Last month in Quebec, 420,000 public sector workers in health care and education walked out in one of the largest strikes in North American history. With negotiations for other Quebec unions still ongoing, more big strikes are possible.

Public sector workers and supporters during a strike outside McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) in Montreal, Quebec, on December 8, 2023. (Allen McInnis / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

One of the largest strikes in North American history happened this winter and the struggle is ongoing. In Quebec, 420,000 public sector workers in health care and education, united in a “Common Front” (Front Commun) of four major union federations, spent seven days on strike from December 8 to 14. This followed half-day and three-day work stoppages in November.

In addition to the Common Front, 66,500 workers in one of the teachers unions — the Féderation Autonome d’Enseignement (FAE) — were on strike for more than a month and more than 80,000 workers with a nurses union, the Fédération Interprofessionelle de la Santé du Québec (FIQ), struck from December 11 to 14.

Altogether, around 570,000 workers, out of Quebec’s population of 8.5 million, struck their employer, the government of Quebec, which is led by center-right premier François Legault.

By the end of December, the Common Front and the FAE announced that they had reached a tentative agreement (TA). The content of the TA will be discussed by members in the coming weeks. Negotiations for other public sector unions, including the FIQ, are still ongoing, and further strikes may be necessary.

Strike Demands

Wage demands have taken center stage because inflation has caused a cost-of-living crisis. The Front Commun is demanding raises on top of wages indexed to the inflation rate, demanding inflation plus 2 percent for 2023 (or $100 per week, if higher), inflation plus 3 percent in 2024, and inflation plus 4 percent in 2025.

The average public sector worker makes less than CAD $44,000 (around USD $32,000), which is below a livable wage. The government offer began with a 9 percent nominal wage increase over five years, and slightly increased it to 12.7 percent after several days of strike, but is still a reduction in real pay when you count inflation.

The strikers’ demands on working conditions are also in the public interest: reduction of the ratio of patients or students per staff member, adequate support resources, and less overwork. Quebec has massive shortages of nurses and teachers.

In the colleges, the unions are pushing for an agreement that mandates carbon neutrality at workplaces, supported by a mobilization of rank-and-file workers concerned with climate justice.

The feminist dimension of the strike is central: 78 percent of Common Front workers are women. They are so underpaid and overworked that half of new teachers quit within five years, and nurses are working forced overtime to cover for the shortage of staff.

Barely three years after the pandemic in which health care workers were hailed as “guardian angels,” the hypocrisy has been laid bare; Quebec’s public and private employers rely on the labor of teachers and nurses, yet refuse to pay for it.

In the National Assembly, Christine Labrie of the leftist party Quebec solidaire criticized the government for “exploiting the women”; this phrase was soon banned in parliament. “Too bad it’s not forbidden to exploit them instead,” commented Labrie, who then asked on Facebook for “vocabulary suggestions to talk about what you experience when you are forced to work overtime, when you work unpaid hours, when you are kept precarious, when you are exhausted from increased your workload, and so on.”

General Strike

The strikes are enjoying an extremely high level of support from union members and the public. Front Commun and FIQ workers voted for a strike mandate — up to an unlimited general strike — by 95 percent. Opinion polls have demonstrated solid public backing, with more than 70 percent of people in Quebec supporting the strike.

The picket lines across Quebec draw cheers and honks from passersby, and support groups for striking teachers are flourishing. Legault’s government is losing support. Although the ruling party Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) won the 2022 election in a landslide, now its polling numbers are in free-fall, and it is now below the Parti Québécois, an opposition party that supports Quebec independence.

The Common Front unions were in a favorable position to move to an unlimited general strike, which they had declared a possibility in January. If delegates or members vote down the tentative agreement reached so far, it may still be a possibility.

In Quebec and Canada, a strike is always haunted by the spectre of “special law,” the so-called “back-to-work” legislation that can force an end to the strike. As historians Martin Petitclerc and Martin Robert have documented, Quebec’s government has led Canada in sharpening this legal weapon against the comparatively militant Quebec working class, resorting to increasingly draconian punishments, including fines, loss of seniority for unionized workers, and loss of union certification for continuing to strike. Public sector strikes in Quebec have been broken by such political repression, including in 1972 and 1983.

Is the current strike wave in danger of the same, especially if there is an unlimited general strike? Since the 2015 Canadian Supreme Court decision recognizing a constitutional right to strike, the two back-to-work laws were ruled unconstitutional by Quebec courts.

But the legal landscape remains uncertain because governments can pass laws overriding constitutional provisions, and the courts have not declared all back-to-work laws unconstitutional. So we can only force the government to retreat if we maintain and expand our struggle and keep increasing our resolve and our public support. It will be crucial that workers mobilize to prevent union leaders from making a premature settlement on an inadequate contract, as occurred in 2015. For now, the momentum is on our side.

Historic Possibilities

In Quebec, the Common Front evokes the memory of the landmark 1972 strike in which workers won substantial gains, despite the repression that ended the strike after eleven days and put three union leaders in prison.

Many of the 1972 gains — including cost-of-living adjustments to match inflation — have been eroded during decades of concessions by the labor movement. The current strike is not only an opportunity to reverse those concessions, but also a chance to extend the struggle to the whole community and lay the foundations for a period of social-ecological transformation.

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