“Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
– Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity
By Robert Green
There is no question that the teachers of Quebec are angry. Already the lowest paid teachers in Canada, the government’s current salary offer would see Quebec teachers falling even further behind with their inflation-adjusted salaries decreasing by about 7% over 5 years. Of even greater concern is the fact that government is proposing to rid our contract of nearly every clause that protects our working conditions and the learning conditions of our students, from limits on class size to a range of supports for students with special needs.
It is an understatement to suggest that the teachers of Quebec want actions that will pressure government to back away from its most regressive proposals. Most teachers are ready to make personal sacrifices in pursuit of that goal. The question for Quebec’s teachers is: what sort of action will actually be effective in achieving this goal?
A grassroots push to work-to-rule
Last spring the members of the Montreal Teachers Association passed a motion in their annual general meeting stating that the action the members wanted to pursue was a work-to-rule campaign. The sentiment expressed by many MTA members was that the large number of unpaid hours worked by Quebec’s teachers was an enormous source of power. Given that teachers are not paid for enough hours to adequately do their job, withdrawing the volunteer labour done by teachers was seen by many as an effective way to create pressure within the system while avoiding the spectre of back-to-work legislation. Working to rule may not be as effective for other public sector unions but there was a strong sentiment that teachers were in a unique position to create real pressure with this tactic. There was also a feeling expressed that it would be far easier to build and maintain public support through a work-to-rule campaign than through a strike action which would create major inconveniences for families.
A top-down push to strike
From the outset the MTA executive committee has been at best luke-warm to the demands of members for a work-to-rule campaign. Though they have not outright opposed a work-to-rule campaign they have attempted at every opportunity to cast doubt on the efficacy of this tactic. On nearly every occasion that working-to-rule has been discussed in the MTA Reps assembly President Peter Sutherland has made a point of stressing how difficult it is to maintain unity through a work-to-rule campaign and that the potentially ugly task of maintaining this unity would fall on the individual union reps present at the meeting.
As if to drive his point home about how difficult it is to maintain unity in a work-to-rule campaign, Sutherland sent an email to a teacher authorizing that teacher’s school to continue its for-credit ECA program, while the rest of MTA members were being encouraged to forgo ECA’s and the value added pay that goes with them. Fortunately the teachers at that school were able to see what our union President was not: that without a unified approach there is little possibility for working-to-rule to succeed. Those teachers are to be commended for the leadership they showed in refusing the temptation to water down our work-to-rule campaign by breaking the unity of our ECA ban.
Though the unity of MTA members in banning ECA’s was beginning to generate a good deal of positive media coverage, on September 10th, only two weeks after teachers had voted in favour of a work-to-rule campaign and only one week after the launch of QPAT’s social media campaign, the members of the MTA received an electronic memo from Mr Sutherland informing members that “despite our actions, the government has refused to move from any of its positions” and recommending that MTA members vote for 6 days of strike at a general meeting on September 24th.
What is at stake for MTA members if they vote for a strike?
MTA members need to be aware that unlike many other teachers unions across Canada, ours has no strike fund. That means that teachers will receive no compensation whatsoever for the thousands of dollars they stand to lose in lost wages from six days of striking (those near the top of the pay scale stand to lose over $2000). Strike pay not only eases the financial burden on individual union members it also helps ensure that members are active on the picket-line rather than just staying home. The absence of a strike fund will therefore make any strike action that much more challenging for union members.
Is striking an effective tactic for Quebec’s teachers?
Despite the costs and challenges associated with striking I think most teachers would make these sacrifices in a second if they had reason to believe that their sacrifice would result in modest salary increases and the government withdrawing its most egregious attacks on the learning conditions of students. Indeed the information document given to MTA reps regarding the strike vote refers to striking as our “ultimate pressure tactic” and highlights the ongoing financial gains that accrue from salary gains won at the bargaining table.
The question for MTA members to assess is whether salary gains and government concessions on working conditions are a likely outcome of strike action? Or is it more likely we will have our contract dictated to us once again by a special law?
A cursory look at the history of public sector strikes in Quebec reveals that the latter option is the most likely by far. Between 1967 and 2005 Quebec saw 13 rounds of public sector negotiations and the use of 12 special laws to legislate public employees back to work. In the early 80’s a special law resulted in teachers losing indexation of their pensions and being subject to a 20% cut in salary.
The most recent time teachers had their contract dictated to them by a special law was 2005, a time when the economy was booming and government was flush with revenues. Despite the fact that the government could have easily afforded to pay for certain union concessions, it instead opted to immediately pass a special law. The law was passed even before the vast majority of public sector workers had taken their first strike day. This was not an exasperated government responding to an unlimited strike; it was the government’s immediate reflex in response to the very first limited strike actions. It’s sanctions included losses of pay and seniority for defiant union members who continued the strike, as well as heavy fines for union leaders and the unions themselves. Such heavy sanctions not only made it impossible to continue the strike, they also eliminated the possibility of continuing a work-to-rule campaign.
If the Quebec Liberals were so quick to use a special law at a time when government was flush with revenues, it seems unimaginable that a special law would not be in the plans now that there is an actual budget crisis.
A 2014 study of the use of special laws by UQAM researchers Martin Petitclerc and Martin Robert paints a grim picture of the almost non-existent right to strike of public sector workers in Quebec. Petitclerc observes how the use of increasingly draconian special laws in Quebec has come to be viewed by government as “a normal mechanism for managing societal conflicts”. It seems there is little that is “special” about these laws anymore; what was once intended to be an exception to the protections offered by Quebec’s labour code has now become the rule, employed like clockwork every time public sector workers have attempted to exercise the right to strike they thought they had.
If indeed striking is our “ultimate pressure tactic” we are in deep deep trouble because the last several decades have shown with remarkable consistency that the only thing striking has brought teachers is lost pay and one unilaterally imposed contract after another.
Does the 2015 supreme court ruling offer any hope for a successful strike?
In 2015 the Supreme Court of Canada made a ruling with regard to a special law used to legislate public sector workers back to work in Saskatchewan in 2008. The ruling has far reaching implications for labour relations in Canada as it establishes that the right to strike of unionized workers is protected by the Canadian Charter’s freedom of association clause. The ruling restricts government’s ability to label public sector workers as “essential services” and requires it to propose some alternative dispute resolution mechanism such as binding arbitration before resorting to special laws.
While all of this would seem to bode very well, if not for the upcoming strike, then for a subsequent court challenge of the inevitable special law, one must not forget that the government has an ace up its sleeve: the notwithstanding clause. Indeed, it was not four days after the supreme court ruling that Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall was publicly threatening to use the notwithstanding clause in order to continue passing the kind of unfair, anti-democratic back-to-work legislation that was passed by Saskatchewan in 2008. By invoking the notwithstanding clause with the passing of this law the Quebec government would effectively eliminate the possibility of constitutional court challenges by the unions.
Make an informed decision!
In the end the decision of whether or not to strike is up to each union member. Many will be swayed by the fact that large numbers of public sector workers throughout the province have already voted to strike. This is of course an important consideration as solidarity is ultimately the only source of our power. That said, it is important that all union members make an informed decision and think critically about the assertions being made by their union leaders. If historic cycles that have been making things continually worse are ever to be broken, it may be up to the union’s members, not its leadership, to make this happen.