Photo (of unrelated labor action) by Steve Rhodes from Flickr Creative Commons: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ari/sets/72157623025396261/

Strike days for public sector workers in Quebec

My colleagues at Vanier College and I are among the hundreds of thousands of public sector workers who have been striking to pressure the Quebec government to accede to our demands in negotiations over our new collective agreements.

Working in a province whose government raised eyebrows when it stepped up big time to help a major private corporation in financial trouble, that recently proposed to increase salaries of its elected officials, and coming out of a national election in which the winning Liberal Party and now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on the principle that state spending, not more economic austerity, is needed to push Canadians through a difficult economic period, public sector workers in Quebec see themselves, and the services they offer to Quebecers, as more than worthy of social investment.

Weeks after demonstrating strong local willingness to take part in collective action, and after participating in three strike days over the last several weeks, we at Vanier were preparing for three consecutive days during which all public sector workers across the province would withhold their labour from their employers.

After the planned three-day strike was deferred to give provincial government negotiators time to reflect on our last counter-offer, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux recently announced that the Common Front, the network of all provincial public sector unions, would take part in a one day strike on December 9 if a deal with the government isn’t reached by that time. Some of the more militant unions in the network are locked in for three consecutive days of striking.

At the moment, and following a lengthy period of public and even government indifference to the negotiations, a lot is going on.

For the first time in his relatively young government, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard is feeling heat to back down from his miserly approach to social spending. There’s been a recent rise of media chatter encouraging government negotiators to settle with the Common Front, as well as piecemeal tentative deals reached with specific unions. With hints that deals could be struck with all the province’s unions before the holidays, the situation is quite fluid.

We’re living in a time in which activism is both ubiquitous and off-putting. Whether it was the pots and pans tactics used by students during Quebec’s Maple Spring protests against cuts to education, the current wave of student protest over racism at U.S. universities, or even the power of hashtags to try to force change, those turning to non-institutional protest tactics are being met today with no small amount of public and media judgment and rhetorical retribution.

Yet, despite operating in a reality in which taking to the streets receives tepid support at best, representing an institutional context – Quebec’s Cegep system – whose utility is semi-regularly interrogated by vocal segments of the general public, and learning that a tentative non-monetary deal has been reached between the government and the college sector, I am enthusiastic about continuing to strike with my Vanier colleagues until acceptable deals are signed between the government and all public sector unions province-wide. There are many good sociological reasons why.

Upsides

As our everyday schedules normally dictate that we typically fly past each other in the corridors, many of us spent our recent strike days with colleagues whose faces we’d seen hundreds of times, but whom we really did not know. For the first time in a long time, workers from different college sectors actually talked to each other on our strike days, and the stories we shared were neither limited to the substance of our demands nor to the fears we hold over threats to our jobs.

In the midst of our marching, and some singing and dancing, we swapped teaching philosophies, deconstructed Canada’s new prime minister, and we even strategized on how we could take part promoting an inclusive social democratic movement in Quebec. We shared reactions to the Paris attacks, considered how our community might be able to help Syrian refugees, and, of course, we marveled over the state of our revered local hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens.

Sure, strike days were organized to show the Vanier community what would be missing if we weren’t on the job. They’ve also been held to demonstrate to the provincial government and to our fellow Quebecers that we’re serious about opposing austerity and fighting for continued investment in the public sphere. Bridging the macro and the micro, strike days accomplished more than just that.

Countering the economic pessimism and perceived political limitations of our times, strike days gave passionate teachers and staff permission to imagine what it would be like to have significant public support for our community that’s trying its best to work for its students. Attuned to and inspired by global and national events occurring around us, they brought us to talk about different roles that we could play in building a Quebec and Canadian society that worked for all its citizens.

Don’t get me wrong. Strike days have made Vanier workers hungry for a collective agreement. But, by temporarily letting us believe in our capacities and in our social relevance, the interactive dynamics of strike days also animated a collective power that we don’t often get to sense during the routine.

Seeing the meaning of strike days to Quebec public sector workers in this way, and recognizing the social engagement potentials that they seductively unleash, it’s probably in the best interest of the Quebec government to settle with all of us as soon as it can.

Avi Goldberg is in the sociology department at Vanier College in Montreal.

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