6. 21. 2024

Union Democracy and Quebec’s Historic Public Sector Strikes

Michèle Hehn

From 2019 until my retirement in June 2023, I was a full-time secondary school teacher and member of the Alliance des professeures et professeurs de Montréal (AP), the union for Montreal teachers within the Fédération autonome des enseignants (FAE) – one of Quebec’s two union federations for teachers, representing those in Montreal, Quebec City, the Laurentians, and Gatineau. In Quebec’s 2023 public sector strikes
previously analyzed in Midnight Sun, the AP/FAE played an important role. My experience as a union member afforded me a helpful perspective on two key elements of how the strike was built: the rank-and-file culture of the AP/FAE, both inside and outside the school setting, and the way the union leadership prepared the members for an unlimited strike. Both suggest the limits of attempting to build a strike without robust union democracy.


Democratic and less democratic tendencies within the union

At both schools where I taught in Montreal, there was a lively and engaged union culture, in which a majority of teachers participated. Particularly early in the pandemic, the school union meetings were a vital hub for discussing questions around remote learning and staying abreast of the latest health protocols issued by the government. Then and later, issue after issue was raised at these lunchtime meetings, brought to a vote, and settled. The level of democracy never flagged, even during moments of heightened tension. This collective practice of democracy was serious and involved a high degree of mutual accountability. Indeed, my teacher comrades left no stone unturned in finding democratic solutions to workplace issues that just kept multiplying.

However, outside of the school setting, the character of the union generally took on different aspects: a sweeping embrace of the membership on occasions when there was no opportunity for the members to influence union policy, and an anti-democratic tendency at times when the union’s course of action was to be decided. This distinction is sharply revealed by comparing the union’s biannual Colloque (Colloquium) in 2022 with the methods used in 2023 to prepare the rank and file for a strike.

The March 2022 Colloque was held at the Palais des Congrès, a vast conference center in Montreal. Schools were closed for two days to allow teachers to attend. The Colloque was a showcase for the Alliance des professeures et professeurs, its various committees, and private partners that included publishing houses and other sellers of pedagogical materials. Entering the cavernous Palais after slogging in the trenches of teaching for the better part of a year was like being ushered into a swanky hotel after camping in the rain. The booths and billboards were brightly coloured and dazzling. The opening plenary keynote speaker celebrated teachers’ courage and resourcefulness, while referring honestly to the immense challenges they face. But the gravity of those challenges was quickly deflected with humour, sending the signal that teachers should laugh through their tears. While the event was a pleasant, useful, informative exercise in solidarity, it offered the membership no substantive opportunities to influence union policy. 

In comparison with the cruise ship-sized Palais, the puny hall at the Théâtre St-Denis where we voted in May 2023 to go on strike could hold only a small subset of the 9000 members of the Alliance des professeures et professeurs. Despite the engaged union culture at my school, only around 5% of the school’s teachers came to the after-hours meeting; only a few hundred members in total showed up to vote. Unlike during the Colloque, teachers received no time off work for this important decision. The union leadership announced that the earliest voting could begin was 8:30 PM, a time when many teachers are getting ready to go to bed. In fact, the voting took place even later. The union could’ve and should’ve offered an honest public reflection on the low turnout at the strike vote, but it failed to do so. Instead, the union’s newsletter boasted that “98% of members…voted for a strike” in a “packed” hall.

This experience shows not only the extent to which many union members are disconnected from their union as it exists beyond their individual schools, but also how the union leadership sometimes worsens this disengagement. And why does a union choose to dedicate significant resources to a pedagogical event such as the Colloque at the Palais des Congrès, but then lack a strategy for adequately funding its decision to go out on unlimited strike, as was the case in late 2023? Teachers who pay $1000 a year in union dues deserve answers to these questions.


Opportunities missed and seized

The 2023 Quebec public sector strikes were shaped by forces beyond those dynamics between unions’ rank and file and their leadership, of course. While elected officials from both the Parti Québécois (PQ) and Québec Solidaire (QS) parties claimed to support the strike wholeheartedly and could have played a cohering role, they limited their engagement to attendance at the marches organized by the unions. QS’s biannual Congrès in Gatineau in November 2023 was attended by nearly 700 party activists: the opening plenary would have been a perfect place to invite striking public sector workers to talk about their historic strike. Instead, the three-day event passed without any serious reference to the epic labour struggle going on outside its walls. The local QS elected deputy who visited my school shortly before the strike vote bypassed the union completely, opting instead to be introduced to the school’s teachers by the school administration.

While the leadership of the striking unions, the Parti Québécois, and Québec Solidaire remained isolated in their professional silos, the small, recently formed group Alliance Ouvrière (AO) did its best to fill the vacuum. Made up of volunteer militant rank-and-file union members, AO held several meetings in Montreal outside of normal work hours, to allow the rank and file to share information about their respective unions and strategize about what to do if the government were to enact back-to-work legislation. At the last such meeting before the strike, attendees identified the elimination of mandatory overtime as a top priority, to be resisted whether it involved one’s own collective agreement or not. In this way, AO empowered union members to define their own policy agenda. The unions themselves could also have hosted such discussions, but largely chose not to.

The Quebec public sector strikes won important gains while keeping the public on the workers’ side, demonstrating how unions are still the most powerful tool the working class has for fighting government austerity. But to strike effectively, workers need strike funds and union democracy. Alliance Ouvrière’s efforts to organize and activate rank-and-file members is a courageous, promising step in this direction.

Michèle Hehn is a retired secondary school teacher in the Centre de services scolaires de Montréal. She has written for Socialist WorkerThe IndypendentNouveaux Cahiers du socialisme, and Ricochet Media.