This is an extraordinary time to be bargaining for workers: Unifor president
Members of four major public sector unions in Quebec walked off the job on Monday and promised another series of strikes later this month if progress isn't made at the bargaining table.
Schools, health-care facilities and social services were disrupted at various points on Monday as the four unions representing a "common front" of some 420,000 workers protested the province's latest contract offer.
The unions announced their members planned to picket again for three days between Nov. 21 and Nov. 23.
Éric Gingras, president of Centrale des syndicats du Québec, told reporters the province had two weeks to settle before the next walkout.
"Two weeks to negotiate, seven days a week, 24 hours a day … let's negotiate and reach an agreement." Another union official said an agreement in principle was required to put off the 72-hour strike.
The government's latest contract offer was soundly rejected by all labour unions in the province. The offer included a 10.3-per-cent salary increase over five years and a one-time payment of $1,000 to each worker — a proposal some unions have described as "paltry."
However, Treasury Board president Sonia LeBel responded Monday on X, formerly Twitter, that if unions aren't satisfied with the government's offer, they should submit a constructive counter-offer.
"A negotiation cannot be one way," LeBel wrote.
The government has said that in addition to pay raises, its offer includes more money for workers and shifts it considers priorities, such as nurses working nights and weekends and teachers' aides in primary schools. Workers who earn less than $52,000 a year would also receive an additional one-per-cent increase.
The unions have said the government's proposal doesn't cover inflation.
“10.3 per cent over five years is an insult," said Magali Picard, president of Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec. "The message from the common front is clear: if you want a counter-offer, start by making us a real offer."
Unions are demanding a three-year contract with annual increases tied to the inflation rate: two percentage points above inflation in the first year or $100 per week, whichever is more beneficial, followed by three points higher in the second year and four points higher in the third.
One McGill University professor noted that the Quebec labour negotiations exist in a broader context of several high-profile strikes in recent months in North America that have led to big gains for unionized workers, including in the automotive sector.
"That heightened degree of militancy among workers in Canada and the U.S. is really reshaping the power dynamic and reshaping the narrative about work and unions and what workers are entitled to, and it's really raising expectations across the board," said Barry Eidlin, a sociology professor who studies labour movements.
"So (those union wins) really stiffens the resolve of the leadership and it raises the expectations of the membership."
Monday's strike lasted from midnight until 10:30 a.m. in elementary and secondary schools, and until noon in junior colleges. Some health and social services, including mental health care, youth protection and medical imagery were operating between 70 and 85 per cent capacity; however, essential health services were maintained.
For one parents group, there was confusion about what the labour strike could mean for schools in the coming weeks. A union outside the common front and representing some 65,000 Quebec teachers has said it will launch an unlimited general strike on Nov. 23 if an agreement isn't reached.
"(The priority) is always going to be student success and the impact of prolonged strikes will have on this because teachers are one of the most important pieces of the puzzle here," said Katherine Korakis, president of the English Parents Community Association.
"The government keeps saying they prioritize education; well, then they have to show that they prioritize education."
After dropping her kids at a suburban Montreal school, Julie Pitre, a mother of two, said she firmly supported the striking workers.
"They don't have an easy job and they give so much for our children," Pitre said. "I hope they can get what they need."
Later this week, a two-day walkout is planned for Wednesday and Thursday by the union representing 80,000 nurses, auxiliary nurses, respiratory therapists and other health professionals.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2023.
With files from Lia Lévesque in Montreal.