Workers in several industries across Québec are getting ready for what’s beginning to look like one of the highest points of struggle in recent memory. Just like everywhere else the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up the economy, with governments and capital straining to contain progressive resistance to their corporate-friendly management of the crisis.
But Québec’s labour movement is fighting back.
Healthcare workers are one of the most talked-about sectors of the labour movement worldwide, as they bear the brunt of the crisis. Their burden includes denied vacations, forced overtime, lack of protective equipment and high rates of COVID-19 infection. Though the response of the Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux (FSSS-CSN – the union which represents 110,000 health and social services workers in Québec) was rather muted at the beginning of the crisis, their tone has changed now as the whole sector gets ready for the anticipated “second wave.”
This all happens amid sectoral bargaining, and the union is not backing down from their demands for improvements in staffing, pay for those at the lowest end of the pay scale and general reinvestment in the public sector. François Legault’s right-wing provincial government has so far refused to play ball, but the struggle will certainly come to a head sooner rather than later as workers make the links between the massive numbers of COVID-related deaths within provincial institutions, extremely high rates of infection among healthcare workers (representing one quarter of all infections) and the general state of public health under austerity.
Many healthcare workers have already won back their right to take vacations, through a series of protests outside their workplaces during the month of May. In the private long-term care (LTC) sector, things are also heating up as 500 low-wage workers working in seven LTC homes owned by Chartwell, the largest LTC company in Québec, went on strike on July 10. The workers, members of unions affiliated to the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ), are including among their demands a starting wage of $15 per hour.
Across the country, some of the largest companies in Canada have started to roll back the so-called “hero pay” bonuses. Olymel is a multinational meatpacking company with 4000 employees in Québec. Workers there are represented by the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) and have been fighting to get their bonus back, presenting the company with a petition signed by 2500 unino members. Last year, 400 Olymel factory workers went on a general strike for over 50 days – they are not afraid of a fight.
There have been many other COVID-related wage battles. Workers at Dollarama won their fight to maintain their bonus after a well-covered media campaign led by the Immigrant Workers Center and the Temporary Agency Workers Association. On July 10, CSN-affiliated workers at the CACTUS community organization won a $3.50 an hour “hero pay” raise, retroactive all the way back to April 1. Community workers – often a highly precarious, low-waged and non-unionized sector – showed that real material gains can be won through militant, class struggle unionism.
Home-based daycare workers held a one-day strike on June 18, amidst frustrating contract negotiations with the provincial government. The largely subsidized daycare sector in Québec – a historic win for the feminist movement – has in some ways been built on the backs of these workers, who work extremely long hours for incomes that do not add up to the minimum wage.
Industrial workers are also part of the upsurge in militant workplace action. On June 30, over 1100 dockworkers at the Port of Montréal launched a 40-hour strike amidst contract negotiations. The workers, represented by CUPE, gave the union a strike mandate in December 2018 and finally put it into effect 19 months later. The shipping industry has been extremely hard hit by the COVID-19 crisis, as supply chains have been severely compromised by the international nature of the pandemic. Bosses will use this as an excuse to lowball contract offers, cut jobs and otherwise push through their agendas at the bargaining table.
On June 18, the four largest Québec trade union federations – the CSN, FTQ, Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) and Centrale des syndicats démocratiques (CSD) – published a joint op-ed on the provincial government’s COVID-19 stimulus package. They rightfully criticized the package for leaving out women workers through its limited focus on infrastructure spending, which is a male-dominated industry. The unions’ joint call to rebuild local manufacturing, with strong intervention and central planning, runs against the current trends in neoliberal governance and echoes the demands of social movements for good jobs, the development of green industry and a turn away from the tyranny of private capitalist interests controlling what is produced, where and how. The unions are also calling for stricter control and monitoring over how bailout money is spent by private companies, specifically targeting stock buy-backs and tax evasion.
In reality, these union federations are working on a fairly limited basis of unity. They represent millions of workers whose interests are certainly wider than is shown in the barely 800-word op-ed. But the leadership may, in turn, be surprised by the militancy of the union membership as the recession turns into a deeper crisis and workers are forced to choose between silently accepting the further curtailment of democracy, drops in wages and massive unemployment, or fighting against those who are responsible for it all.
When we add to this the thousands of COVID-related deaths and the apprehension of a second wave, it’s fair to say that workplaces are not about to be peaceful centers for the accumulation of capital.