Quebec Public Sector Strikes: Premier Legault Says Ready to Increase Offer

Quebec Public Sector Strikes: Premier Legault Says Ready to Increase Offer
Quebec health and social service workers strike outside the CHUM hospital in Montreal, on Nov. 21, 2023. (The Canadian Press/Christinne Muschi)
The Canadian Press

For the first time since Quebec’s public sector unions began strike action earlier this month, Quebec Premier François Legault said clearly on Nov. 23 he is willing to increase his government’s offer.

But, he said, unions need to show more “flexibility,” particularly around work schedules, adding that the current round of negotiations will be decisive for the future of the health and education networks, and their ability to provide efficient services.

Mr. Legault said too many past governments rushed to settle issues around salary increases and failed to press the unions on how work is organized.

“Come to the negotiation table,” he said in a message to the unions. “In exchange for this flexibility, we are ready to enhance our offer.”

Flexibility, Mr. Legault said, comes in the form of teachers accepting class assignment in May rather than in August, avoiding a last-minute scramble by school boards to assign teachers to classes. In August, Quebec was missing thousands of teachers weeks before the start of school, but that number was drastically reduced as teachers accepted assignments.

Flexibility for nurses, Mr. Legault continued, comes when health authorities can pay nurses extra to take “undesirable” shifts, such as nights, weekends, and in remote areas. As well, he said, it should be easier to assign nurses to different hospitals.

Unions, for their part, say they are willing to negotiate work schedules, but they won’t do so in public.

Four unions known by their initials—CSQ, CSN, APTS and FTQ—have formed what they call a “common front” and are striking together. They represent some 420,000 members in the health, education, and social services sectors. Nov. 23 was the last day of a three-day strike, following a one-day strike on Nov. 6. Union leaders wouldn’t say what pressure tactics could come next.

“Flexibility, we’ve had it for a long time,” Magali Picard, head of the FTQ, told reporters, in response to Mr. Legault. Eric Gingras, president of the CSQ, told the same news conference that the government is using the issue of flexibility to influence the public.

“It works with the population, because by telling them that, it makes us look like we are people who won’t budge—but we are moving. We are in transaction mode.”

In addition to the common front, the FAE, representing about 66,000 elementary and secondary school teachers, launched an unlimited general strike on Nov. 23. The FIQ, with about 80,000 nurses and other health-care workers, is striking on Nov. 23 and on Nov. 24.

Unions have rejected the proposal for a 10.3 percent salary increase over five years, a one-time payment of $1,000 to each worker, and an extra three percent for certain jobs the province says are priorities.

Instead, they want a three-year deal that includes salary 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 than inflation in the second year, and four points higher in the third.