Unions on the front line against the government
As the start of the new parliamentary term in Quebec City fast approaches, it's clear that a number of negotiations with public sector unions are at a standstill. In both the healthcare and education networks, the government is up against centralized labour organizations that are unwilling to give up the fight in this inflationary era.
Since coming to power in 2018, François Legault's CAQ government has not had overly difficult negotiations with public sector unions. Given its healthy public finances and revenue growth, the government has been able to be generous and facilitate a catch-up in pay and benefits over previous administrations. The COVID-19 crisis also made it possible to offer generous wage premiums, while maintaining public support. Nurses and other healthcare employees needed to be helped, and this was seen as a good investment.
With an economic slowdown now in the offing, and the government with less room to maneuver, it is trying to play a tighter game, particularly with employees at its two biggest networks. But at the bargaining table, this is not going down well. Unions remember the $500 cheques sent to millions of Quebecers to offset inflation, as well as recent tax cuts. Coupled with the recent pay rise for MNAs, it's clear that the unions have hardened their positions. Government employees are saying "it's our turn".
Negotiating in Times of Reform
If these were just negotiations in normal times, there would be fewer concerns. But as the current negotiations come at the same time as a huge health reform bill, and major changes in education, it adds a level of complexity. Employees have wage demands, of course, but also a number of issues related to working conditions, the evolution of which are tied to pending legislative changes. For the government, it is difficult even to assess how far it can accommodate union demands without compromising its cautious budgetary forecasts.
If the past is a predictor of the future, we can expect the government to prefer to open the purse strings rather than face strikes or other pressure tactics. The fact remains that Québec taxpayers, who are currently having to tighten their belts themselves, may now be less inclined to accept more favourable treatment for government employees.