4. 19. 2024

An Insider’s Take on Quebec’s Common Front Strikes


Translated by Nathan Rao

In late 2023, more than half a million Quebec public sector workers engaged in strike action to win better wages and working conditions and defend public services. Preceded by a massive demonstration by union members and supporters in late September, this was one of the largest strikes in the history of the Canadian state. Predictably, it received little coverage in mainstream media outside Quebec. Most of the striking workers belonged to unions organized in coalition under the banner of the Common Front – manifesting a degree of co-operation across unions and occupational groups that’s rare in so-called Canada. In November and December, workers in unions that were part of the Common Front struck on three occasions, for a total of 11 days, alongside other groups of striking workers outside the Common Front, such as teachers and nurses. While many of the unions involved won significant wage increases, there’s a lot more to understand about this important experience. Midnight Sun is excited to publish this analysis by a Quebecois union activist.

The 2023 Common Front of public-service workers was one of the biggest such initiatives in the history of Quebec trade unionism, composed of hundreds of thousands of participants from four trade-union organizations: the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ), the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN), the Alliance of Healthcare and Social Services Professional and Technical Employees (APTS), and the Quebec Labour Congress (CSQ). As a union rep who was involved in organizing the Common Front and who observed both how it was built from the inside and its external impacts, I thought it would be useful to share a fresh angle on certain issues that arose last fall – especially considering that for the general population and even for most trade-union activists, the Front appears to have been a stunning success.


The Common Front agreement and its fault lines

The Common Front came together in April 2022, rooted in an agreement to forge an alliance solely with respect to inter-sectoral negotiations. Among other things, the agreement set out that funds for the coalition’s large mobilizations would be divided into four equal parts, and that decisions and public statements on the inter-sectoral negotiations would be determined by consensus between the four trade-union confederations.

The problem here is that inter-sectoral concerns represented only about 20 percent of each of the collective agreements in question. The other 80 percent, covering working conditions, was specific to each sector – and so each public-sector union still had to negotiate these matters separately. The fact is, though, that in negotiations everything overlaps. So while there was a real improvement in all workers’ bargaining position, it was limited to the four subject areas that were part of the Common Front agreement. While groups such as teachers made headway around their specific sectoral demands, others such as social-service workers didn’t – discrepancies resulting from the fact that these sector-specific negotiations weren’t integrated under the banner of the Common Front.

At the same time, problems aligning the culture of the four trade unions were definitely among the big obstacles to securing strike mandates. This was a huge blow to our ability to carry out an indefinite general strike. Organizations such as the CSN had made preparations to deal with the problem of lost wages during a strike, while others had no strike fund at all and relied on momentum from the teachers’ federation (FAE) to keep the mobilization going – at a time when the FAE, which wasn’t part of the Common Front, was in the process of organizing its own indefinite general strike. Financial readiness is one of the main challenges when it comes to building union members’ solidarity around a shared project and unified pressure tactics, so the unevenness of such preparations in Quebec last fall was a real barrier to securing support for strike mandates.

These days, public-sector trade-union negotiations should not be about building a partnership with the employer, but rather about creating a favourable adversarial relationship of forces, especially in a context where we are up against an anti-union and pro-privatization government. And yet the Common Front once again embraced an old, conventional bargaining culture heavy on militant rhetoric and never-ending pressure tactics – precluding the possibility of quickly moving to an indefinite general strike despite all the early signs of government recalcitrance.


A common front of public opinion?

The Common Front was built first and foremost on the foundation of its public statements defending public services and decent wages in an inflationary economic context. This message was hammered away in nonstop media appearances by the four trade unions’ well-prepared leaders. It was warmly received by a public suffering through a historic social and economic crisis. As a result, the communications battle between the Common Front and the government drove the mobilization of the unions’ rank and file. As the clashing narratives played out, these union members were increasingly won over to the need to fight to achieve major gains for the entire range of public-sector workers.

I see a contradiction, though, in the lack of cohesion between media messaging, public support, and rank-and-file organization. Members were drafted into a highly choreographed model of mobilization whose aim was to avoid alienating public opinion. The stress was on picket lines in front of public buildings and two highly organized and publicized giant marches, rather than on rank-and-file initiative and disruptive action. There was no space to build on the membership’s profound discontent in a way that could turn them into a force to be reckoned with and keep them mobilized over a long period. Rank-and-file mobilization was used to win over public opinion; throughout the Common Front, we were told it was essential not to lose public opinion if we wanted to win. It was supposedly thanks to public opinion alone that we were able to win a series of demands – and union members may forget that, public opinion on their side or not, their struggle was just.


The final stretch…how did it come to this?

As the Common Front was at its peak after the third round of strikes in mid-December, both the trade-union leadership and the media obsessively talked about the need to wrap up negotiations before the end of the year. The underlying reasons were the fear of losing public opinion and the difficulty unions would have had in launching a new wave of mobilization over the winter. The rush to conclude ran roughshod over any notion of trade-union democracy. During the holidays, union leaders agreed to a deal that offered significant wage gains while seriously sacrificing working conditions. Sealing the deal turned into a race against the clock at a time when members were on holiday and no preparations for rank-and-file mobilization had been made. Members therefore had no way of putting up any kind of resistance to the agreement that was being hatched between trade-union leaders and the government.

After the holidays, we started to hear across Quebec that the Common Front would be dissolved now that an agreement had been reached. The agreement would certainly provide wage improvements, but at the cost of sacrifices for specific sectors – for example, creating two classes of healthcare workers, only one of them full-time. The pressure to settle, and the talking points that went with it, completely demobilized members who, lest we forget, just one month earlier had seen themselves as key protagonists in a historic round of bargaining. Under that pressure, only two options existed: voting in favour of a “final” agreement, or voting against it and falling into a dark hole of solitude, given that the Common Front had just been dissolved, each organization left to its own devices for whatever came next.

In all historic battles for significant gains, struggle has been the only way to make strides forward on working conditions. From one collective agreement to the next, we have eroded our own conditions of labour as a result of shameful compromises – only to realize that the web of public services no longer exists and has been replaced by private interests. In what we were repeatedly told was a historic round of bargaining, we missed an opportunity to break away from an obsolete model of mobilization. Though all the ingredients were in place to wage a struggle for the long haul, trade-union leaders instead chose the well-trodden path that leads us calmly towards the abyss.

R.F. is a union activist in Quebec.