Quebec’s Common Front struggle has implications for labour, public services across Canada

By Adrien Welsh  

Quebec’s Common Front of unions represents a historic struggle that has immediate implications for the working class across the country. Yet, coverage of this joint campaign of four unions representing 420,000 public sector workers is virtually absent from the media in English-speaking Canada.

Currently, the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE), which represents 40 percent of Quebec teachers, is on unlimited general strike. This strike, initiated on November 23, followed a series of escalating actions by the Common Front. These included a rally and march of 100,000 people in Montreal on September 23, a two-day strike by 80,000 healthcare workers on November 8-9, and another strike action from November 21-23 which involved all 420,000 public sector workers represented in the four-union front. The unions recently announced a 7-day strike by all workers on December 8-14, based on strike votes with an approval rate of 95 percent and more.

Despite nasty propaganda from the corporate media and the François Legault government, trying to isolate the Common Front from the rest of the population, seventy percent of Quebecers stand in solidarity with the unions’ demands, and around eighty percent of the population support the teachers’ strike.

It is important that working people – especially unionized workers – throughout Canada understand what is happening in Quebec and mobilize in solidarity with the Common Front.

Most organized workers in Canada belong to unions which are members of a provincial labour federation that is affiliated to the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the country’s largest labour central. In Quebec, however, workers are organized into a number of different labour centrals that do not have organic links to one another. Only one of these centrals, the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ), is affiliated to the CLC and it does not represent the majority of unionized workers in Quebec.

This is a unique situation in the North American labour movement, and it creates particular challenges for working-class unity. The longer-term goal – as the Parti communiste du Québec has advocated for years – is to unite all unions and labour centrals within the FTQ, which would maintain its autonomy within the CLC. But in the immediate period, the objective is to build the strongest unity and cooperation between all components of the Quebec labour movement.

As early as the 1960s, attempts were made to form a common front of all workers’ unions in different fields. The breakthrough came in 1972, when public sector workers jointly went on strike demanding a minimum wage of $100 per week. This led to a landmark struggle in which Quebec’s public sector workers showed their strength as part of the working class.

Since then, progressive elements within the public sector unions have strived to unite into a Common Front in preparation for each round of collective bargaining. However, this does not happen systematically, so before each battle with the boss the labour movement has to fight the battle for unity.

The present Common Front includes the FTQ, Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) and the Alliance du personnel professionnel et technique de la santé et des services sociaux (APTS), which agreed one year ago to a series of common demands in their struggle with the employer. These unions represent around 70 percent of public sector workers. While the FAE and Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ) decided not to join the Common Front, they maintain a high level of solidarity and communication.

This development brings around 420,000 workers into a united fight against one and same employer: the Quebec government. This is one of the most important labour battles of our time – certainly in Quebec, but also throughout Canada and likely North America – because the Common Front’s struggle will have a huge impact on public sector workers’ wages and, in fact, those of the working class as a whole.

Quebec’s public sector negotiations are happening in the wake of a pandemic which laid bare the weaknesses of public services – especially healthcare – that had been underfunded and undermined for decades. The Common Front’s fight for better conditions in the public sector is also a fight to expand and improve public services.

The healthcare crisis is only the tip of a much deeper problem in which war expenditures, prices and interest rates increase while wages and working conditions fall. The ruling class is trying to put the burden of this crisis onto the working class. This is the backdrop for the Common Front’s demand to increase wages by $100 per week or CPI plus 2 percent for 2023, then CPI plus 3 percent for 2024 and CPI plus 4 percent in 2025.

It is a demand to catch up real wages after decades of real losses, and its meaning is clear: money for wages, not for monopolies.

Why should labour in English-speaking Canada care?

Virtually all over the country, provincial governments are in the hands of the right wing. Despite a few “left leaning” cases, they all more or less target public services and workers’ wages and working conditions, in order to give guarantees to capitalist monopolies.

In this sense, the struggle of 420,000 public sector workers in Quebec, fighting together in a Common Front against one employer, has enormous implications for all workers in Canada. If they win against Legault’s monopolist government, it sets the bar for public sector struggles from coast to coast to coast. On the other hand, If Legault wins this battle it will give a clear green light to Doug Ford, Blaine Higgs, Danielle Smith, Pierre Poilièvre and others to drive ahead with their anti-worker, anti-people privatization and austerity plans.

So, it’s a double-or-nothing situation. Either Quebec workers win, and the victory is for the entire working class across the country, or they lose and the years to come will be disastrous for all working people.

Legault was put into office through a decades-long aggressive campaign by monopoly capital in Quebec, whose agenda it is Legault’s job is to implement. The COVID pandemic and related economic crisis meant that the government couldn’t fully implement this plan during its first mandate, so Legault has taken a more aggressive stance following his re-election last year.

Already, billions of dollars have been guaranteed to private companies to build electric car batteries, legislation has been introduced (Bills 15 and 24) which opens the door to further privatization in healthcare and education, workplace reforms in construction and training aim to make the workforce more “flexible” for employers, public transit is being underfunded, and Hydro-Québec is soon to be privatized.

The one key issue underlying these projects is to crush the labour movement’s militancy. This is why the outcome of the Common Front negotiations is so important. Legault can endure a decline in public support over the next few months, since the next election is still three years away – for now, his job is to break the labour movement including through back-to-work legislation he is clearly setting the table for now.

If the Common Front fails in this battle, it will mark a clear setback for years to come. It won’t matter much whether or not Legault gets re-elected a third time at that point, as it would take more than a new government to bring back what it took decades of struggle to conquer.

To prevent such a setback, the labour movement must grasp both the economic and political sides of this struggle. It must not shy away from demanding curbs on corporate profits and calling on all non-monopoly sectors of society to fight alongside labour to win them.

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