Quebec general strike ends after government orders workers back to work

The provincial government of Quebec on May 30 passed legislation ordering 175,000 striking construction workers back to work.

A general strike by construction workers that began on May 24 had shut down building projects both large and small all over the province of Quebec.

Workers walked off their jobs after negotiations between their bargaining representative Alliance Syndicale-Constuction (AS) and the construction employers’ association could not reach an agreement on a new contract.

According to AS, the employers’ association was seeking concessions that would among other things disrupt workers’ family lives and keep them at the beck and call of their employers during their time away from work.

“Employers are asking us to sacrifice time with our families to be available at work. There are limits on what you can ask of your workers, and those limits have been reached, “said Michel Trépanier, an AS spokesperson, explaining why the workers were on strike.

After the strike began negotiations between AS and the employers’ association continued, but Trépanier said that the employers did not take the negotiations seriously and instead pinned their hopes of ending the strike on a public relations campaign.

“We were laughed at,” said Trépanier describing the employers attitude toward the negotiations to the Toronto Star.

After AS broke off negotiations, an employers’ association spokesman told the media that he was surprised that AS decided to walk away from bargaining because the employers’ association had offered the workers a win-win compromise on the family time issue.

But Trépanier said that the employers’ offer was no compromise because it still required workers to be on call during much of their free time.

Perhaps one reason that employers did not take the negotiations seriously was because they knew from past experience that the government would step in to end the strike if negotiations could not produce an agreement.

After all, in 2013, Quebec’s National Assembly ended another construction workers strike by ordering the workers back to work under similar circumstances.

And that’s what happened again in 2017.

Shortly after negotiations broke off, Quebec’s Prime Minister Phillipe Couillard announced that he would seek passage of a back to work order from Quebec’s National Assembly.

AS called on its members to gather at the Assembly on May 29 to demonstrate their opposition to a back to work order.

When the National Assembly convened,  construction workers were on hand to demonstrate against Couillard’s proposal.

CBC News reported that, “riot police were called to monitor the boisterous crowd, which threw beer cans and urinated on the nearby press gallery building before thinning out by mid-afternoon.”

“People are angry, really angry,” said Trépanier to CBC, because Prime Minister Couillard’s proposal “contains exactly what the owners want.”

The demonstration caused the bill to be pulled down and reworked, but on May 30, the National Assembly passed a reworked back to work order, Bill 142,  that still gives employers much of what they wanted.

In addition to forcing workers to return to work, the bill gives workers a 1.8 percent pay increase, slightly more than the 1.6 percent raise proposed by employers but much less than the 2.6 percent raise proposed by AS.

It also requires the two sides to continue negotiating other issues under the guidance of a mediator.

It sets a five-month time limit on the negotiations. If the two sides can’t reach an agreement by then, the outstanding issues will be decided by arbitration.

Construction workers returned to work on May 31, but some were not happy with the bill that ended the strike.

“Arbitration takes away the conditions that we fought so hard for,” said Sylvain Boivin, a union representative for steelworkers to CBC. “It isn’t fair play, it benefits employers more than the unions.”

“We shouldn’t have been here today,” said Damien Leblanc, a construction worker at a work site explaining how he felt about the end of the strike to CBC.

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