Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Down in the province of Québec public sector workers have formed a 'Common Front' for negotiations with the provincial government. To say the least this is a necessary tactic if the workers are to avoid being picked off one by one, and this sort of thing should be broadly imitated. The negotiations are "heating up", and last Monday 3,000 union members demonstrated in Québec City to put pressure on the government. here's the story from CTV Montréal.
Public sector workers demonstrate in Quebec City
Some 3,000 public sector workers demonstrated in Quebec City on Monday as they near the end of their five-year contract and continue contract talks with the government.

The unionized workers are calling on the Charest government for a salary increase of 11.25 per over three years, while the province is offering seven per cent over five years.

The last contract was imposed by a government decree, but union leaders say relations with the government have improved since then.

"I still believe that Jean Charest and his people would prefer to have a collective agreement agreed with the unions than impose another decree," said Michel Arsenault, president of the FTQ.

Arsenault said Quebec needs to pay salaries comparable to other public sector workers in other parts of Canada.

"They are hiring people and two years after these people are leaving the government and going to the private sector because there's more money there," Arsenault said.

He also said workers are also frustrated about the increased use of private company employees in public service.

"It's a shame to see contractors making 120 to 125 per cent more than our own people and doing the same job. It makes no sense."

While both sides appear to want to have a deal by March 31, the unions are planning another – and larger – demonstration for March 20 in Montreal.
Here, from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is more on what is at stake in the recent bargaining.
Quebec Common Front: "Time is running out!"
Following last Friday’s meeting between the Common Front and Treasury Board President Monique Gagnon-Tremblay, spokespersons for the Common Front - Lucie Martineau of the Secrétariat intersyndical des services publics (SISP), Claudette Carbonneau of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) and Michel Arsenault of the Québec Federation of Labour (FTQ) - have asked the government to step up negotiations and give some tangible signals so that the talks can move forward.

They stress that "with just thirty-eight days remaining, everything must be done to try to reach a deal by the time the collective agreements expire on March 31. However, it is clear that, if this is going to happen, a serious change of course is required on the part of the government."

The Common Front unions want to intensify the discussions in order to ensure progress. They do not want to see negotiations bogged down because of a few sticking points at the sectoral tables.

The unions have agreed on a deadline of March 20 for a new appraisal stage in the negotiations. Until then, they will make every effort to resolve the impasse at the negotiating tables and will negotiate diligently and in good faith.

In the workplace, employees in the public and parapublic sectors are displaying a sticker to remind the government that “Time is running out” and to show solidarity with the 3,000 representatives who have gathered in Québec City during the negotiations.

The Common Front is asking for a three-year employment contract with salary increases of 3.75% per year, which would protect the workers’ purchasing power and narrow the wage gap between public sector employees and other Québec workers. The union organizations believe that the government's proposals are insufficient, because they would leave state employees on the road to impoverishment and exclude any possibility for salary catch-up or participation in collective wealth.

The Common Front includes all the major unions in the public and parapublic sectors in Québec, including unions grouped together in the SISP (CSQ, FIQ, SFPQ, SPGQ and APTS), the CSN (FSSS, FEESP, FNEEQ and FP) and the FTQ (CUPE, SQEES, COPE and UES).
What is the 'Common Front' ? Here's a good explanation from Nicolas Phébus, published last December at the Ontario platformist site Linchpin.
Quebec public sector unions unite in a "Common Front"
By Nicolas Phébus
Quebec correspondent
On Oct. 30, the public sector unions in Québec made their central demands for the negotiations with the province. Under the banner "together for public services", they are demanding a negotiated agreement that includes better pay, improved retirement plans and accommodation of workers family commitments. The demands are backed by a “Common Front” of unions representing 475,000 workers in health care, social services, education, public service and government agencies. While the mobilization is not yet impressive, and may never become, some unions and activists are taking positive steps for wider grassroots participation.

As the unions put it in their collective bargaining statement, "our working conditions are increasingly difficult, and in many sectors there are real problems in attracting new workers and keeping the employees we already have".

"We are concerned", they say, "because our pay is often less that the going rates in the private sector and many people prefer to work elsewhere rather than serve the citizens of Québec." Actually, recent studies from the government’s own agency show that the average public sector wage of $36,000 lags behind the general population by 7.7%.

The unions are demanding an 11.25% wage hike over the next three years. But wages are not everything, they are also pressing for improvement to the government retirement plan. But the major issue could be what they call "conciliation travail-famille", which is an issue that is rising to prominence all over Quebec. It calls for accommodation for workers to deal with family commitments, such as taking some time off work if their kid is sick. This is especially relevant in an industry where 75% of the workers are women and a full third is precarious, working irregular hours. In addition to adjustments in the collective agreements, unions are demanding a law that would apply to the whole working class.

Today's public sector Common Front is the largest since the infamous 1972 Common Front which led the whole working class into an illegal general strike that took an insurrectionary character. While not exactly the same mood, the 2009 Common Front is impressive because it's taking place after a major split in the public sector unions following the 2005 negotiations which ended in a repressive government decree. The bargaining strategy of the Common Front is also "historical" in a way. The demands were ready and made on the very day the negotiations could legally start, 5 months before the government decree will expire. The labour leadership clearly wants fast negotiations and that's why they limited the demands. Actually, their biggest demand is probably this: a negotiated agreement. Anything would do, as long as the unions can get away without having another decree that limits their activity stuffed down the throats of their members. If they succeed it would be the first time since 1999.

For the moment, the mobilization is not yet impressive on the ground. There was a successful provincial tour to present the demands to the members and 2000 people attended a gathering in Québec City to deliver the demands. But according to many activists, the mobilization has not yet reached the workplaces. People are still bitter from the last negotiations and are in a mood "not to be fooled again". Some unions and activists are taking positive steps to get some grassroots input. One example of this is the Confederation Des Syndicats Nationaux which is using the web in a more creative way. They decided to open up communication by creating an open publishing website with the common "web 2.0" features --including a blog-- where every member (and the public) can create an account to post comments and even their own stories. To date grassroots activists have been trained in 200 different unions to use this new tool. So far, some 101 stories have been posted to the "news" section of the web site by its users. Hopefully, this is only a sign of things to come.

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