Quebec Government Presents "New Offers" to Public Sector Workers

Abuse of Power to Deny Workers' Needs and Their Right to Decide

One-day strike at Ahuntsic college, March 30, 2021.

The approximately 550,000 workers in the health, education and social services sectors in Quebec are still trying to renew their collective agreements on the basis of demands that improve their working conditions and the delivery of services on which the people depend, in particular in tackling the spread of COVID-19. They've had more than their fill of being humiliated at so-called bargaining tables, particularly as their demands are so critical for themselves and for the people.

On March 30, college-sector unions affiliated with the Quebec Labour Congress (CSQ) staged their first one-day strike action.

The following day, public sector union workers -- one year after the expiry of their contract -- held a national day of action with the theme "We're sounding the alarm." That same day, March 31, Sonia LeBel, the Minister responsible for Government Administration and the Treasury Board Chair, presented at a press conference what she called her new offers and said that "for the first time, the government is dedicating specific amounts to sectoral issues in its negotiations."

In fact, the press conference was another attempt to wreck public opinion, with the Minister claiming that the government is doing everything to resolve the public sector crisis and that the unions lack social solidarity.

She began her press briefing by pointing out that the 550,000 public sector workers provide essential services to the people of Quebec. In the same breath she said, "the total compensation package for government employees amounts to approximately $40 billion, or nearly 60 per cent of government program spending. Understandably the renewal of collective agreements and the new measures set up as a result have a major impact on Quebec's budget plan." She added, "each increase of one per cent is equivalent to a recurring spending increase of $400 million."

It's the same mantra that has been bandied about by neo-liberal governments for over 30 years, which has deepened the crisis in social programs and public services as they are regarded as a cost to society and not as an extraordinary contribution to the economy that immensely humanizes society.

In fact, the Minister has no intention of discussing the economy or public finances or of mobilizing the revenues needed to adequately invest in the services and the workers who provide them. She neither sees nor proposes any alternative to an economy that pays the rich, where the value created by social programs and public services is not repaid by the large private interests who are provided, free of charge, with a healthy and educated workforce, not to mention the billions they derive in private profits from their control of such services. Workers have many proposals, such as restricting private profit in the services that are being deprived of vital income. However, such proposals are rejected out of hand.

Talk of Quebeckers' "ability to pay" happens only when workers claim wages and conditions that are acceptable to them and that improve the delivery of services.

Who knows, maybe Quebeckers don't have the ability to pay for vaccines or personal protective equipment either? This "ability to pay" argument is shameful because it ignores the needs of the people and society which must be met and the public discussion on how to go about doing so. It negates the human factor/social consciousness that must be deployed to develop pro-social solutions, which begin with workers' resistance to the anti-social offensive and putting forward their claims by speaking in their own name.

The Minister's press conference saw the threat of working conditions and wages for public sector employees being decreed once again. Asked by a reporter about her "level of patience" with the unions and how far she was willing to "stretch it" before making "ultimatums," the Minister replied: "Well, you have answered your own question -- as quickly as possible. That's the message I gave to the union leaders. [...] I think, it's in everyone's interest to settle quickly, as quickly as possible [...] I still think we can have a negotiated agreement."

Governance by decree has been one of the essential features of the anti-social offensive for the last thirty years and more, and the current crisis only strengthens it, depriving in particular those who produce the goods and deliver the services of the legal space to make their voices heard.

We can only reject with contempt such ministerial arrogance and intensify our important struggle for a decisive say in determining the conditions and services that we consider acceptable to ourselves and the public.

 College-sector unions first one-day strike action in (top to bottom) Sorel-Tracy, Limoilou and Valleyfield,  March 30, 2021

(Article and quotations translated from original French by Workers' Forum.)

This article was published in

April 14, 2021 - No. 28

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