More than 10% of Quebec’s labour could be on strike by next week

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As many as 600,000 public workers are in position to go on strike in Quebec, leading to school closures and service disruptions in hospitals across Canada’s second-most populous province.

An alliance of unions representing 420,000 public sector workers in education, health care and social services already walked off the job Friday morning, beginning a planned seven-day strike. It will be the longest walkout of provincial government workers Quebec has seen in 50 years if no agreement is reached to end it early.

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Other unions representing nurses and professionals will also have labour actions next week. That would mean more than 10 per cent of Quebec’s workforce will be on strike at once. There are about 4.8 million people in the province’s labour force.

It’s the latest challenge to face the government of Premier Francois Legault, which has endured a series of political troubles as it struggles to shore up the province’s deteriorating public services without blowing out its budget deficit. Talks between the union alliance, known as the Front Commun, and the government have been at an impasse on key elements for months, and workers have been without a contract since March 31.

On Wednesday, the government increased its offered pay raise to 12.7 per cent over five years from 10.3 per cent, along with a bonus of $1,000 and more incentive pay for sectors with more difficult working conditions such as evening shifts. That proposal, which would add $9 billion to the province’s $60 billion in annual payroll expenses, was immediately rejected by the Front Commun.

“This is very far from what we are asking,” said Magali Picard, a union leader with the Federation des Travailleurs du Quebec, in a press conference in Quebec City Thursday. The unions say they want a pay increase of about 23 per cent over three years to make their salaries more competitive and restore the purchasing power they’ve lost to surging inflation. “We already have difficulty attracting and keeping the workforce we have,” said Picard.

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The government estimates that each percentage point increase to union salaries represents a cost of around $600 million.

“The room is quite limited for the government to continue improving its offer,” said Philippe Gougeon, an economist at the consulting firm AppEco and former chief of staff to Quebec’s finance minister. Any further salary concessions by the government would probably lead to increased borrowing, which would mean pushing out the goal of balancing the budget beyond 2028, he said. “It is already difficult to respect the growth in spending, especially since the government’s economic forecasts are generous compared to the private sector.”

Legault’s political party, the Coalition Avenir Quebec, has been plummeting in polls lately as voters grow frustrated about swelling classroom sizes in schools and growing wait times at hospitals. The government has also been dragged into controversy over a 30 per cent pay rise for members of the provincial legislature and a $5 million grant to the Los Angeles Kings hockey club to have them play two pre-season games in Quebec City next year.

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“I think we could agree on salary increases,” Legault said at a press conference. But he said the unions should help make the labour force more flexible by giving up some of their power to approve things like work schedules and overtime. “It’s not normal that our network is managed by unions rather than managers,” he said.

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