Quebec public sector strikes: Legault says he’s ready to increase offer

Click to play video: 'Quebec public sector strike: nurses take to the streets'
Quebec public sector strike: nurses take to the streets
The number of public sectors workers hitting the picket line in Quebec has topped 500,000. Thousands of nurse and teachers join are the latest unions to demand better pay and working conditions. Global's Brayden Jagger Haines reports – Nov 23, 2023

For the first time since Quebec’s public sector unions began strike action earlier this month, Quebec Premier François Legault said clearly on Thursday he is willing to increase his government’s offer.

But, he said, unions need to show more “flexibility,” particularly around work schedules, adding that the current round of negotiations will be decisive for the future of the health and education networks and their ability to provide efficient services.

Legault said too many past governments rushed to settle issues around salary increases and failed to press the unions on how work is organized.

“Come to the negotiation table,” he said in a message to the unions, whose 570,000 members were on strike Thursday. “In exchange for this flexibility, we are ready to enhance our offer.” However, he wouldn’t say how much more he was willing to put on the table.

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Flexibility, Legault said, comes in the form of teachers accepting class assignment in May rather than in August, avoiding a last-minute scramble by school boards to assign teachers to classes. In August, Quebec was missing thousands of teachers weeks before the start of school, but that number was drastically reduced as teachers accepted assignments.

Flexibility for nurses, Legault continued, comes when health authorities can pay nurses extra to take “undesirable” shifts, such as nights, weekends and in remote areas. As well, he said, it should be easier to assign nurses to different hospitals.

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Unions, for their part, say they are willing to negotiate work schedules but won’t do so in public.

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Four unions known by their initials — CSQ, CSN, APTS and FTQ — have formed what they call a “common front” and are striking together. They represent some 420,000 members in the health, education and social services sectors. Thursday was the last day of a three-day strike, following a one-day strike on Nov. 6. Union leaders wouldn’t say what pressure tactics could come next.

“Flexibility, we’ve had it for a long time,” Magali Picard, head of the FTQ, told reporters, in response to Legault. Eric Gingras, president of the CSQ, told the same news conference that the government is using the issue of flexibility to influence the public.

“It works with the population, because by telling them that, it makes us look like we are people who won’t budge — but we are moving. We are in transaction mode.”

Unions have rejected the proposal for a 10.3-per-cent salary increase over five years, a one-time payment of $1,000 to each worker, and an extra three per cent for certain jobs the province says are priorities.

Instead, they want a three-year deal that includes salary increases tied to the inflation rate: two percentage points above inflation in the first year or $100 per week, whichever is more beneficial, followed by three points higher than inflation in the second year and four points higher in the third.

Members of the common front are scheduled to return to work Friday. But the FAE, which represents about 66,000 elementary and secondary school teachers, launched an unlimited general strike on Thursday.

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“Teachers, when they left their classrooms, they left with the idea of staying on the street for as long as it took to reach an agreement,” FAE president Melanie Hubert said Thursday in an interview.

As well, the FIQ, representing about 80,000 nurses and other health-care workers, is on strike until the weekend. Its president, Julie Bouchard, said the premier’s desire for flexibility — allowing nurses to be transferred more easily between health facilities — would create more instability.

“It’s not by moving health-care professionals from one place to another, as they please, as they wish, that we ensure better care and make the network more attractive and retain more people,” Bouchard said.

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