June 4, 2021 - No. 53

Industrial and Public Sector Workers Hold Vigil at
Quebec National Assembly

Workers Speak Out Against the Dismantling of the Occupational
Health and Safety Regime

What Participants Said in the Course of the Vigil

Industrial and Public Sector Workers Hold Vigil at Quebec National Assembly

Workers Speak Out Against the Dismantling of the Occupational Health and Safety Regime

From the morning of May 31 to 5:00 pm on June 2, a period of 59 hours, hundreds of workers participated in a vigil in front of the National Assembly in Quebec City to prevent the adoption of the Quebec government's Bill 59, An Act to modernize the occupational health and safety regime. Statements issued during the vigil all rejected the bill as unacceptable. Bill 59, if passed, would dramatically reduce access to treatment and compensation for workers injured or made ill on the job in order to save employers more than $4 billion over ten years. The bill gives unilateral power to employers to determine workplace prevention and health programs, the hours that will be devoted to prevention, how the joint health and safety committees will operate, and many other aspects of the system.

The unions and defence organizations of injured workers that participated in the vigil included the United Steelworkers - Quebec, the Union des travailleuses et travailleurs accidentés ou malades (UTTAM), the Canadian Union of Public Employees - Quebec, Unifor, the Union of Quebec Government Professionals, the Alliance du personnel professionnel et technique de la santé et des services sociaux (APTS), the Quebec Union of Service Employees (SQEES) and many others. Central labour bodies including the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ), the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN) and the Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (CSD) were also present on a regular basis at the vigil.

ArcelorMittal workers join vigil against Bill 59, June 1, 2021

 Striking Olymel Vallée-Jonction workers participate in vigil, June 2, 2021

On June 1, about 200 fly-in fly-out workers on strike at ArcelorMittal on Quebec's North Shore came to participate in the vigil. On June 2, 200 Olymel workers on strike in Vallée-Jonction in Beauce region came to participate. These workers clearly indicated that one of the important aspects of their strikes is health and safety conditions at the work sites, notably ArcelorMittal's refusal to make the necessary investments to make the sites and equipment safe and Olymel's demands for health and safety concessions. They stated that they are fighting against the dictate of these monopolies and explained that the situation would only get worse if Bill 59, which strengthens the power of the employers in the name of "modernization," is adopted.

Participants in the vigil spent a lot of time talking to people on the street to explain what the legislation is and why it must be defeated. They also spoke to members of the National Assembly, explaining their position and asking them not to pass this bill. This followed weeks of activity by union activists who phoned or held virtual meetings with MLAs in their ridings and regions to present their position and ask them to take a stand against the bill and in defence of workers' health and safety.

Months of actions and mobilization against this dismantling of the health and safety regime have made it now virtually impossible for the National Assembly to pass the bill before the legislature adjourns for the summer on June 11. Bill 59 amends two major pieces of legislation, the Act respecting industrial accidents and occupational diseases and the Act respecting occupational health and safety. The clause-by-clause review of the bill by the Committee on Labour and the Economy has not even started to address the sections relating to the second Act.

Workers learned on June 1 that the Committee would not be sitting on June 1 and 2 as scheduled. The surreal climate in which the government is manoeuvring was well expressed at the May 31 meeting of the committee when Labour Minister Jean Boulet said he appreciated that everyone, both supporters and opponents of the bill, recognized the "legitimacy" of Bill 59. He added that if he could be convinced that the bill needed to be improved, he would do so! This at a time when hundreds of workers were demonstrating nearby to declare that his bill will destroy lives and is unacceptable from top to bottom.

These pathetic statements who are showing that government ministers are the servants of narrow private interests speak volumes about the disconnect between what is called the public authority, which is exercising prerogative powers on behalf of the rich, and the public, the workers who do the work and keep the economy going. Workers have the right to safe and healthy working conditions and to have all the services they need for care, rehabilitation, compensation and re-training if they get injured or sick on the job, paid for by those who buy their capacity to work.

The options available to the government as the current session of the National Assembly draws to a close are to continue clause-by-clause consideration by the Committee at the end of the summer or in September when the National Assembly reconvenes to force the passage of the bill under closure, to withdraw it altogether or to let it die on the order paper.

The Coalition Avenir Québec government would do well to think twice before using closure or going back to clause-by-clause consideration. The collective actions of workers will not stop, because lives are at stake. The mobilization of the last few months and the collective action of the vigil has made workers more confident and more determined to be effective by speaking out on what changes are needed that favour themselves and society. Bill 59 must be withdrawn. No reform of the occupational health and safety system can be made without workers having a decisive say and without the reform being based on their demands, their rights and their needs.

Workers' Forum fully supports all the actions that Quebec workers are taking to make their voices heard and create public opinion for the defeat of Bill 59.

(Photos: CSN, FTQ)

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What Participants Said in the Course of the Vigil

Dominic Lemieux, Quebec Director of the
Syndicat des Métallos/United Steelworkers

On the first day of the vigil, May 31, Dominic Lemieux said, "Bill 59 as it stands must be abandoned. It needs to be reworked and come back with a new draft, because there are too many things wrong with this bill."

Lemieux made several statements over the three days. Speaking to a reporter from Le Soleil on June 1, he said:

"The most important aspect of the labour movement is really the safety and health of the members we represent. I know what that is. In our grandparents' days many miners died, over 200 miners every year. Now it's one worker a year. We must not stop our efforts to prevent injuries and deaths. We want the same tools for prevention in all sectors in Quebec, it is very clear. This is a major issue. We are talking about our lives. "

In a June 1 United Steelworkers' press release he states:

"Bill 59 will lead to major setbacks in health and safety prevention in our workplaces and cuts in compensation for injured workers. If this legislation is adopted, protections currently provided in the law will no longer be available and unions will have to negotiate new provisions in collective agreements to compensate for the weakening of our laws. This is disastrous for non-unionized workers, who have no such recourse, and is a threat to labour relations as it will increase the risk of labour disputes over issues that were previously settled in law."

In appreciation of the presence of striking ArcelorMittal workers at the vigil, he writes in the same press release: "Steelworkers are showing that distance is not a barrier to solidarity. Community and labour solidarity is built through the people who live and work in our communities."

Felix Lapan, Spokesperson for the Union des Travailleuses et
Travailleurs Accidentés ou Malades (UTTAM)

On the first morning of the vigil, May 31, he said:

"We are here in front of the National Assembly with activists from the labour movement for 59 hours. For us, as for the Steelworkers, this is not acceptable. This bill is not acceptable because of the setbacks in compensation, setbacks in the recognition of occupational diseases, setbacks to the right to medical assistance, setbacks to the right to rehabilitation, a whole bunch of setbacks to our rights. We know the situation. We defend the victims of work-related accidents and illnesses. This bill is unacceptable and we will fight it to the end."

Chantal Ide, Vice-President of the CNTU
Central Council of Greater Montreal

On the first morning of the vigil, she said:

"We are here to denounce this bill, to show that we are all united behind our demand to have a health and safety law that really protects us. The health and safety of workers is not negotiable. There are no concessions to be made on our side. We will keep this vigil for 59 hours. We will fight until the end to obtain a law that will really protect the workers in Quebec."

Karine Sénéchal, President of USW Local 5778

Karine Sénéchal represents ArcelorMittal workers at the Mont-Wright mine in Fermont who have been on strike since May 10. The mining complex includes a concentrator where workers are very concerned about the level of noise and dust, particularly silica dust, and the risk of contracting silicosis.

"We have to wear personal respiratory protection equipment to work at the concentrator because the employer has not completed the work needed to reduce risks. Imagine if the law becomes less demanding of companies -- it will have an even greater, regressive domino effect," she told the vigil.

Martin Maurice, President of the
Olymel Vallée-Jonction-CSN Workers' Union

The union represents Olymel workers in Vallée-Jonction who have been on strike since April 28.

After demonstrating in the streets of Quebec City on June 2, the workers joined the vigil where the union president said:

"In negotiations, in addition to setbacks affecting our working conditions, Olymel has also tabled demands for setbacks in occupational health and safety. At our plant, we are fast-paced, hard-working and we experience about 400 work-related accidents each year, often musculoskeletal injuries, so we are more than concerned about the holes in Bill 59. Over time, we have been able to negotiate advances in our collective agreement to protect workers in the event of an accident and now our employer and the government are attacking these and wanting to remove the only tools that allow us to deal with those who are injured on the job."

(Photos: CSD, FTQ, ATTAAT)

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