Legault in a jam against teachers and nurses
Quebecers are caught in a high-stakes game of chicken. Who will yield first — the government, or the “common front” of unions representing over 400,000 public sector workers, including teachers and health-care professionals?
Union members took to the streets last week for a series of strikes to press their contract demands, which include higher wages and better working conditions. The government has offered them a pay hike of 10 per cent over five years, which the unions say is not enough, as it doesn't even cover inflation.
Like many of these labour negotiations, public opinion plays a key role in determining how stubbornly the government can dig in its heels.
Many people may not be too fond of union tactics or the brash persona of some of their leaders, but almost everybody believes nurses and teachers deserve better pay. But to pay them what they deserve, the government must find the money in its budget, and, of course, taxpayers ultimately foot the bill. The government is caught in the paradox between the cost to taxpayers of absorbing a big increase in public sector salaries, and the belief by those same taxpayers that these professions need to be paid more.
So what can we expect from Premier François Legault, who is no stranger to the “divide and conquer” approach?
Despite naming a conciliator to try to bring the two sides together, Legault's political calculation is likely that a protracted strike will help the government side. General strikes are disruptive and often inconvenient to many, as we saw last week with working parents scrambling to make arrangements for their kids, and elective hospital procedures being cancelled. If this continues indefinitely, public support for union members could wane and allow the government to hold firm, pass backto-work legislation and claim it is committed to protecting the public purse.
But that likely would be a major miscalculation. It's hard to see how Legault can score any PR points by portraying himself as a protector of the taxpayer, given the number of ill-timed initiatives recently that have dealt a severe blow to his credibility.
Voting to raise MNAS salaries by 30 per cent never looks good, but is especially foolish amid contentious public sector negotiations. Another shot in the foot is the $5 million to $7 million the government is spending for the L.A. Kings to play two pre-season games in Quebec City. The idea might sound good over a beer as a way to get the NHL to expand to the provincial capital. But paying L.A. a king's ransom for a couple of meaningless games — especially after the Habs offered to play for nothing — is tone deaf when many Quebecers cannot afford groceries. And there was talk this week about that multibillion-dollar “third link” tunnel again, a shameless attempt to win back voter support in the capital region after Legault's broken campaign promise.
All this severely weakens any negotiating leverage Legault might hope to garner through public opinion. But he also seems to be missing the most important point of all:
The quality of our critical education and health-care sectors and their ability to attract qualified personnel cannot afford to be weakened any further; otherwise, there is a risk of creating more social and economic damage. Employees who feel more valued are more productive. Investing in a more motivated public workforce — instead of one that feels cheated and underpaid — will pay long-term dividends. This trickle-down economic effect far outweighs the cost of current salary demands.
Time for Legault to read the room, take the high road and yield a win to workers. In the long run, everyone would benefit.
Robert Libman is an architect and planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-st-luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election. twitter.com/robertlibman