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Public sector strikes: Legault appears ready to wait it out

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Quebec Premier François Legault seems ready to let the conflict with public sector employees continue for as long as it takes to obtain the "flexibility" he has been demanding from them for months.

The vast majority of employees are now on strike, with the week-long walkout launched Friday by the Common Front, which includes 420,000 workers with the CSN, the CSQ, the APTS and the FTQ.

Even if he says he's ready to sign an agreement "tomorrow morning," the signals sent by the premier suggest he's prepared to wait to get what he wants when he addressed this issue while drawing up his session report in Quebec City.

On the one hand, Legault ruled out the possibility of a special law to force union members to return to work and impose the conditions he is seeking, saying he wants a negotiated agreement.

He added that it will take a lot of courage to obtain what he is passionate about, namely flexibility in collective agreements.

Without this flexibility, Legault said, the health and education networks will not improve.

At his side, Minister of Health Christian Dubé added that the vast reform of the health network provided for in Bill 15, which will be adopted under government closure on Saturday, also requires the flexibility sought by Quebec.

Opposite the government, the unions warn that time is running out.

While schools, health establishments, CEGEPs and social services are affected by strikes, the inter-union Common Front warns that there are 11 days left to mark significant progress in negotiations to renew collective agreements.

"There are eleven days left before the 19th. We have time, but it will take willpower," said Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) president Éric Gingras at a news briefing in front of parliament on Friday morning, alongside his three colleagues.

On Dec. 18 and 19, the four members of the Common Front will meet again to take stock of the negotiations. They could then decide to launch an indefinite strike in January if progress is not sufficient to their liking.

"On December 18 and 19, all of our organizations will hold meetings, and this will be the ideal time to present an agreement in principle," said APTS president Robert Comeau. "Otherwise, we will be obliged to report to our respective assemblies to see how we see the future. And we see no other solution than to launch an unlimited general strike if we are forced to do so."

Quebec Treasury Board President Sonia LeBel, for her part, said the parties have reached a "crucial moment."

"I wouldn't call it a blitz, but I would say I think the intensifications are there," she said. "With proposals and counter-proposals from the union side as well as from the employer side, it's continuous; we are doing our job."

"There is also movement at certain sectoral tables," said Gingras.

Moreover, mediators will take the stage at some of these sectoral tables at the end of the week, said FTQ president Magali Picard.

Sectoral tables are those where working conditions other than salaries and pension plans are negotiated in sectors such as education and health. The parties discuss, for example, personnel movements and the organization of work.

On Wednesday, LeBel tabled a new salary offer of 12.7 per cent over five years to all state employees, but the unions found it insufficient.

On Thursday, Legault said he was ready to be more generous "monetarily," but he demanded more flexibility in the application of collective agreements.

"We are making movements about it, in our sectoral (tables), in our working conditions, everywhere. We've been doing it from the beginning," said Gingras.

The Common Front also maintains that it has made "movement" at the intersectoral or central table, particularly with regard to the duration of the collective agreement.

In fact, the government bases its offer on a five-year contract and the Common Front on three years.

"We are ready to open on a collective agreement of more than three years, but with an indexation clause and salary catch-up," said CSN vice-president François Enault.

Negotiations were ongoing Friday afternoon, said Comeau.

Both parties have already said they want to settle by the end of the year.

OTHER STRIKES

Starting Monday, it will be the interprofessional health federation's (FIQ) turn to walk off the job.

The union, which represents 80,000 nurses, practical nurses, respiratory therapists and clinical professionals, will be on strike until Dec. 14 as well.

These two strikes affecting the health sector will lead to postponements of surgeries and various appointments.

The Common Front and FIQ strikes are in addition to the unlimited strike of the 66,000 teachers of the FAE, which began on Nov. 23. 

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Dec. 8, 2023. 

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