We print below a translation of a supplement to République ouvrière (20 September 2023), newspaper of our comrades of the Trotskyist League in Quebec and Canada. Several public sector strikes have taken place since its publication.
“We’ve run up against a brick wall”, says the Common Front of unionised public sector workers (Info-négo, 11 September). “Working conditions are appalling” was how Magali Picard, president of the Quebec Federation of Labour (FTQ), summarised it. Yes, indeed: overcrowded classrooms, overflowing A&E departments, lack of nurseries, waiting lists everywhere, low wages, compulsory overtime…. Everyone knows it: the whole edifice of public services that came out of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s-70s is falling apart and, if nothing changes, it will only get worse. The “solutions” offered by Quebec premier François Legault and his ministers, who all look like they stepped out of an Elvis Gratton film, consist in further increasing workloads and cutting spending while trying to divert attention by whipping up collective hysteria against vulnerable groups like immigrants and trans people. As for the parliamentary “opposition”, it couldn’t be more pathetic and, as things stand, nothing and no one is offering a serious alternative.
The 600,000 members of the Common Front, the FIQ healthcare union federation and the FAE teachers union have demonstrated their will to fight, and the population as a whole can and must be mobilised in support of their cause. Wage increases of 20 per cent, defence of pensions, improvements in working conditions are all minimal, eminently just demands, and mobilising the largest Common Front in 50 years is certainly a good starting point. But how do we win this battle? Even though the CAQ [governing Coalition Avenir Quebec] is currently lurching from one crisis to the next, Legault’s anti-working-class, anti-union government will give up nothing unless it faces losing everything. So the Common Front’s current fight must aim at nothing less than turning the tide and breaking this reactionary government!
To start with, it is necessary to recognise that the government on the one hand and the workers on the other have antagonistic interests. The interest of the Legault government is to make Quebec’s economic and social machinery work in accordance with its programme of more “autonomy” in the framework of Canadian federalism and the imperialist world system. Its interest, therefore, is to cut wages and all expenditure that affects its deficit and credit rating. The interest of workers is to defend their living and working conditions and to obtain free, quality public services for the whole population.
The unions are now balloting for strikes, which is obviously essential — but the question posed is what strategy is needed to counter the government’s weapons? The government’s main argument against the unions is that Quebec hasn’t got the money. “There comes a point when you have to be reasonable”, complained François Legault, accusing unions of wanting “Labatt Blue [a popular beer] for everyone”. Wielding the straw-man arguments of budget deficits and tax increases in an attempt to rally the population against public sector workers is a tactic as old as the hills. And it’s a tactic that works because the response of the workers movement to date has always been in the same framework of what is in the interest of the “Québécois state”. In that way, the union leaders yield the battlefield to the employer in advance, limiting their strategy to what is achievable within the government’s budgetary constraints, suggesting merely a better allocation of resources, reversing tax cuts or acting more “ethically”: “If the government wants to be a good employer, as it claims, that has to be reflected in its pay offers” (Info-négo, 11 September).
But even achieving the basic objectives of the Common Front poses the need to break with this logic. In other words, there will be no real improvements in working conditions in the public sector short of an all-out fight against the interests of Legault and the Québécois capitalist class that he represents. And with a unionisation rate of 40 per cent in Quebec, one of the highest in the world, and 85 per cent in the public sector, it should not be too hard for the working class to impose its will. However, for more than 40 years, public sector unions have gone instead from one defeat to the next, and that bodes nothing good for 2023 either. The main cause of this state of affairs is the principle of “concertation” [social dialogue] that all the union leaders bow to.
This strategy of “concertation” is rooted in the belief that the Québécois nation as a whole — workers and bosses — shares common interests. But while the creation of a Quebec state was indeed an elementary defensive measure against the oppression of all Québécois by the anglophone imperialist rulers, that does not mean that the fundamental contradiction between workers and bosses has disappeared. Regardless of which party is in power, the Quebec “state” (in reality a province of the Canadian oppressor state) remains the instrument of the employers, never of the workers; if that were not the case, the public services crisis would have been sorted long ago!
The Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the world economic crisis continue to have a devastating impact on the population, in Quebec as elsewhere. We are living in an increasingly unstable period, in which neoliberal globalisation, dominated by the US, has begun to crumble. That means that attacks on the working class will be intensified worldwide, while the great powers and their lackeys jockey for position and look to make workers and the poorest foot the bill. So, reviving a workers movement that knows how to defend itself is vital here and now. To win, however, the workers movement requires a leadership based on the understanding that the interests of the working class and those of the bosses are irreconcilable.
The real lessons of the Quiet Revolution
Clearly, the concept of “concertation” did not fall from the sky. After 200 years of humiliating national oppression at the hands of the Anglo-American exploiters, supported by the Catholic Church, the Québécois nation was able to rise and make giant strides thanks to the reforms overseen by the Quebec governments of the 1960s and 1970s. But the real driving force behind those upheavals was the working class. If the Quiet Revolution did not lead to the national and social liberation that it promised, it’s precisely because the workers movement was subordinated to the bourgeois elites and nationalist political parties, who obstructed the progressive advances of the Quiet Revolution at every step.
Relying on the power of Québécois workers to force concessions from the anglophone imperialists, those in government at the same time held the movement back because they had no intention of ever challenging the fundamental cause of Quebec’s national oppression and the exploitation of workers: the world imperialist system.
The weakening of the national liberation struggle and the decay of public services both have their origin in the defeats suffered by the Quebec working class at the hands of the Québécois nationalist elites. The attacks on public sector unions by the Lévesque government in 1982-83 were the turning point. But the defeat of the unions in that period, which foreshadowed all subsequent ones, was first and foremost a result of the union leaders’ political support, open or implicit, to the Parti Québécois (PQ) in the 1970s and 1980s. That support was the very origin of the unions’ policy of “concertation”. This Québécois nationalist party of the bosses claimed to be “favourably inclined towards workers” precisely in order to shackle and control the Quebec working class. That was an essential plank of the PQ’s “sovereignty-association” strategy, which ultimately achieved only the loss of two independence referendums and the imposition of neoliberal austerity on the working class! With their political support to the PQ, the union leaders of that time did nothing but sabotage the national and social liberation struggle and therefore bear full responsibility for the appalling conditions today!
What was needed instead was a party of the working class fighting to wrest the leadership of the national and social liberation struggle from the hands of the nationalist establishment represented by the PQ (and Jean Lesage’s Liberal Party before that). But the Marxist left during the Quiet Revolution never rose to the task of providing such an alternative — either shooting itself in the foot by denying the progressive character of the struggle for Quebec independence (like the Communist Party or the Maoists) or capitulating to the union bureaucracy, like most of the Trotskyists, or both at once. And the Quebec left today, be they federalist (Fightback or the Communist Party-Clarté) or nationalist (the nationalist wing of the Communist Party of Quebec, or l’aut’ journal), do essentially the same thing.
At the end of the day, the actual outcome of the Quiet Revolution is that the “Québécois state” remains a province subordinated to Canadian and American imperialism. It is not the “state of all the Québécois”; it is the instrument of the simpering, cheap Québécois bourgeoisie, subordinated to the federal government, which will lick the boots of Wall Street a million times over before lifting a finger to liberate Quebec. By preaching “concertation” with this, the current union leaders and their supporters in the left continue to chain workers not only to Legault and “their own” bosses but also to the capitalist oppressors in English Canada and the United States!
For the revival of the union movement!
The union leaders’ central complaint against the Legault government in the current negotiations is that it doesn’t respect its employees and doesn’t negotiate “in good faith”. But the state, as boss, just like any other employer in a capitalist system, seeks to get as much as possible out of the labour power of its workers at the lowest possible cost. It’s not a question of morality or ill will but a question of economic interests, pure and simple.
It’s up to the union movement to ensure its interests are respected: for massive wage increases, decent working conditions, health and safety, etc. It is necessary to counter the power of the bosses — their economic blackmail, their slanders and threat of repression — with the brute force of the workers movement, with the weapons of the working class: strikes, occupations, mass picket lines, etc. But these elementary tactics of trade union struggle will only be effective if they are wielded as weapons in the war between the working class and the capitalists, and not to win the “respect” and “consideration” of this anti-union government! In short, if the current Common Front is to win the battle, it must aim to break the government!
Another argument used by union leaders in the negotiations is that workers made sacrifices in the pandemic, so they should now be compensated for their efforts. But who was it that made workers swallow such sacrifices if not these same union bureaucracies? Indeed, buying the moral argument of “saving lives” made by government leaders like Trudeau and Legault (who wanted above all to get through the crisis at the lowest possible economic and social cost), they acted as an adjunct to the government, imposing lockdowns and longer working hours on their members. The results have been devastating: job losses, inflation, a housing crisis, a mental health crisis, collapsing healthcare and education systems — and unions in disarray. This fresh betrayal by the union leaders in the pandemic has contributed in no small measure to the current disaster.
Rejecting the moral blackmail of governments all over the world, there was another road possible for the workers movement in the pandemic. That was for the working class to mobilise in action for what was necessary for workers and the population as a whole: more healthcare, more schools, more high-quality (and well-ventilated) buildings, more housing. And that is still what is necessary today! To the hypocritical argument that public sector strikes put lives at risk or sabotage children’s education, we must respond by mobilising all the workers’ allies for better healthcare and quality education accessible to all!
The solution is crystal-clear: the momentum of the workers movement must be restored; it must be revived through breaking with the pro-capitalist leaderships now. To really begin to turn the tide, defend public services, get more quality, affordable housing, and to once again advance the struggle for women’s liberation and for national independence, it is necessary to rally the most conscious union militants and form them into a revolutionary opposition to the existing bureaucracies. It is necessary to build a new leadership which fights not only to achieve the national and social liberation promised by the Quiet Revolution but at the same time to defend the most basic gains right now! That is the perspective that the Trotskyist League in Quebec and Canada puts forward as we struggle to build a revolutionary party that fights for a workers republic. In the absence of such an alternative, it is clear that things will only get worse.
Return to “fighting unionism”?
The entire Quebec left is also being put to the test. But in terms of the strategies they put forward, it’s rather pathetic. The largest Marxist group in Quebec at present, Fightback, explicitly rejects the struggle for a revolutionary leadership of the unions on the pretext that the left is “too small” (“Fightback’s Perspectives 2023”, marxist.ca, 21 April). Instead, Fightback is agitating inside the unions for a return to the “fighting unionism” of the 1970s, accusing the more conservative bureaucrats of “business unionism” while giving support to the “left” union leaders who echo their perspective, such as the Montreal Central Council of the Confederation of National Unions.
Obviously, a bit of the fighting spirit of May 1972 would not hurt! But in itself, the policy of “fighting unionism” offers no prospect of victory because in essence it simply cheers on “pure” trade union militancy. The idea that it is possible to win more piecemeal gains for workers with simple “shop floor” trade union militancy is a dead end: the bosses are organised up to the highest levels of the state, they have leaders, they have the police and armies if necessary and they will always attempt to take back with the right hand whatever they give with the left. To win, workers need organisers who know how to counter the bosses’ manoeuvres, a general staff that understands that you need to enter every battle with the aim of winning the war — all things that narrow, disorganised “fighting unionism” is not capable of providing.
Even a small communist organisation must stand in intransigent opposition to the treacherous workers leaders — right and “left” — and demonstrate the necessity of a revolutionary leadership now, otherwise it can only help to further subordinate the workers to the pro-capitalist bureaucracies. Fighting unionism fizzled out in the 1970s precisely because it did not represent an alternative to the bourgeois-nationalist union bureaucracies, nor to the leadership of the national liberation movement as a whole. There is no need to replay this film.
Québéc Solidaire — sham opposition
At the parliamentary level, Québéc Solidaire (QS) claims to support public sector workers and in general to oppose the private sector in education and health, priding itself on having put forward the housing and cost-of-living problems. According to Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the CAQ is “inconsistent” and doesn’t understand “real world” problems. Fine, but while a fight to the finish between the government and the unions is in the offing, while the task of the hour is precisely to get rid of this anti-union government, QS just bangs on about the obvious and whines that Mr Legault is out of touch or not charitable enough. In other words, looking to QS to win anything concrete is like trying to put out a forest fire with water balloons.
While the left wing of QS might like the party to go out into the streets and be more “anti-capitalist”, the reality is that a party of the Montreal middle class like QS has no serious weapons with which to fight the Quebec bosses who stand behind the CAQ. Like the union leaders, QS’s “opposition” consists fundamentally in seeking to regenerate the present day “Québécois state”. But every advance of the working class, even the most partial reforms, necessarily collides with the interests of the capitalist class and can only be won in opposition to it.
QS’s entire programme, based on the lie that it is possible to reconcile those interests by administering the state, constitutes an obstacle to the independent mobilisation of the workers against the bosses, the only way to advance their fundamental interests. The basic lesson of the Quiet Revolution is precisely that if the workers movement is chained to a party that does not represent its interests but those of a different class (in the case of QS, the small bosses, Montreal’s Rosemont and Plateau bobos [yuppies] and the soup kitchens), it will run straight into a wall.
A socialist programme to get out of the crisis
So, how do we turn things around now? The best and only way to get Quebec out of its slump is to organise a real struggle against the mononcles who govern Quebec! The aim of the Common Front strikes must not be simply to bring Legault back to the negotiating table in order to get a few more percentage points, but rather to organise a real confrontation that would mobilise the whole of Quebec society against this government which is the obstacle to any social progress! There’s no shortage of reasons and there is true potential to rally millions of people behind a real fight for quality education and healthcare.
That includes an intransigent struggle to advance the condition of women. The issues of labour shortages, long working hours and compulsory overtime all point to the reality of women’s oppression in the capitalist system: replicating her role in the nuclear family — caring for children, the elderly and everyone else — the government treats the woman employee as the lowest of its servants. Necessary and vital measures — such as banning all forms of compulsory overtime for healthcare workers, organising mass hiring and training of new immigrants and the unemployed under union control, taking over and expropriating the private clinics and schools, demanding a shorter working week (with no loss in pay) and massive investment in infrastructure and services — are, or should be, basic goals of the trade union movement. But what is the immediate obstacle to drastically increasing investment in public services and halting the decline in the status of women? It is the reactionary Legault government! The key to even beginning to tackle these questions lies precisely in the need to shatter the CAQ government.
The whole problem, however, is that the union bureaucrats (who make plenty of nice speeches in defence of women and public services) refuse to organise the struggle with this goal in mind because they accept that it is the bosses who rule. In order to win, the workers movement must reject the politics of “concertation” and the leaders who promote them and equip itself with a new, revolutionary leadership which can fight for the immediate interests of the workers, male and female, as it fights at the same time for the general interest of the whole working class in Quebec and worldwide. Its rallying cry must be: For a workers republic in Quebec! For international socialism!
Down with “concertation” with the government — kick out the CAQ mononcles! Public services must belong to the workers: seize them! For a revolutionary leadership of the trade unions! No confidence in the capitalist and nationalist parties — CAQ, PLQ, PQ, QS — for an anti-imperialist workers party that fights for independence and socialism!