Volume 51, Issue 2: Spring 2017

Fifteen plus: the minimum wage & austerity in Québec

Photo by Michel Giroux

In April 2012, during the height of Québec’s Maple Spring, one of the key leaders of the student movement, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, said the hope was for that movement to be a “trampoline.”

The “Red Square” movement gave voice to widespread popular opposition to austerity in Québec that both preceded and outlasted the student strike. That opposition later took the form of a general strike of hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers in the fall of 2015, monthly human chains of parents around public schools, and a fight against pipelines crossing Québec. And so it is not surprising that the movement that emerged in the U.S. for a $15 an hour minimum wage, spreading to hundreds of cities across North America, has found fertile ground in Québec as well. Like elsewhere, the campaign has linked community organizations and unions in common demands for decent work for both unionized and non-union workers.

In Ontario, the Fight for $15 and Fairness has focused on the Liberal government’s review of labour and employment law (the Changing Workplaces Review). Several unions have begun to link their collective bargaining demands to the broader mobilization for $15 and Fairness. In Québec, where the Liberal government is presiding over austerity and neoliberalism, there is no planned labour law review, but pressure is growing for legislative change. The impact of this pressure has spilled over directly into Québec workplaces, highlighting the crisis faced by workers at the bottom of the wage scale, and on the low end of workplace rights.

Marching for “5-10-15”

More than 850,000 Québécois live in poverty. Up to a million workers earn less than $15 an hour, including 141,300 who are members of a union. In 2015, 211,500 people — or 6 per cent of wage earners in Québec — were paid the minimum wage, which is currently set at $10.75. More than half of minimum-wage earners have a post-secondary degree. The percentage of employed workers unable to escape poverty increased steadily in metropolitan Montreal between 2001 and 2012. A living wage for a single person living and working full-time in 2016 was $15.78 an hour.

There is a long history of grass-roots minimum-wage campaigns in Québec. The Bread and Roses march of 1995 and the World March of Women of 2000 brought the minimum-wage issue to a mass audience. And Québec anti-poverty and community organizations, notably Au bas de l’echelle (“At the bottom of the ladder”) and the FDNS (Front de défense des non-syndiqués, or Defence Front for Non-unionized Workers) have focused on the urgency of raising the minimum wage for decades, without counterposing it to broader issues for the working poor or the unemployed — including the question of what “fairness” means at work.

In 2016, workers from many Québec regions and workplaces participated in the April 15 pan-Canadian day of action for 15 and Fairness, and on May 1, the annual marches and rallies held by Québec unions and community organizations to mark International Workers’ Day focused on raising the minimum wage. On October 15, a national day of action to raise the minimum wage was held in Québec.

That day marked the launch of two new facets of the mobilization: the Minimum $15 campaign by the FTQ (Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec), one of Québec’s major union federations, and the new 5, 10, 15 Coalition. Thousands marched in Montréal on October 15, while in regions across Québec activists petitioned and leafleted locally. Québec’s only anti-austerity political party, Québec solidaire (QS), had a contingent of 200 in Montréal.

There is a difference in strategy between the FTQ, which has adopted a progressive timeline of 2022 for the Québec government to reach $15 an hour, and the 5-10-15 Coalition (and QS), which supports an immediate raise to $15, as well as a certain “fairness” component beyond the minimum wage.

In addition t0 a minimum wage of $15-an hour , the 5, 10, 15 Coalition wants five days’ notice for scheduling and 10 paid sick days. The 5-10-15 membership includes Québec’s other major union federation, the CSN (Confédération des syndicats nationaux) — and two smaller union federations, the CSD and CSQ, along with important community organizations like Au bas de l’échelle, the Front de défense des nonsyndiquées, the Immigrant Workers’ Centre, and the Collective for a Québec Without Poverty.

Québec solidaire launched its own petition on the issue, demanding an immediate increase to $15 and indexation to the cost of living applicable to all workers in Québec regardless of immigration status, work schedule, place of residence or type of work. QS circulated the petition throughout the fall of 2016 in the community and with minimum wage workers at places like Indigo bookstores, and on November 15 presented some 20,000 signatures to Québec’s National Assembly. The petition will continue to circulate in spring 2017.

Montreal May Day march, 2016. Photoposted on cpcml.ca.

On strike for $15

While it is unfortunate that the FTQ chose to launch a campaign separate from the 5-10-15 initiative, and one which allows for a much longer timeline, some of the federation’s own members demonstrated that it is possible to fight simultaneously for an immediate increase to $15. Inspired by the broader Fight for $15 movement, hospitality workers in the Old Port of Montreal, 47 per cent of whom earn less than $15 an hour, struck for $15 as a floor wage in union contracts without waiting for legislative change.

While they were ultimately unsuccessful in winning an increase in the entry-level wage from $10.67 to $15, that strike by 200 members of the Syndicat des employé-e-s du Vieux-Port de Montréal (SEVPM, or Montreal Old Port Employees’ Union), a local of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), Québec region, demonstrated immense resolve and generated enormous public support. Despite an injunction and the hiring of scabs (the port is not protected by Québec’s anti-scab legislation because it is under federal jurisdiction), they shut down city’s Old Port for most of the summer.

The striking Old Port workers also allied with employees of private seniors’ residences, who were then on strike for a $15 minimum wage.

Coalition and collaboration

Despite the differences in demands, 5-10-15, the FTQ, the CSN, Québec solidaire, and anti-poverty and unemployed organizations in Québec continue to work together around the general goal of a $15 minimum wage. The coming together of this coalition was given a boost by the World Social Forum, held in Montreal in August.

The coalition will continue to have its work cut out for it. In January, the governing Liberals announced an increase of 50 cents, which will raise the minimum wage to all of $11.25 by May 2017. In one sense this has to be understood as a result of campaign pressure, since it does represent the largest increase in the minimum wage since 2010. But the Liberals refused to hold a public consultation or parliamentary commission on the question, which the union federations and Québec solidaire have been calling for, and instead opted for a private consultation with employers and economists.

Québec solidaire denounced the Liberal plan as not only inadequate but deceptive, since the Liberals’ proposal for a progressive increase to a $12.45 minimum wage by 2020 might be nothing more than pre-election window-dressing, with no guarantee that increases will continue after the 2018 Québec election: “The $15-an-hour minimum that we advocate is not arbitrary: it is the threshold for a full-time worker to escape poverty. The social movements and the labour movement will have to roll up their sleeves and continue to fight. Québec solidaire will not give up this struggle.”

At a time when the people of Québec have been repeatedly demonized in English Canada for being more susceptible to racism and Islamophobia, it is critical to remember how deep class politics runs in Québec. The fight for decent wages and working conditions is part and parcel of the “trampoline” of resistance to the capitalist agenda in Québec and the scapegoating politics of those who benefit from exploitation and racism.

Chantal Sundaram is a leading member of the International Socialists in Canada and an elected member of the Coordinating Committee of Quebec solidaire in Hull. She is a former student activist and a long-time labour and civil liberties activist based in the Ottawa-Hull area.