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Quebec public sector strikes could inspire others, as workers grow more combative

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A successful resolution to Quebec's massive public sector strikes could serve as an inspiration to other workers in the province and elsewhere, a labour policy researcher said Friday after two union groups took major steps toward settling agreements with the government.

The recent Quebec strikes, among the largest in Canadian history, are part of a broader North American trend in which workers have become increasingly confident and willing to fight for better pay and working conditions, says McGill associate sociology professor Barry Eidlin.

"The big lesson for unions is that strikes work, and strikes are back," he said in a phone interview.

He said workers have had to contend with 40 years of declining working standards, rising inequality, forced overtime, job insecurity and gig work, and the erosion of pensions and health care.

"I think it's time for them to win some of that back," he said.

Two separate union groups announced Thursday they had made major progress toward ending the labour conflict that has closed hundreds of schools, delayed surgeries and brought some half a million workers to the streets intermittently since November.

Teachers union FAE said it had reached a deal in principle with the government and would end its unlimited strike that has shut 800 schools since the end of November.

Earlier that day, an alliance of four unions representing 420,000 education, health-care and social service workers said it had reached a potential deal on salaries, after reaching one on working conditions earlier in the week. The four unions known as the common front — comprised of the FTQ, CSN, APTS and CSQ — said the latest deal would be presented over the coming days to their member groups, which will decide whether to take the agreement to workers for a vote.

The only major labour group without any sort of agreement is a nurses union with about 80,000 members — Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec — which said Thursday that negotiations were ongoing.

Eidlin said several steps remain before the labour conflict can be declared over, including votes by union membership on whether to ratify the deals. There's a "non-trivial" possibility that members may reject the terms, he said, especially since expectations had been raised by the size of the strikes.

However, he said he doubts the unions would agree to consider deals that don't represent significant progress over what the government had initially proposed.

Eidlin said strong public support for the workers played a role in the strikes, in contrast to previous conflicts during which striking government employees had often failed to garner much sympathy.

"There's been massive public support for the Quebec public sector strikes," he said. "And what's interesting is that support is highest among those most affected: the parents of school-age children."

That support and the size of the strikes, he said, sent a clear message to Premier François Legault's government that it needs to listen to the unions and take their proposals seriously.

Other employers may want to take notice too, he said, noting that large strikes can sometimes create a "contagion effect."

He said Quebec's recent labour conflict "is not something that just is going to be swept under the rug. I think that, certainly in Quebec, it's going to have some resounding effects on other negotiations, even outside the public sector."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2023. 

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