Four union federations in Quebec have formed a common front to collectively bargain with the right wing CAQ government. More than 400,000 workers are poised to walk out on November 6th. We spoke with Gustavo Monteiro, a healthcare worker and rank and file militant with the CSN (Confederation des syndicats nationaux), about the strike preparations and the plan to fight back.
SW: Clearly this fight is over the cost of living. Quebec government is stuck at a ridiculous offer of 9% over 5 years, while the common front is seeking a three-year deal with a weekly pay hike of $100 or an increase equivalent to the inflation rate plus two per cent for the first year, cost of living plus three per cent for the second year and cost of living plus four per cent in the third year. Can you tell me about the state of public sector pay and labour shortages right now, and how this fight is linked to providing good public services?
We’re talking about 11.9% of what we call “rattrapage” in Quebec (catching up) to what salaries should be right now [short of inflation], and we have a long way to go.
Since the pandemic we’ve seen many quitting public healthcare and education. Even with the programs that the Quebec government created for people to join the public healthcare sector from a different field, most have left. It was a parallel contract imposed by the government on the unions, and unions didn’t have a chance to negotiate it. We had a bunch of people working at hospitals and residences without any training, it was pretty stressful so many left right at the beginning and then more later on.
Even with other programs for orderlies, where you would have a scholarship for three months and a course, you would still start working right away. And many, many, left, and they had to reimburse the government for these scholarships. They didn’t know the situation in healthcare was as bad as it is, and of course the government didn’t explain. I could give you the same story about nurses, kitchen workers, janitors, all positions.
SW: The FC held a series of strike vote meetings to get that 95% vote: what is the mood on the ground, and what were the strike meetings like?
It’s a process. Our last bargaining for the CSN started in 2019 it took so for the government to negotiate with us: we didn’t have the Common Front. So we just signed at the end of summer 2022 (for a contract ending in March 2023) knowing we would start bargaining again a few months later. Last year we had a bunch of meetings about our demands on salary, working conditions, pensions, and how healthcare is managed in different regions in Quebec and what is needed to deliver it outside of Montreal: in places like Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean, Bas-St-Laurent.
First the Common Front had larger cross-sector meetings and then we had CSN meetings. Within the CSN we have four federations that are part of the Common Front: healthcare and social services, education, and professionals (psychologists and social workers). The local unions had direction to go see what the local members wanted to bring to the table: it was a very interesting and consultative process for the whole year. It wasn’t the top union leadership but the base of workers saying this is what we need to protect public services and working conditions. It was still the pandemic and workers felt disrespected, especially in healthcare.
In November we put our demands on the table. And then we didn’t hear from the government, they didn’t want to negotiate. We went through a media battle until the spring then we had to change our approach, because things weren’t moving. In spring and summer we organized general assemblies to apply more pressure on the government. We did actions at metro stations, canvassing the public, countering the media’s fake news, all spring and summer.
On September 23 we had a Common Front rally of 100,000 people in Montreal, with buses from all different parts of Quebec and planes with people from Iles de la Madeleine and some northern territories. And at that point people were saying: when are we going to vote for the strike already? That’s when we started our general assemblies for a mandate that can go to an unlimited general strike.
SW: The FC has announced that there will be at the very least some warning strikes occurring at the end of October: what can you tell us about the organizing for this?
We will have our first day of one-day strike on November 6, and then maybe another day here and there, but if things aren’t moving we could go for more in late November or early December.
But the feeling in all the assemblies was: if we could go on strike tomorrow, we would, people were ready to go on strike right away. People are fed up, they can’t make ends meet.
The size of this Common Front is much bigger than in the last Common Front strike of 2015. But that strike ended with a lot of bitter division between different unions and workplaces accepting deals and going back to work at different times. How can it be different this time?
Since I started working in public hospitals in Montreal I’ve heard stories about the consequences of the 2015 Common Front. But this Common Front is bigger and because of that experience and the privatization of public services, all different unions are sharing the same feeling: we know we have to stick together and really put the government against the wall.
Legault’s Bill 15 would create an agency to allow even more privatization of Quebec’s public healthcare system. And it’s a direct attack on how unions organize as well, which could cause some division in the Common Front if unions tried to raid each other. But the Common Front representatives said, we are not going to fall into that trap, we are going to stick together to protect public services and working conditions. The CSN rejects Bill 15 completely.
If we want to win this battle, we have to organize together. We are talking about picketing together on joint picket lines with the other Common Front unions.
Also in 2015, the threat of back to work legislation was used to divide and intimidate workers. Do you see that playing out differently this time? How can this be stopped from happening again?
This is something we talk about, but we haven’t really spent much time on what we’re going to do if it comes. But the feeling from the base is that even if the government tries legislation, people are ready to keep going. They see this as a battle not only over their collective agreement but to defend public services. And the public is with us, because they know we need good jobs to deliver those services. I think the membership at the base is prepared to push the Common Front leadership to keep going no matter what the government tries.
What role do rank and file activists have in making the FC strike movement a success?
To continue to organize the way we have since the beginning. Reaching out to the membership, every single worker, janitors, kitchen staff, laundry workers, orderlies. Workers know what’s needed, we just have to keep this momentum going, and be really transparent. If we don’t see anything close to what’s needed on the table, if necessary we’re going to have to push our representatives of the Common Front to respond to the government. This is an important moment, about the future, and workers know that, and they are ready.
What was the ‘secret’ action you were just involved in?
It was an action for the Common Front at Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. It was there because one of our demands is about our pension plan: Legault wants to make us work longer and reduce the percentage the government puts into this public pension, and this is where it is managed. We occupied the building with nearly 1000 people. We swarmed in and had speeches from all the different Common Front unions and stayed as long as we could. This won’t be the last action, and for sure the CSN is going to have another one in front of the Conseil du Trésor (Treasury Board).
News is not travelling much outside Quebec about this struggle: what would help to build solidarity?
Motions of solidarity would help us, we know we need solidarity throughout all unions, and across the country. Times are hard for workers everywhere, but this is a battle to protect public services: we’re seeing the same attack in other provinces like by Ford in Ontario. I’ve shared with the CSN what the Ontario Health Coalition has done to fight privatization. It’s going to be a big battle here: people should use every channel, every platform they can to send messages of solidarity.
We saw CSN organizations show solidarity with the CUPE Ontario education workers when they were on strike. That’s the kind of thing we want to see, to increase the power of unions both in Quebec and across Canada.