MONTREAL — Striking Quebec public sector unions said Wednesday they were hopeful a recently appointed conciliator will help advance contract negotiations with the government, but both sides accused each other of refusing to compromise.
Four unions representing around 420,000 workers, including teachers and health-care staff, were on Day 2 of a three-day strike that has shut schools and delayed surgeries. Calling themselves the "common front," the four unions said they see a "momentum" in negotiations.
A conciliator met with common front leadership Monday and was still at work on Tuesday, with the assistance of a second conciliator, said François Enault, a vice-president of the Confederation of National Trade Unions, a common front member. Discussions are set to resume on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday in Quebec City, he told reporters.
"What we've been hearing since (Tuesday) — nothing has been settled — but at the very least, a momentum is building," Enault said. "The conciliators are doing the job that we wanted them to do, to get the government to sit down and give us answers that we've been waiting months for."
Thousands more workers are set to join the common front on the picket lines. Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec, which represents 80,000 nurses and other health-care staff, plans to strike Thursday and Friday, further disrupting the health network. As well, 65,000 teachers with Fédération Autonome de l'Enseignement are launching an unlimited general strike Thursday.
Éric Gingras, president of Centrale des syndicats du Québec, a common front member, told reporters Wednesday the government is negotiating in public.
"The government has been talking through social media, through media, about getting a deal done before Christmas, but at (the bargaining table) we don't see that willpower," Gingras said.
Unions have rejected the government's most recent contract offer — which includes a 10.3-per-cent salary increase over five years and a one-time payment of $1,000 to each worker. They want a three-year deal that includes salary increases tied to the inflation rate: two percentage points above inflation in the first year or $100 per week, whichever is more beneficial, followed by three points higher in the second year and four points higher in the third.
In Quebec City, Premier François Legault said that while the work of teachers and nurses is extremely important, the government doesn't have the money to meet their demands. The province's offer, he said, is equivalent to 14.8 per cent over five years — including extra increases for the lowest- paid workers and for those who work nights and weekends.
Each additional percentage point increase is worth $600 million in taxpayer money, he told the legislature on Wednesday.
"We forecast that over the length of the next collective agreement, inflation will reach 12.7 per cent. So, we're offering 14.8 per cent. We're open to reviewing the distribution of the 14.8 per cent, but for that the unions have to come to the table," he said.
Common front leaders said it's too early to say what will come after their strike ends Thursday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2023.
Lia Lévesque, The Canadian Press