Quebec’s labour movement is gearing up ahead of the October election as it faces the prospect of another four years with limited influence in the provincial government.
Almost 40 per cent of workers in Quebec are unionized, yet the two parties leading in opinion polls are considered far from union-friendly.
The governing Liberals triggered deep cuts in the health and education sectors early in their mandate.
And while the Coalition Avenir Québec, which is first in the polls, has tempered its previously strident position against unions, that has not assuaged workers’ concerns about the party’s intentions if it obtains power.
“We have the Liberals on one side, they plunged us into austerity and attacked our members,” said Marc Ranger, head of the Quebec branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. “And the Coalition has a disastrous agenda that wants to privatize everything.”
“It’s our job to mobilize our troops.”
While Quebec is known across Canada for its workers’ penchant to take to the streets, big labour’s influence has been declining for years, says Mona-Josée Gagnon, a professor of sociology at Université de Montréal and an expert on organized labour.
“We barely even talk about unions in the media anymore,” she said in an interview. “It reflects the weakening, in general, of trade unionism.”
In Quebec’s universities, professors with expertise on the labour movement who retire are not being replaced, Gagnon said. “The union movement at the university is also in decline.”
Ranger rejects her assessment.
“At 40 per cent unionized, the movement is in good shape,” he said. “But it has to continue to show its pertinence.”
Even though Ranger wants to battle the Liberals and the Coalition, electoral rules limit his manoeuvres.
Third parties such as unions are forbidden from spending money to influence an election or from openly stumping on behalf of candidates during the official campaign period.
Premier Philippe Couillard announced Saturday the campaign will officially begin Aug. 23, leaving Ranger and other labour leaders little time ahead of the Oct. 1 election to remind people of the “danger” in voting for either the Liberals or the Coalition.
“I think the law is too restrictive,” Ranger said. “Candidates can say whatever they want, journalists and columnists can take positions. But unions are told to ‘stay away from politics. Shut up, you’re not invited.'”
“But I think we are invited and we should participate in this debate.”
Ranger’s union and other labour groups have targeted 14 ridings where they think they can prevent the Liberals or Coalition from winning and will instead help members of the Parti Québécois or the left-wing Québec solidaire be elected.
Unions can hold news conferences and individual members can volunteer their time to make calls or ring doorbells, but that’s pretty much all they can do, Ranger said.
Despite the alleged decline in union influence, however, Quebecers are not shy about mobilizing in order to pressure politicians.
In 2012, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to support university students who rejected increases in tuition. The Liberal government lost that year’s election to the PQ, which had promised to cancel the planned increase and bring back social peace.
Most recently, federal Conservative MP Maxime Bernier learned about the union movement the hard way when he went up against the province’s farmers in demanding an end to the supply management system, which controls price and volume of products such as dairy and poultry.
Jacques Roy, a dairy farmer south of Quebec City, launched an anti-Bernier Facebook group that quickly grew to 10,000 members. He persuaded people across the province to buy memberships in the Tory party and vote for Bernier’s rival, Andrew Scheer, who won.
“It worked very well,” Roy said in an interview.
As for the Coalition, its 2018 platform does not include past promises considered anti-union such as forcing workers to have a secret ballot when deciding whether to form or to maintain a union. The party also wanted to legally force unions to release their financial information.
Party spokesman Ewan Sauves confirmed those policies are no longer in the 2018 platform, yet “they remain objectives we hope to achieve.”
The two parties traditionally closer to unions are the PQ and Québec solidaire, even though past PQ governments have also slashed public spending to reduce the province’s debt.
PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée has positioned his party as the big-government choice for voters, pledging to increase public financing in hospitals, schools and other services.
His party’s platform includes the long-held demand by unions: a $15 minimum wage. The PQ also wants to create a “social contract between work and capital” that encourages worker participation in the “benefits and governance of companies.”