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Québec public sector workers are ready for a general strike

An inter-union alliance representing 420,000 workers is mounting a serious challenge to the CAQ’s austerity program

Canadian PoliticsLabourQuebec

Members of the front commun march down Park Avenue, Montréal, September 23, 2023. Photo by Lital Khaikin.

“I make $30 an hour and am barely scraping by,” said Audrey Perreault, a radiology technologist who marched in downtown Montréal last weekend during a massive demonstration of public sector workers.

Fed up with the deterioration of public services under the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government, thousands took to the streets to demand fair pay, improved benefits, and better working conditions while unions negotiated new collective agreements with the province.

The coalition of unions—including the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), the FTQ, and the Alliance du personnel professionnel et technique de la santé et services sociaux (APTS)—is known as the “common front,” or front commun, and represents over 420,000 workers in Québec’s public schools, health care and social services sectors.

Presaging what demonstrators are calling an “automne chaud,” an estimated one in ten public sector workers could walk off the job this fall if the government of Premier François Legault continues to renege on union negotiations for improved salaries and working conditions.

Union talks have been stalled and 90 percent of public sector workers have voted for a general strike. General assemblies will continue being held by union federations through mid-October for members to decide whether to carry out a coordinated labour revolt.

“If Legault doesn’t understand the message today, he will never understand,” said FTQ President Magali Picard, addressing the thousands gathered in Place des Arts on Saturday as she called on negotiations to move forward.

Simon Laverdière, Vice-president of Information and Mobilization for the Syndicat des travailleuses et travailleurs du CIUSSS du NÎM-CSN, was inspired by the huge number of workers who turned out in the streets.

Drawing a parallel to Québec’s anti-austerity movement in 2015, when strikes in Québec’s public sector drew some momentum from the mass mobilization against tuition increases three years earlier, Laverdière told Canadian Dimension that the front commun’s demonstration was intended to unblock negotiations with the province.

Public sector workers have been asking for salary increases proportional to inflation, but the CAQ is only willing to give nine percent over five years—a real-terms pay cut when cost-of-living increases are taken into account.

“The government wants to offer workers lump sum payments of $1,000,” Laverdière explained. “We are asking for $100 a week for the first year.”

As CBC reported, the front commun is asking for a three-year employment contract: “$100 per week or the Consumer Price Index (CPI) plus two percent for the first year, the CPI plus three percent in the second year and the CPI plus four percent in the third year.”

But while labour demands and the looming general strike are part of the story, some workers feel their unions are not representing them fairly at all.

To the government and to the public, they feel invisible.

Demonstrators at front commun march. Photo by Lital Khaikin.

Equal pay for equal work

Edith Zavodni has worked as a practicing lawyer for close to 25 years in an integrated university health and social services centre (CIUSSS) on the West Island. She was among a parade of lawyers who marched on Saturday.

Under Québec’s Youth Protection Act, CIUSSS prosecutors are responsible for providing services to victims of domestic abuse. Lawyers like Zavodni carry the burden of proof of abuse or endangerment of children in their homes.

Unlike legal aid lawyers and Crown prosecutors, CIUSSS lawyers are under the purview of Québec’s Ministry of Health and Social Services. They face significant disparities in pay compared to their counterparts in the Ministry of Justice. Despite doing the same work, they also have fewer paid sick days and benefits, and lack the same coverage for professional fees.

Zavodni described how lawyers in the social services sector feel their demands unheard not only by the government but by their union, APTS. Lawyers in this sector only form a fraction of a percent of the professionals represented by the union in Québec’s public health and social services system, and their demands have not been put forward to the government.

“It’s taken years to even consider equal pay,” she said.

In an email to Canadian Dimension, Zavodni wrote that APTS was not receptive to their request for one attorney to be present at the bargaining table to argue for pay parity among government lawyers. While members have tried to get their message out to the public through the front commun demonstration, their minority presence and absence from office in APTS leaves them with little negotiating power.

“We indicated that should these demands not be met we may seek legal action,” Zavodni wrote.

The cumulative effect of their working conditions takes an enormous toll. Health and social services lawyers respond to cases of physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and conjugal violence. Their cases often involve intimate partner violence and femicide, both of which skyrocketed in Québec during the pandemic’s lockdown periods where victims had few avenues to escape abusive situations.

“This kind of work, hearing the trauma that the children are going through, day in and day out, is very taxing. It takes a strong person to continue in this field,” Zavodni described in her email. “I am not saying that money and better conditions will lessen the traumas we deal with, but at least we would feel like we are being appreciated, respected and treated equal.”

Aside from unequal salaries and benefits, CIUSSS lawyers are also tasked disproportionately with clearing a backlog of provincial hearings. A recent amendment to Québec’s Youth Protection Act allows families to participate in the judicial process, but does not account for the additional demands this places on lawyers. Youth whose cases are currently being booked for a full-day hearing may have to wait until next April.

Many lawyers are simply leaving the integrated social service centres to work for legal aid, or are seeking work outside of Montréal. Unable to replace the loss of senior lawyers, centres are struggling to support social workers with inexperienced lawyers who have little exposure to incidences of domestic abuse and psychological violence.

This past Friday, CIUSSS lawyers filed a petition to the National Assembly, outlining demands to address the income disparity and working conditions of lawyers in the social services sector.

Zavodni wrote that CIUSSS lawyers are also looking at options to get out of the sector entirely, and move under the Ministry of Justice. In response to Québec’s health care reform Bill 15, lawyers under the Ministry of Health and Social Services have called for the creation of a Director of Public Prosecution of Santé Québec (Directeur des procureurs de Santé Québec). According to the official comments on the bill sent by Zavodni to Canadian Dimension, this position would be linked to the Ministry of Justice to centralize legal services, and tasked with standardizing legal processes related to individuals subjected to abuse and living in vulnerable situations.

“No one really knows what we do,” she wrote, noting that other workers at Saturday’s protest thought they were legal aid lawyers. “The population does not know who we are and what we do, nor does our own union seem to know as well.

“The government doesn’t have this excuse as they know who we are, they know what we do, they know the difficulties that we face daily.”

CIUSSS lawyers are interviewed by CBC on Mont-Royal Avenue. Photo by Lital Khaikin.

Invisible and in jeopardy

“We were at the forefront during COVID,” says Audrey Perreault, a radiology technologist marching with Skeletor, her clinic’s mascot.

Perreault, who works at the Centre Hospitalier Pierre-Boucher, was on the frontlines of the pandemic, working with patients who required X-rays to examine how the virus caused acute lung damage and heart inflammation.

Her field of work employs a diverse range of medical imagery technicians including X-ray and MRI operators, sonographers, and nuclear medicine technologists. Like Zavodni and the lawyers working in social services, they are all represented by the APTS.

Throughout the pandemic, medical imagery technicians denounced “disrespectful” working conditions they say created gaps in health coverage and exacerbated the impact and spread of the coronavirus.

These gaps have been opportunistically exploited by the private sector. During the pandemic, the public health system had to outsource delayed surgeries to private clinics. In Montréal’s east end, home to some of the city’s lowest income neighbourhoods like Hochelaga-Mercier-Maisonneuve and Longue-Pointe, the CAQ has encouraged privatization of health care through the construction of private “mini-hospitals” instead of prioritizing existing public facilities or building new ones.

Perrault works two jobs that take her from Longueuil to Terrebonne on the North Shore, and back, pulling night shifts just to make ends meet. Like many public service workers, she is now considering moving provinces. The only thing keeping her in Québec, she says, is her pension plan.

The province’s medical facilities have long been criticized for their wait times and the underuse of MRI and CT scan technology. Nurses have also left the profession (and the public system) in huge numbers.

“Every day we are understaffed,” Perrault said. “I loved working for the public sector. But the government is pushing us toward the private sector.”

Perreault explained how medical imagery technicians in Québec are between 10 to 15 percent underpaid compared to their private sector counterparts, or even comparable public workers in New Brunswick and Ontario.

Technicians are suffering low morale and high turnover, and many feel invisible in the bureaucracy of their union which is saturated with over 100 job categories.

“Our buying power has been going down since the last convention,” lamented Perrault. Compared to nurses, medical imagery technicians do not have significant leverage or negotiating power in the APTS.

“We share some of the same responsibilities with patients as nurses,” she said. “But the government doesn’t know what we do. The patients don’t know who we are.”

Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal. She also runs The Green Violin, a slow-burning samizdat-style literary press for the free distribution of literary paraphernalia.


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