Quebec’s public sector witnessed an unprecedented winter of discontent as the Common Front coalition, uniting four major unions, took to the streets. Separate unions brought the total number of workers involved in these historic strikes to well over a million.

“Common Front, All United!” is seen on a building in Quebec as public sector workers strike on November 21, 2023, in Montreal, Canada. (Mathiew Leiser / AFP via Getty Images)

This winter saw one of the biggest strikes in Canadian history.

Roughly 560,000 public sector workers in Quebec’s multiunion coalition Common Front (Front commun) hit the picket lines in a series of job actions. These historic strikes saw education and health care workers walk off the job in a series of work stoppages to fight back against insulting wage offers, deteriorating public services, and a government committed to austerity.

Four union federations — Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ), and Alliance du personnel professionnel et technique de la santé et des services sociaux (APTS) — struck for eleven days in total in November and December, including a seven-day general strike between December 8-14. Striking teachers even blocked the ports of Montreal and Quebec City on December 21 as talks with the province dragged on.

The Common Front Coalition

The four Common Front unions represent over 420,000 public sector workers across a range of services and workplaces.

Outside of the coalition, unions representing 66,000 teachers (Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, or FAE) and 80,000 nurses (Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec, or FIQ) were simultaneously bargaining with the province and engaged in their own strikes and job actions.

In total, over a million workers were struggling for new contracts with the province, with well over half a million — 6 percent of Quebec’s population — on strike at one point or another. Teachers in the FAE struck for twenty-two days, closing roughly 800 schools across the province. As Benoit Renaud argued before workers officially hit the streets, the Common Front struggle represented the confluence of three interrelated dynamics.

In total, over a million workers were struggling for new contracts with the province, with well over half a million — 6 percent of Québec’s population — on strike at one point or another.

The public sector worker uprising was provoked by a government that has pursued a project of austerity since its election in 2018. The right-wing Future of Québec Coalition (Coalition avenir Québec, or CAQ), which includes many former private sector executives, ratified its last collective agreements with the public sector unions separately during the COVID-19 pandemic. These three-year deals, while underwhelming, were largely holdovers for both sides. The CAQ, it seemed, was preparing for a more concerted showdown with the unions in 2023. Anticipating this, the four labor organizations formed a coalition called Common Front to bargain and organize together.

Renaud identifies the strikes as “the accumulated frustration and outrage of public sector workers after decades of neglect and the slow erosion of public services.” As in the rest of Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated these issues.

Furthermore, the strikes were shaped by the broad public support for those workers engaged in job action. While the Quebec public is perhaps more labor-friendly than publics in other Canadian provinces, the level of support for the teachers, health care workers, and other public servants on strike this time around was especially significant. In part, this can be explained by the unions effectively connecting their struggle with the desire for better resourced and staffed public services.

The Art of Bargaining

When talks began in 2022, the unions flatly rejected the government’s initial offer of a 9 percent wage increase over five years. At the time, the government was also seeking concessions in the area of pensions. Throughout the following months, bargaining seemed to be headed nowhere, until strike action was in the offing.

After several strike days, the government raised its offer to 12.7 percent, a figure unacceptable to the unions who had entered the strike seeking wages slightly above the rate of inflation.

A “deal in principle” between the Common Front unions and the government was announced on January 7, containing a 17.4 percent wage increase over five years with 6 percent in the first year of the contract. Newer teachers in the Fédération des syndicats de l’enseignement (FSE-CSQ) could see salary increases of between 20 and 24 percent. Additional gains were made across unions on vacation time, parental leave, and extended health benefits. Had this tentative agreement not been reached, the Common Front unions could very well have begun an unlimited general strike starting in the new year.

A tentative deal reached with teachers in the FAE in late December also included an average wage increase of 17.4 percent over five years for teachers, as well as boosts in public funding to address workload and provide additional funds for students with specialized needs, including the hiring of four thousand classroom aides.

The historic Common Front strikes managed to beat back the right-wing CAQ government’s demands for concessions and inflation-adjusted wage cuts.

However, the deal with these teachers outside the Common Front may not yet be fully secured. As of last week, leaders of several of the unions affiliated with the FAE were reported to be advising their members to vote against the tentative agreement reached with the government. According to the union leaders, the deal still fails to adequately address workers’ concerns about class size and composition. These vote results won’t be announced until February 7.

The Common Front unions, meanwhile, will hold general assemblies to discuss and vote on their agreements between January 15 and February 19. Unfortunately, nurses and other health care workers with the FIQ remain without a deal, despite provincial conciliation. The union maintains its strike mandate, though at this point it hasn’t called for further job action.

On the whole, the historic Common Front strikes managed to beat back the right-wing CAQ government’s demands for concessions and inflation-adjusted wage cuts.

Mobilization was key before and during the strike days called in November and December. Ahead of the strikes, over one hundred thousand public sector workers and allies demonstrated in Montreal on September 23, a prelude to the eventual work stoppages that would see over four times that many workers on picket lines.

A Historic Labor Uprising

Gender and social reproduction played a central role in the strikes as well. Unsurprisingly, given the sectors and workplaces represented, 78 percent of Common Front union members are women, many underpaid and burned out. Half of teachers leave the profession within five years, while those in health care are burning out from overwork in the aftermath of the pandemic. These dire conditions likely increased public sympathy, even as mass work stoppages disrupted schools, hospitals, and other public facilities.

It’s hard to exaggerate the scale and size of this withdrawal of labor. Canada as a whole hasn’t seen this many workers on strike in one year since 1987 when the country had a population 14.3 million people fewer. In most years over the past two decades, it’s not uncommon for fewer than one hundred thousand workers to go on strike across the entire country.

Strikes in Canada have been on a downward trend for decades, though less dramatically so than in the United States. The decline in private sector union density due to globalization and outsourcing, and the attacks on public sector unions resulting from austerity measures, have significantly undermined labor’s bargaining power and willingness to strike.

While Quebec has experienced similar trends, the decline in labor’s power within the province has been less severe than nationally. Total work stoppages in Quebec dipped in the decade between 2005 and 2015 but have since largely returned to levels observed in the late 1990s, with the exception of the period preceding and during the pandemic.

The most notable thing about strike figures is Canada is the share of work stoppages that take place in Quebec. Since 1997, nearly 43 percent of Canadian strikes have happened in Quebec, despite the province accounting for only 22 percent of the Canadian population in 2023. Over the past decade, the province’s share of strikes has been even more remarkable: since 2013, Quebec accounts for over 61 percent of Canadian strikes.

Put simply, workers and unions in Quebec remain much more willing to strike than their counterparts in the rest of Canada. And when all the figures are in, the Common Front strikes involving well over half a million workers will make 2023 an historic year. This willingness to strike managed to win workers significant wage increases and, at least temporarily, halted the assault of the province’s conservative government.

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