTQ and the SISP are trying to bargain together, across sectors and workplaces.
Outside of the Front Commun are the FIQ, the union representing nurses and other health professionals, and the FAE, the progressive organization of teaching unions that includes most French-language schools in Montréal.
Then, there are community organizations, many who are central to driving the debate about a general social strike. Of the 4000 community organizations in Québec, more than 1300 of them went on a two-day strike at the start of November.
Their strike days fit in the middle of the strike days of the Front Commun and the FAE: during the last week of October, there were rotating one-day strikes. During the second and third weeks of November, there were two-day rotating strikes.
At the same time as the two-day strikes, the FIQ set up a human chain around the doors to the Premier’s residence in Québec City.
In Alma, 2000 workers shut down a bridge.
There has also been a wave of parent-coordinated protests around public schools across Québec. Je Protege Mon École Publique has brought community members into the fight demanding that the government undo cutbacks that have reduced the number of specialists and support staff within public schools.
JPMEP has been so successful that several times over the past semester, people have formed human chains around their local schools. It has helped to bolster the teachers’ demands and frame public services from the point-of-view of families and the communities in which they’re located.
The government has continued to bargain through the media. The two sides remain so far apart that talk has turned to the possibility of back-to-work legislation.
The convergence of events is what makes this round of bargaining historic. But as the campaign advances, strategic decisions and cracks in solidarity threaten to unravel the momentum.
For example, the Front Commun has suspended their call for the next days of rotating strikes, three days during the first week of December. The announcement came from the leadership with no approval from member general assemblies.
While representatives of the unions involved in the Front Commun insist that this does not necessarily mean that the days of strike are cancelled, it certainly has thrown the movement for a loop. Community organizations who won strike mandates on the floors of general assemblies have been left alone in their strike days. They’ll be continuing with their strike on December 2.
There is also talk of simply moving the dates of the three days of rotating strike. But with cégep profs making up a significant part of the Front Commun, they’re limited by exams and the end of the semester. And, convincing a worker to strike gets much harder as the holiday season approaches. The days of strike cannot go too late into December.
The FAE is moving ahead with its strike days, as determined by members in general assemblies.
At the heart of the struggle are the challenges posed by democracy: how can a multi-union coalition maintain solidarity and cohesion while also remaining accountable to its membership? And, with hefty fines and jail time as possible consequences of breaking back-to-work legislation, how should the leadership balance these risks with the militancy and demands of their members?
The fact that many members learned about the suspension of the next strike days through rumour or, worse, in the press, demonstrates that the democratic deficit that exists among the Front Commun is a problem.
As many workers navigate the formal structures of their unions to push for greater militancy, general meetings are being organized regularly for member locals to determine what to do in the face of back-to-work legislation. Already professors at cégep Sherbrooke have said that a special law will not stop the movement.
It’s a line that many parents have said throughout the campaign JPMEP too: un loi spécial peut jamais arrêter un parent.