What Strategy for the Big Union Centrals?

Who hasn’t been astonished by the dissonance between the government’s vindictive language guided by the ideology of the “Lucids” [this refers to the signers of a right-wing 2005 manifesto, “Pour un Quebec lucide,” which called for the government of Quebec to implement a range of neoliberal measures — NS] on the one hand, and the cautious and prudent language of the big union centrals on the other?  Who hasn’t tried to understand this?

The real problem isn’t the fact that the dominant economic elites want to once again impose their solutions to the crisis and government deficits.  We only know too well their sense of justice – inextricably linked to their class interests – and we also know that ever since they’ve adopted neoliberalism beginning in the early 1980s, they’ve never been as voracious as now for gains in productivity and wealth they so shamelessly monopolize and deplete.

Therefore it is not surprising in the least that they’re seeking – in alliance with the big banks and other financial institutions – to push, in the name of deficit slaying, for regressive taxation and “fat-trimming.”  They also seek shelter from the costs of getting a devastated economy going again even though they caused the crisis.  It is simply their way of doing things!

A problematic strategy

Instead, the real problem is the unions’ strategy; a strategy buttressed by the whole social movement that was implicated in the spring contract negotiations of this year.  Certainly we cannot plead ignorance to what was to become the inevitable.  Since 2003, Charest’s plans have been well known.  As for the 2010 budget, it was drafted in the wake of the crisis of 2009 whose consequences were indeed predictable. Minister [of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade — NS] Bachand has taken great pains for many months to shine the media spotlight on some “lucid” economists preaching to the choir that it is now time to return to the principles of “user fees” and the “lean” state.

It is very difficult to pretend that Jean Charest’s Liberal Party had abandoned its dreams of “social re-engineering” and learnt to be more attentive to the needs of ordinary Quebecers, while at the same time, 475 000 public employees were under the thumb (up until March 31, 2010) of a wicked law; among the most repressive and anti-democratic laws ever voted in Quebec: Law 43 [which forcibly extended contracts in the public sector from January 2006 until the end of March 2010, and imposed a 33-month wage freeze followed by pay increases below the rate of inflation — NS]

It is even more difficult to pretend…and at the same time present oneself as a defender of public services…without looking downright fickle.  Nevertheless, it is precisely this pretension on which the big unions seem to rest: their endless calls for negotiation and their pressure on nurses to go back to the bargaining table while it is clear that the government has absolutely no intention to do the same.  How can one understand this position?

Unproductive negotiations?

Of course, no one can be against negotiations, but if they are simply a device to force public employees into accepting undignified working conditions and salary cuts, they are useless.  They become unproductive if they privilege those at the top at the expense of mobilization from below, removing the soil on which any social mobilization can grow.  At this rate, the big union centrals risk sacrificing popular mobilization when it will most probably be needed this autumn.  Who will believe it to be worthwhile to strike for better working conditions after being lied to by these talking heads?

Let us remember that the power of unions in the past rested on the acknowledgement of the irreconcilable class struggle and on the courage to tirelessly mobilize wage-earners to push for equality and democracy.

It was this flag that led workers to make so many gains in Quebec and strive for social justice. This flag is unfortunately not being flown at a time when it is needed more than ever.

Pierre Mouterde teaches philosophy at College de Limoilou and is the author of a number of books. This article was originally published on the Quebec radical website Presse Toi a Gauche. Translation by Zachary Saltis.