Public Sector Workers in Quebec May Be on the Verge of a General Strike
by Felix Fuchs - The public sector in Quebec is under attack from the province’s center-right government. In response, unions representing over 420,000 public sector workers have formed a coalition — and could soon launch what would be the largest strike in Canada’s history.
On September 23, 2023, over one hundred thousand unionized workers, along with their friends and families, descended on the downtown core of Montreal. Under the pastel green banner of the Common Front, workers from the health and education sectors arrived from across the province in school buses, trains, and even by plane to express their discontent with the conservative provincial government of François Legault. The premier of Quebec made an appearance as a giant inflatable puppet, with money taped to his hands and coming out of his ears. The slogan of the Common Front (Front Commun), sums up neatly that the labor movement in Quebec is fighting not just for its members but for everyone: nous, d’une seule voix — we, with one voice.
While negotiations for new collective agreements have stalled across the entire public sector, the provincial legislature recently adjusted its own salaries for inflation and gave its members a 30 percent raise on top of that. College teachers, in comparison, are not asking for much. They too want to see their salaries adjusted for inflation and are demanding an additional pay raise of 9 percent over three years. The government has refused any indexing measures and is instead offering a 9 percent increase over five years. Given inflation predictions, the Common Front argues, this “offer” amounts to a 7 percent pay cut in real terms.
But this is not the only issue that the provincial government and the Fédération nationale des enseignantes et des enseignants du Québec (FNEEQ, the National Federation of Quebec Teachers), the public college teachers’ union, do not see eye to eye on. In addition to imposing cuts, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government is threatening to fundamentally transform the public college system, known as the Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEP), a point of pride for many Quebecers.
Instead of improving working conditions, reducing class sizes, and including teachers in decision-making processes, the government is trying to cut jobs and replace them with an on-demand distance-learning delivery system, while limiting teachers’ control over education policies and replacing it with top-down government committees. Over these issues — as well as demands over parental leave, retirement, regional differences, and insurance — negotiations have stalled.
In response to these issues among others, Quebec’s largest trade unions united in the Common Front in 2022 to pressure the government during the new round of negotiations the following year. Crucially, the coalition allows the various public sector unions, as their slogan suggests, to speak with one voice in government negotiations across all sectors. It also means that the unions of the Common Front — representing 420,000 workers total — can take action as one, thereby backing their demands with the potential threat of an unlimited general strike of the entire public sector.
The Common Front Today
The Common Front brings together public sector workers of the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ, Quebec Federation of Labor), the largest labor federation in Quebec; the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN, Confederation of National Trade Unions), the second-largest trade union in Quebec, which organizes workers from all sectors, public and private, including teachers, construction workers, and health and social service workers; the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ, Quebec Labour Congress), the third-biggest union, which primarily organizes educators in the public sector; and the Alliance du personnel professionnel et technique de la santé et des services sociaux (APTS, Alliance of Professional and Technical Health and Social Services Personnel).
CEGEP teachers’ most recent contract was allowed to expire in March, along with the other public sector contracts negotiated by the Common Front. After the public sector unions filed for arbitration, all the mediator did was note the irreconcilable differences between the government and union positions. The fall has seen no movement in the negotiations, and union members generally believe the government is negotiating in bad faith.
The unions of the Common Front — representing 420,000 workers total — can take action as one, backing their demands with the potential threat of an unlimited general strike of the entire public sector.
Because of the delays and lack of concessions, the Common Front has amped up its militancy. Between September 18 and October 13, all its locals in the public sector have been asked to vote on strike mandates. The broad mandate includes potential warning strikes up to and including an unlimited general strike. In the CEGEP system, to date fifty-three out of sixty unions have endorsed the strike mandate with strong majorities.
This means that if the government does not make concessions, the Common Front will be empowered to launch the largest general strike in Canadian history and the largest labor action in North America since the seven-day 1971 strike of 440,000 Bell System telecommunications workers.
The First Common Front
This is not without precedent in Quebec. In fact, the 2022 formation of the Common Front was announced on the fiftieth anniversary of the first Common Front. The first Common Front was formed by CSN, FTQ, and the Corporation des enseignants du Québec (CEQ, Quebec Teachers’ Corporation) in 1972 and represented what the labor historian Jacques Rouillard, in Le syndicalisme québécois, called “a unique strategy in North America.”
Since then, public sector workers in Quebec have repeatedly united under one banner to pressure the provincial government collectively, most recently during negotiations in 2015. In fact, today, roughly half of public sector contracts are negotiated at a central table with Quebec union federations acting in concert.
When the first Common Front was launched in 1972, Quebec had just emerged from a period of social and political liberalization under a new Liberal Party provincial government. This “Quiet Revolution” marked the end of the alliance between the conservative Union Nationale and the Catholic Church and precipitated social and educational reforms.
In economic terms, Rouillard points out, the Liberal Party’s policies and views on salary demands were largely the same. The Liberals generally
agreed to demands for pay equity but rejected any general increases in the public sector. However, while they also strengthened the rights of employers, they did make some key concessions to labor — most important, pressure from Quebec’s largest unions gained public sector workers the right to strike in 1964.
Trade unionists saw this as an opening to push through demands that ranged from moderate improvements to challenging the very foundations of capitalism. The CSN framed its demands as a socialist challenge to the existing economic system and endorsed Quebec independence and syndicalisme de combat, a militant form of union organizing in Quebec that emphasized class struggle and the power of strikes and demonstrations. The CSN was inspired by Le deuxième front (The Second Front), a document published by its president Marcel Pepin and adopted by the CSN in 1968. It spelled out a broadened focus for the trade union movement that emphasized the quality of life of workers in society at large and not just at work. The CEQ, today known as CSQ, similarly endorsed a Marxist analysis of Quebec society and proposed a radical transformation of the education system.
Trade unionists saw this as an opening to push through demands that ranged from moderate improvements to challenging the very foundations of capitalism.
The FTQ, on the other hand, was more oriented toward a reformist, social democratic program. But as Rouillard points out, even the FTQ sharpened its criticism of the capitalist system and took its cues from the repressive actions of the federal government during the October Crisis of 1970. This event marked an unprecedented escalation over the question of Quebec sovereignty, in which the left-wing Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) abducted a British diplomat as well as the province’s minister of labor, who it later killed.
The federal government responded with a total military crackdown. Invoking the War Measures Act for the first time in the absence of a major military conflict, then Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau — father of current prime minister, Justin Trudeau — mobilized the Canadian military and deployed it across Quebec. The Canadian government summarily arrested close to five hundred people from the broader milieu of the Quebec left.
The actions of the elder Trudeau radicalized not only the trade union movement, but the provincial government as well. When the Common Front launched its unlimited general strike in this climate of increasing militancy in April 1972, after an initial two-day walkout in March, the provincial government responded by choosing escalation over negotiation. It resorted to lockouts, arrested local union organizers, suspended the right to strike, and ten days after the launch of the general strike, passed Law 19, which ordered public sector employees back to work.
Putting the question to a vote, the three unions representing the two hundred thousand members of the Common Front chose not to comply. But as political scientist Diane Ethier has shown, while a majority of members voted against respecting the law, vote participation was low. This was partially owed to membership not being informed properly about the massive scope of the law, and to the difficulty of organizing a poll among the large membership of the Common Front with only a day’s notice.
In this context, and facing both severe fines and other undefined legal repercussions, the coordinating committee of the Common Front ultimately backed down. But union leaders initially had called on workers to disobey the injunctions and back-to-work legislation, and to great effect. The provincial government responded by arresting the leaders of the three unions of the Common Front and sentenced them each to one year in prison for encouraging civil disobedience and defying the courts. The government actions provoked a general solidarity strike across the public and private sectors.
The first of its kind, with close to five hundred thousand participants, the solidarity action united journalists, port workers, educators, and federal employees and brought the province to a standstill. Across Quebec, workers formed public assemblies and occupied buildings. Some cities were entirely taken over by workers, as in the case of Sept-Îles, a city on the northern shore of the Saint Lawrence River. There, Common Front workers blocked the street in front of the courthouse, which protesters called the “palais d’injustice,” and occupied a radio station and the airport.
The occupation of Sept-Îles ended in tragedy, when Théodore Leblanc, a local organizer of the Liberal Party, ran his car through the crowd of workers assembled outside the court. Twenty-two-year-old worker Herman Saint-Gelais was killed, and close to forty protesters were injured. While the Common Front gradually broke apart after the strike and solidarity actions petered out, the widespread unrest forced the government to make major concessions in its negotiations with the public sector, including a minimum wage and employment security provisions.
The Front Strikes Back
Despite its ultimate failure to achieve systemic change, the 1972 general strike marked a high point for working-class struggle in Quebec. The fact that today’s public sector workers are once again reviving this legacy at a time of reinvigorated union militancy in North America more broadly demonstrates the immense influence the memory of the Common Front still commands in Quebec.
Unsurprisingly, the front today will face many of the same challenges as its predecessor: back-to-work legislation and the potential fracturing of its coalition. Legault and the CAQ may be banking on the coalition being unable to sustain a longer strike action or buckling in the face of legal challenges.
But the demonstration of September 23, which brought over one hundred thousand workers and their supporters to the city of Montreal, has successfully shown that — while it may not be as militant or radical as its first iteration — the current Common Front is able to mobilize a massive number of public sector workers.
It has also shown that the unions have the support of the public by a wide margin, because many increasingly view the Legault government as destroying Quebec’s most cherished institutions. The front recently issued the results of a survey that 56 percent of Quebecers do not view the government’s offer to workers favorably. Meanwhile, a whopping 87 percent support the government improving working conditions — one of the Common Front’s key demands.
When strike votes conclude on October 18 and the Common Front decides when to begin its initial warning strikes, the government will face some hard choices: continue to stall negotiations and risk an unlimited general strike that would paralyze the province, or back down and make concessions to workers that would send a signal to unions across the continent.
It is possible that the CAQ under Legault is reckless enough to escalate to this point. No matter the outcome, we may reasonably hope that the rebirth of the Common Front marks a new period of opportunity for the working class in Canada.
(Originally published in Jacobin)