No carte blanche

The Liberals were elected with a mandate for change, but don't have right to undermine Quebecers' working conditions


Friday, December 12, 2003
Yesterday's national day of disruption was the strongest warning so far to Jean Charest. The message from unions, day cares and community groups was clear: You were elected on a mandate for change, but that doesn't give you carte blanche to undermine the working conditions of Quebecers.
Of all the bills the Liberal government plans to adopt before Christmas to "re-engineer" Quebec, none is more contentious than Bill 31. It would amend Article 45 of the labour code to allow further subcontracting of public services to the private sector. The main problem is in many cases, it would put an end to the transfer of collective agreements in the process.
According to Henri Massé, president of the Quebec Federation of Labour, this would mean 70 per cent of all subcontract activity would no longer be protected by the labour code. In the end, it all points to a worsening of working conditions and lower wages for those workers.
Charest is hoping this hefty Christmas gift to a private sector eager to benefit from lower wages and the opening of public services to more subcontracting will help create more jobs. But labour and social activists, as well as a number of experts in industrial relations, see the bottom line as the creation of cheaper labour.
Mostly, they wonder how the premier intends to improve Quebec's economy while reducing the legislative protection of many workers and, thus, risk diminishing their quality of life. For workers, those stakes are high enough for them to keep fighting Bill 31 as it now stands.
So it's a pretty safe bet if Charest refuses to soften Bill 31, or to put it off long enough for real discussions with unions, the mounting social strife we've been witnessing will continue.
Oddly enough, Charest doesn't appear too worried for the moment. For one thing, he seems to hope imposing this radical change at the beginning of his first mandate will allow the union strife to fizzle out, for Quebecers to get used to the changes in time for the next election.
He's probably also counting on riding the coattails of the stronger economy that experts are forecasting next year for the United States. Still, the premier is in so much of a hurry to adopt Bill 31 one gets the impression he feels invested with some kind of a mission. One interesting hint of this was given by former federal minister Brian Tobin.
In yesterday's Globe and Mail, Tobin wrote "this puts the Quebec premier on the cutting edge of the battle between governments and public-sector unions." The reason for this fight, according to Tobin, is the high probability Paul Martin will not deliver sufficient funds to the provinces to provide effective health-care services.
Therefore, he says, provincial governments will have no choice but to take on the unions and open public services even further to the private sector. Tobin foresees what is happening here will spread to the rest of Canada and Charest is simply leading the charge.
"Make no mistake," he wrote, "the labour unrest that has dominated Quebec's public life in recent weeks is the first shot across the bow Canada-wide, as governments and public-sector unions square off over rising deficits, and what to do about them." And the main benefactor of this battle stands to be the private sector.
The action plan presented by the Liberal Party in September 2002 states their goal is "placing the private sector at the service of the public sector." By the looks of Bill 31, it feels more like the Liberals intend to place workers with worsened conditions at the service of the private sector.
It's no coincidence this battle is being waged in the jurisdiction on the continent that has the highest level of unionization and where union leaders play a prominent political role. Union leaders see Charest's determination as a direct blow against these two highly distinctive aspects of Quebec society.
When they were in opposition, Liberals were constantly accusing the previous government of being "arrogant" by acting unilaterally on a number of fronts. They used that particular word because their focus groups showed a majority of Quebecers saw it as the No. 1 fault of the Bouchard and Landry governments.
If Charest continues to refuse to compromise on Bill 31 and other controversial aspects of his plan to re-engineer the state, he's sure to see that same word pop up in those precious focus groups. This time, it will apply to his government.
And arrogance, real or perceived, can cost a lot of votes on election day. Just ask today's official opposition.

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