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 tribunals 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 actions are 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 conditions and 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 day!

In the case of refusing mandatory overtime, the Essential Services 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. The study, sponsored by all the major unions in Quebec, pointed out that public sector workers were hardest hit by the criminalization of workers' struggles.[1] In its 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 is not recognized in the Quebec or Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."


1. Research into special legislation in Quebec, by Martin Petitclerc and Martin Robert.

This article was published in

Number 13 - April 11, 2019

Article Link:
The Neo-Liberal Logic of Permanent Exceptionalism to Criminalize the Struggles of Quebec Public Sector Workers - Pierre Soublière


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