With Quebec’s public schools closed for the majority of the week, Danielle Desrosiers fears not only for her daughter’s educational success, but also her well-being.
Her 21-year-old daughter has special needs and attends Wagar Adult Education Centre in Côte Saint-Luc, a city on the island of Montreal.
A provincewide public sector strike that started Tuesday morning is keeping schools like hers closed until Thursday and maybe even longer in some parts of the province.
“For my daughter, it’s all about routine and structure and this really interrupts her well-being,” Desrosiers said.
Some 420,000 members of a group of Quebec public sector unions known as the common front — Front commun — walked off the job Tuesday, launching a three-day strike that will affect the province’s health, education and social service networks.
WATCH | Why public sector workers are striking:
Demonstrations are taking place outside schools, hospitals and other public buildings across the province, including in Montreal, Sherbrooke, Saguenay, Quebec City and in the Outaouais region. The strike is scheduled to last until 11:59 p.m. Thursday.
Desrosiers says she’s “all for” the teachers striking, but hopes they’ll be able to come to an agreement with the government as soon as possible.
“Give teachers what they deserve. That’s what I’m trying to drive home,” she said.
Steven Le Sueur, president of the Quebec Professional Association of Teachers, said unions have been trying to negotiate for a year, yet they’re “nowhere close” to a new collective agreement with the government.
“We’ve cut our demands down and they’re not respecting what we’ve put on the table,” he said from the picket line Tuesday.
Le Sueur is asking parents to be patient with the strike actions, because “all this is going to hopefully make your children more successful at school.”
The common front is made up of the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ), the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), the Alliance du personnel professionnel et technique de la santé et des services sociaux (APTS) and the Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ).
Anne Dionne, co-vice-president of the CSQ, joined about 50 union members carrying signs and chanting slogans outside the Centre de services scolaire des Portages-de-l’Outaouais.
She said workers are in a tough situation and says the strike is intended to “save the education system.”
“Strikes aren’t easy. It’s not easy for [workers] to sacrifice three days’ pay, and they, too, have to reorganize, because most of them are parents,” said Dionne.
She said the idea is not to continue striking, “but to reach a settlement.”
“Working conditions must be improved,” said Dionne. “As for wages, the least we can do is keep up with inflation.”
Speaking to reporters outside Irénée-Lussier high school in Montreal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood, heads of a major union representing Quebec’s school support staff said those members have the lowest salaries in the entire education network. They said 12 per cent of them relying on food banks.
“What we’re hearing is the sound of anger from workers,” said Frédéric Brun, vice-president of the Fédération des employées et employés de services publics (FEESP – CSN), referencing the noisy crowd behind him waving flags, blowing horns and prompting honks from vehicles passing by.
“[The government] has to think about what’s important. Is it more important right now to invest in getting the Los Angeles Kings [to come play here] next year for $6-7 million or to invest in education?”
A union that isn’t part of the common front, the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ) — which represents 80,000 nurses, licensed practical nurses, respiratory therapists and other health professionals — will be striking on Thursday and Friday.
Another union, the 65,000-member Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE), will be on strike indefinitely as of Thursday. That strike includes teachers at several school boards across Quebec, including Montreal’s largest French-language school service centre, the Centre de services scolaire de Montréal (CSSDM).
However, many of those school boards, including the CSSDM, were already closed Tuesday because support staff walked off the job as part of the common front strike.
The FAE said even though their members will stop drawing their salaries during the strike, they’re ready to stay on strike for as long as it takes.
Conciliator appointed for common front negotiations
Less than 24 hours before the strike began Tuesday, Quebec’s labour minister Jean Boulet announced a conciliator was being called in to help contract negotiations with the group of unions that make up the common front. The move came at the group’s request.
The FAE and the FIQ are not currently requesting a conciliator.
The common front has rejected Quebec’s latest contract offer — a 10.3 per cent salary increase over five years and a one-time payment of $1,000 to each worker.
Unions haven’t said publicly whether they’ve made a counter-proposal, but their previous demands have included a three-year contract with annual increases tied to the inflation rate.
While the conciliator will assist with the negotiations, their recommendations won’t be binding.
And regardless of what the unions want or the conciliator recommends, Quebec Treasury Board President Sonia LeBel said there are some demands the province simply cannot meet due to staffing shortages.
LeBel said she does not have any teachers to add overnight, but she is offering to put teaching aides in classes instead.
CSQ president Éric Gingras said negotiations are happening more in the media and online than at the appropriate tables.
François Enault, who is with the CSN, said the conciliator will put pressure on both sides to set dates, meet and “try to find some solutions.”