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'Our people are ready': General strike possible in Quebec health, education, social services

Thousands of public-sector workers carried turquoise flags Saturday afternoon through downtown Montreal. The workers, representing a collaboration of several unions, say they’re ready to launch general strike unless the Quebec government can give them a “respectable” offer.

The march took place while unions across the province negotiate new collective agreements with the Quebec government.

Presidents of the four major unions that form the common front, the CSQ, the FTQ, the APTS and the CSN, spoke to the media ahead of the march, while dozens of yellow buses unloaded demonstrators near Jeanne-Mance Park.

About 420,000 public-sector workers make up the common-front. They primarily work in health, social services, education and higher education.

“People are angry,” said François Enault, vice-president of the CSN, referring to Quebec's proposal to increase the salaries of public sector workers by 9 per cent over five years. He says that’s just not enough.

“We were called guardian angels throughout the pandemic. When it's time to pay for good working conditions, they no longer listen to us,” said CSQ president Éric Gingras.

Union leaders say they’re ready to launch a general strike if the government doesn’t offer more.

“We don't hope to get there, (but) it's a last resort. We are preparing to do it, because it takes a long time to achieve strike mandates in the public sector,” said Robert Comeau, president of the APTS.

“Our people are ready.”

“If you look at the number of school buses that are here, of chartered planes that left Abitibi this morning – our people are ready, because they have nothing left to lose,” said FTQ president Magali Picard.

People take part in a public sector union demonstration in Montreal, Saturday, September 23, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

FOR THE NEXT GENERATION

Demonstrators descended on Montreal from all over the province.

“This is for our working conditions, and the conditions of the people who will come after us,” said Andrée Morin, who works at the CIUSSS du Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, and flew in to the city for the protest. “We can’t go backwards, we must continue to move forward.”

Joanie St-George, a secretary in a school in the Joliette region, said she was inspired by her two veteran colleagues, who she walked with during the march.

“I am the next generation,” she said. “There's a shortage of manpower, and we can't keep our best people. If we want things to work, we need to have salaries that attract people, and keeps them working, too.'

Patricia Gauthier-Grégoire, who works with people who have physical disabilities in a rehabilitation center, also said she was concerned about working conditions in her field.

“These are people who have higher education, and who lose purchasing power every year,” she said. “We are losing workers … who will instead work jobs where the salaries and conditions are better.”  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Sept. 23, 2023.  

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