Wednesday, August 25, 2010


As August 30 draws nearer so does the deadline for a general strike in Québec's construction sector. As of today no further talks have been scheduled before the deadline. Whether the strike will actually happen or if it will be called off by a last minute deal like last May's construction strike in Manitoba is still in doubt. In the interim the unions involved (part of a five union common front) are mainly engaged in the tried and true tactics of on the job action such as work to rule, refusing overtime and taking all allowed breaks.

In the end these tactics may exert more pressure than the threat of a general strike which, as the writer of the piece below notes, would be rapidly legislated back to work. The delay since the opening of negotiations last fall in coming to a contract may possibly be due to employer intransigence. This suspicion is reinforced by what is also noted below, that any new contract will not be retroactive. In other words every minute of delay adds more to the construction company profits, and the companies involved would only soften their stance at the last possible moment to avoid serious disruption.

What can be done in such situations ? It may make me unpopular amongst "radical" circles, but it seems obvious to me that the possible general strike is almost certain to fail due to back to work legislation. That fact should be clearly pointed out, and the usual leftist cheerleading for "general strikes" should be muted. Not every such strike is a victory, and they often result in great defeats. And no such defeats do not necessarily "build militancy", let alone radicalism. At the same time the die has been cast, and Québec construction workers now have little choice but to go ahead with the strike unless the bosses back down. What should have been done long ago is the present pressure tactics at the actual job sites. A few days of such things actually costs the bosses far more than an ephemeral general strike that is rapidly legislated out of existence.

But that is a lesson for the future not for now. The following article is from the Québec City Voix De Faits blog, the blog of the QC section of the platformist Union Communiste Libertaire. The original French version can be read at that site. Molly takes full responsibility for any translation errors that the following may contain.
Outline of the situation in Quebec.
Since January 2010, construction workers in Quebec have been working without a contract . Nevertheless , as many bosses as unions had announced in October 2009 , exemplary negotiations that would be settled by the due date of collective agreements. Practically nine months later , workers in shipyards have yet signed agreements and the situation is becoming increasingly tense .

What we should not lose sight of here is that the concept of " retroactivity " as if logic and common in the public service do not apply . Each day that passes represents several thousands of dollars of economic savings in the pockets of the bosses. In short , for almost nine months, the pressure tactics are one way : towards workers .

Recently , the unions began a common front in negotiations , all five represented in the construction field are involved this time , and began to implement a plan of pressure tactics voted for in a general assembly of the members present . Of course , for anyone coming from other areas of work , it is rather suspicious to see stewards on hand in the workplace asking members to leave. We must not forget, however, that construction is a sector that is excessively scattered over the territory and that is the only effective way to spread the word.

The media always refers to two or three " honest workers "who say they are not aware of all this is happening and that they felt " intimidated " or even " forced " to leave the targeted sites . First , ignorance of the current situation of these workers is their own fault as there are regular union meetings where it is possible for everyone involved to be informed. Then , all construction workers , including supervisors , are unionized and union representatives are equipped with cell phones reachable all week and just waiting to answer questions from their members . In terms of bullying , it is a little or nothing at all. On the site , workers present are not in the habit of being four and a half feet tall and weighing120 pounds . In short , of course, if a " union team " landed on construction sites, they are often large and heavy fellows , but they do not raise their voices except when necessary ( eg confrontation with employers or workers who are anti union ) . In short , we must take cognizance of the existence of these cases , but it is not necessary to make a big deal as in the mass media where one can see the boss' petticoat sticking out .

Employer Demands

The employer demands follow an inexorable logic exceedingly common in the capitalism of the twenty-first century : flexibility and deregulation . We want more hours working on construction sites with less overtime paid accordingly (time and a half , double time , etc. .) . We demand the elimination of many benefits deemed " unproductive " . These benefits can range from those called " team leaders "( a bit like a small foreman ) to work at night or in special conditions .

The bosses also want the best value for their money , otherwise there will be less of it coming into their pockets and that, that is the enemy of the bourgeois class . In this context, they want to cut down on operating costs directly related to the workforce . They want to cut the compensation offered for accommodation on remote sites , stretching the concept of the territorial zone of workers (a worker in the region of Quebec can not go, exceptions , and work in Abitibi) and in the industrial sector , begin to pay the worker only when physically present on the worksite . Thus one is left to go to different checkpoints for minutes or even hours, on his own time .

Basically, the employers' logic is simple: we want to increase competitiveness through deregulation, a reduction of wage costs and increased flexibility of the workforce . In short , they are quietly approached the model of employment in a fast food restaurant . Simply , the rules of collective agreements apply to all of Quebec , so we can immediately ask what the bosses want to really mean by 'competitiveness'.

Union demands

For the workers' representatives , the situation is quite different. They are asking to tighten the rules in connection with the territories of the workers, increase the premiums that employers consider "non-productive ", and to improve the concept of financial compensation for accommodation on remote sites . In short , as usual, the bosses and the workers both pull up the covers of their sides hoping to improve their lots.

It's a bit simplistic , but in terms of brevity and to avoid annoying repetitions , take the demands of the employers listed above and reversing them you get roughly the trade union positions.

The logic of the trade unions is also quite different. It is assumed that the construction market is moving in a "closed" way , that is to say that everyone should work by the same rules in Quebec , which eliminates the logic of competitiveness so dear to employers . In short , when the logic behind the demands are the opposite, do not expect the demands to be in close proximity to each other.

Interestingly , the issue of wages is hardly the order of the day!

Critique of the unions

We live in a system that leaves little room for radicalism , let alone anti-capitalism . So do not be surprised to see the central claim to be merely to improve conditions for workers under the current economic mode of production and no more.

Also , the construction environment is an area where everyone is unionized with no other choice but to settle down in one of five union centrals present . This leads to the perverse effect of disconnecting the unions from the unionized . General meetings are not held and efforts to attract the union members are hardly massive.

The centrals over time and except when negotiating collective agreements or filing grievances , seem like nothing more than service centers . There's even a central that looks more like a general store than a union , but this is not the subject of this text here. Obviously , it is the members who make their unions and it is they who must take action, but the absence of the option of organizing themselves has the perverse result of having an amorphous mass that is more reluctant to pay more for dues than anything else.

Finally, from a libertarian perspective , one could also wonder why one does not seek to change the very framework of functioning and take up, for example, a sort of anarcho -syndicalism, but that would be to live in a bubble, to ignore the society around us and to believe that the current trade unions have any revolutionary fervor .

The general strike?

It is effectively this option that is scheduled for late August , at the same time as it will nine months that construction workers are working without contracts and the bosses have saved millions of dollars in salaries .

This way of action will be hard , but will certainly be short. One of the major employers is the Québec state , especially roads. It should be understood that the four different sectors currently negotiating will return to work at the same time , even if only three out of four have agreements on principle .

This labor solidarity is good to see, but it will also certainly lead to a blow from the state expressed no doubt as a government decree that would force a return to work . In principle , workers should not admit defeat without at least trying to push , but also in principle, the Government will play its role in class struggle and will help its natural ally, the employers.

Meanwhile, workers continue to demonstrate their anger by randomly deserting work sites in the province one day at a time . Thus , legal or not , these means of pressure expressing the workers' anger will continue for a few weeks and , hopefully , will make the employers compliant before the end of the month .

* * *

The author is a construction worker who is active in the UCL and his union.

1 comment:

Nicolas said...

Thanks for the translation.