February 12, 2024
From Marxism-Leninism Today
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By Peoples Voice (Canada) Labour Bureau

February 1-15, 2024  People’s Voice (Canada)

After a series of strike actions by half a million workers in November and December, followed by weeks of intense negotiations, Quebec’s Common Front of unions announced a tentative deal with the Quebec government on January 7.

At press time, the agreement was being considered by the 420,000 public sector workers who are represented by four different unions in the Common Front.

Workers and unions remained strongly united and militant in the face of government interference and harassment, and they delivered historically high strike mandates with an average of 95 percent. Mobilization was massive during the three strike rounds and was supported by a majority of the population.

Regardless of the outcome of ratification votes, the Quebec public sector workers’ struggle sets down a marker for labour across Canada about the necessity of unity and militancy.

If accepted, the new contract will provide workers with wage increase of 17.4 percent over five years. This includes a 6-percent increase in the first year retroactive to April 2023, the largest annual increase in decades. The deal also includes a “purchasing power protection clause” of up to 1 percent in the last three years, a fifth week of paid leave after 19 years rather than 25, increased employer contributions for health insurance, and improvements in both the pension and parental rights plans.

In announcing the tentative agreement, the Common Front leaders acknowledged that negotiations were difficult and complex, but that the unity and mobilization of hundreds of thousands of workers in 300 different union locals was key. “Our members’ powerful mobilization, across Quebec, is what made the government understand the needs of our public systems. A huge amount of work was carried out, on a daily basis, at many different levels. Away from the media spotlight, workers from the very beginning consolidated actions on the ground, made the Common Front visible, made our demands known and helped spread our message. Today, we want to applaud them and give them our heartfelt thanks.”

Shortly after the deal was announced, the Parti communiste du Québec (PCQ) called it a significant step forward for workers in Quebec and, potentially, one that could lead to future advances. “This is an important victory on the part of more than 500,000 workers who mobilized and did not hesitate to take to the front lines through several strikes, to demand decent offers that include an unprecedented wage increase as well as several improvements to working conditions,” said the PCQ on January 11, referring to the 420,000 workers in the Common Front as well as tens of thousands of teachers and other public sector workers whose unions were not part of the Front but which cooperated with it and won similar tentative deals. “There is no doubt that, whatever the outcome, such mobilization will have a positive impact on future union struggles.”

Labour Unity Defies Legault’s Attempt to Divide Workers

Since the Common Front first submitted its demands to the Treasury Board in October 2022, Francois Legault’s right-wing Coalition Avenir Quebec ( CAQ) government has tried desperately to weaken the unions unity and solidarity. But all its efforts to isolate union members from the rest of the population , divide the Common Front from other unions and even split the Common Front itself failed miserably.

Workers and unions remained strongly united and militant in the face of government interference and harassment, and they delivered historically high strike mandates with an average of 95 percent. Mobilization was massive during the three strike rounds and was supported by a majority of the population.

The government also continually dragged its heels at the negotiating table, feigning interest and hoping to wear down the Front through attrition. But when the unions announced an unlimited general strike beginning early this year, the CAQ realized it had to sit down and negotiate seriously. This in itself was a major victory, and proof that unity and mobilization pays off.

A Big Step Forward But Not Perfect

While some of the gains in the tentative deal are significant and even historic – especially the overall wage increase, which is the highest from a single contract in 45 years – there are some notable shortcomings.

Most obviously, the wage gains remain below what the unions had initially demanded. From the beginning, the Common Front has indicated that its fight was for a minimum increase of $100 per week or cost-of-living (CPI) plus 2 percent in the first year, CPI plus 3 percent in the second year and CPI plus 4 percent in the third year. Throughout their proposed three-year deal, the unions were looking at an overall wage increase of around 23 percent.

While the unions forced the government to nearly double its initial wage offer – the CAQ tabled 9 percent over 5 years in December 2022, but was pushed to increase that to 10.3 percent in October 2023 and then 12.7 percent on December 6, 2023 before settling at 17.4 percent – the increase during the first three years is just over 11 percent, so 12 percent less than the unions’ demand for that same period.

The long contract length is also a concern, given the current context marked of growing economic insecurity. It is difficult to predict what inflation will be next year, let alone at the end of the
agreement in 2027, and the Legault government has repeatedly indicated its intention to prevent workers’ wages from growing over the longer term.

But even with the wage increases and the possibility that they will be above inflation, the lowest paid public sector workers are still a risk of being left behind. The deal’s average yearly increase of 3 percent isn’t much for lower paid workers when the costs of rent and basic necessities are skyrocketing. The Common Front’s demand for a minimum increase of $100 per week in 2023, which the unions did not win, would have helped reduce the wage gap in the public sector and particularly benefit the lowest paid. This aspect of the struggle could continue to be the focus in future, with differentiated salary demands depending on workers’ salaries.

Do these shortcomings nullify the advances in the tentative agreement? PCQ leader Adrien Welsh told PV, “Some people will over-emphasize the gains in the deal to minimize the weaknesses, and others will argue that the flaws mean this is a sellout agreement – in fact, neither approach is very useful. The Communist Party rejects both a cavalier position of childish rejection and a position of all-out support, because beyond the question of acceptance or rejection, the most important thing remains the dynamic of struggle. Yes, this is a historic battle for labour in Quebec – in fact, for labour throughout Canada – but to pretend that it alone would overturn decades of neoliberalism is to place our dreams ahead of reality.”

In announcing the tentative agreement, the Common Front leaders acknowledged that negotiations were difficult and complex, but that the unity and mobilization of hundreds of thousands of workers in 300 different union locals was key. “Our members’ powerful mobilization, across Quebec, is what made the government understand the needs of our public systems. A huge amount of work was carried out, on a daily basis, at many different levels. Away from the media spotlight, workers from the very beginning consolidated actions on the ground, made the Common Front visible, made our demands known and helped spread our message. Today, we want to applaud them and give them our heartfelt thanks.”

Shortly after the deal was announced, the Parti communiste du Québec (PCQ) called it a significant step forward for workers in Quebec and, potentially, one that could lead to future advances. “This is an important victory on the part of more than 500,000 workers who mobilized and did not hesitate to take to the front lines through several strikes, to demand decent offers that include an unprecedented wage increase as well as several improvements to working conditions,” said the PCQ on January 11, referring to the 420,000 workers in the Common Front as well as tens of thousands of teachers and other public sector workers whose unions were not part of the Front but which cooperated with it and won similar tentative deals. “There is no doubt that, whatever the outcome, such mobilization will have a positive impact on future union struggles.”

The Common Front struggle needs to be analyzed within the overall need for a united struggle against corporate greed across Canada – one that can advance workers’ interests at the bargaining table, as well as the fundamental social and political change that’s vital to permanently securing workers’ wages, living standards and interests. In that sense, the most important thing is strengthening the labour movement for the battles to come.

This doesn’t mean accepting insufficient contracts – if a clear majority of workers reject the tentative deal and call for an indefinite general strike by the Common Front, then that becomes the concrete terrain for the class struggle.

But what it does mean is protecting labour unity against potential division. The degree of unity among Quebec’s public sector workers and unions is a unity that has been won through the Common Front struggle. And it is a unity that is crucial to winning further victories, especially since the struggle will become more vicious as employers and governments multiply their attacks on the working class.

The current bargaining battle is a step toward building a movement capable of confronting and defeating the power of the corporate monopolies. The overall strategy is to strengthen labour’s struggle against capital – economically, socially and politically.

Lessons for Labour throughout Canada

The Common Front struggle has brought together over 500,000 workers from six different unions, four of which are members of the Front and two of which are closely cooperating with it. None of these unions are organizationally united in the same labour central, yet they have come together in this fight. They are united in struggle, and because of that, they have made gains.

There is an important lesson for the labour movement throughout Canada here. If six unions in different labour centrals in Quebec can pull together – four of them with common demands, common tactics and a common bargaining committee – why can’t unions in the Canadian Labour Congress not find a way to build common struggles with unions outside of the CLC?

Rather than seeking unity in struggle, most of the labour leadership in Canada seems quite content with a divided house of labour. Recent discussions about unity have skirted the fundamental question of unity in struggle between the CLC, Teamsters and especially Unifor, and instead been more narrowly focused on the question of how much back dues need to be paid if the latter unions are to re-affiliate.

An example of this culture of division can be seen in the struggles of grocery workers in Ontario last year, which was a missed opportunity for labour. In the summer, 3700 workers at Metro food stores in the Greater Toronto Area struck for higher wages. You would expect that other unions in the sector – most notably UFCW, which represents several thousand grocery workers including 8000 at Metro – would have mobilized to support them and help win a precedent-setting contract for the entire industry.

But the striking Metro workers were represented by Unifor, so the UFCW leadership sat on its hands and pretended nothing was happening. After a month on the picket line, the workers accepted a deal with strong wage gains and other im- provements. UFCW essentially matched these gains at the end of the year in a new contract for its 26,000 members working at Loblaw stores, but without even acknowledging the role played by the Unifor strike in setting the bar

In this case, UFCW lucked into a type of accidental pattern bargaining, but betting on luck is hardly a strategy for success. Wage gains would almost certainly have been greater if there had been a united struggle by all unions in the sector, especially given wide public support due to high grocery prices, corporate profiteering, and the government’s failure to do anything about it.

Of course, unions have historically benefited from each other’s struggles, leap-frogging with demands and using pattern contracts to raise their members’ wages. But remaining apart and actively disengaging from labour solidarity is a different matter and is not a plan for unions to advance the class struggle. Instead, it is a recipe for division, sectarianism, isolation and weakness for labour, while handing bosses and their governments a free hand to trample on workers’ hard-won rights and conditions.

The struggle of Quebec’s Common Front of unions is helping to illuminate the way forward for working people. The CLC and the labour movement throughout Canada would be wise to get onto a similar path.




Source: Mltoday.com