The Neo-Liberal Logic of Permanent Exceptionalism to Criminalize the Struggles of Quebec Public Sector Workers
Health care workers in the Quebec City Region participate in April
8, 2019 day of action.
No sooner had the Quebec nurses' union announced that
on April 8,
nurses would collectively refuse to accept mandatory overtime, they
were summoned to appear before the Labour Tribunal. The tribunal was
formed in January 2016 as the result of a merger between the Commission
des lésions professionnelles and the Commission des
relations de travail. The tribunal presents itself as fostering,
"amicable settlement of disputes through its conciliation service."
The tribunal sits in four divisions: labour relations,
occupational health and safety, essential services, and the
construction industry and occupational qualification. It has "remedial
authority" under a clause in the Labour
Code, which states that the tribunal may intervene "if it is of
the opinion that a conflict could jeopardize or is clearly liable to
jeopardize a service to which the public is entitled." This clause is
at the heart of all the special legislation passed since the adoption
of the Labour Code in 1964
and which became even more repressive in the 1980s with the onset of
the neo-liberal offensive.
As in most cases involving collective actions by
hospital workers and teachers, the state labour tribunals intervene in
a totally one-sided manner against the workers. In contrast, the
never seem to be compelled to intervene with the everyday deterioration
of the health and education sectors and the working conditions of those
involved due to government cutbacks and other anti-social actions.
The tribunals activate themselves whenever collective
undertaken or planned whereby workers seek to find solutions to the
problems they and their sector face and to demand improvement in their
working conditions and the quality of the health and educational
services they provide.
With regards more specifically to nurses' working
state intervention, the government jumped to pass Bill 160 following a
two-day non-consecutive strike by nurses in 1986. The government said
it was intervening in the name of providing essential services in a
strike situation. Bill 160 compelled the unions to ensure 90 per cent
of the nursing staff was on the job. This number is over and above what
hospitals provide in terms of staffing all year long. More nurses were
compelled to provide services while on strike than during a normal work
In the case of refusing mandatory overtime, the
Board in 1998 forbade nurses to refuse to do overtime while their
collective agreement was still in force. Problem is, when the time
comes to renew the collective agreement, the legal and criminalizing
constraints are so great as to render actual "good faith" negotiating
impossible and any collective action ineffective.
The University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) undertook a
study in 2014 on the use and impact of special legislation in Quebec.
sponsored by all the major unions in Quebec, pointed out that public
sector workers were hardest hit by the criminalization of workers'
conclusion, the report says with regards to labour relations a "logic
of permanent exceptionalism" prevails. It states: "Special legislation,
used as a sword of Damocles, is now seen as a normal mechanism of
managing conflicts in society. There must be a public debate on their
impact on the right to negotiate and the right to strike, which itself
not recognized in the Quebec or Canadian Charter of Rights and
1. Research into special
legislation in Quebec, by Martin Petitclerc and Martin Robert.
This article was published in
Number 13 - April 11, 2019
The Neo-Liberal Logic of Permanent Exceptionalism to Criminalize the Struggles of Quebec Public Sector Workers - Pierre Soublière