May Day 2015: Quebec unions upping the ante against austerity

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Photo: flickr/Confédération des syndicats nationaux

Many unions large and small in Quebec are encouraging members to mobilize on May Day, Friday May 1, as part of the province-wide opposition to austerity. 

Traditionally, May Day is celebrated by many on the left in Canada, with Quebec putting on some of the largest showings. In recent years, hundreds have been detained and ticketed by police during anti-capitalist May Day protests in Montreal.

This year's action by unions is a departure from the tradition of Quebec's large unions, for most of the last ten years, celebrating May Day on the weekend closest to May 1 with non-confrontational events like barbeques, and not associating with more radical groups.

This year, the unions have been keenly preparing for May 1, planning disruptive actions all day, and friendly rallies during the lunch hour.

Jacques Létourneau, President of CSN, the second largest union in Quebec, said in a widely shared video promoted by CSN on Facebook (translated):

"May 1, International Worker's Day, is an important step in the struggle that started in September 2014 against the austerity measures of the [Quebec Liberal] Couillard government. There will be hundreds of protests around Quebec, organized by unions, popular groups, family groups, the student movement, environmentalists, the majority of CEGEP [junior college] teachers -- who are on social strike that day, we salute them. And I invite you to participate massively in this day of social and economic disruption, participating principally by forming picket lines outside your place of work. Together, let's refuse austerity!"

CSN is one of many unions and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) part of the "Refusons l'austerité" (Reject Austerity) campaign. The campaign, active since last fall and whose placards have been present at many protests this spring, has been putting forward the Friday May 1 date as a major event for months. A promotion for May 1 is currently the banner of the campaign website

While Létourneau called for members to engage in the fairly tame action of demonstrating outside of their place of work, which many union organizations are encouraging for during lunch, Refusons l'austerité has also organized for people to assemble at 4:30 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. in Montreal to board buses to engage in disruptive actions. The Montreal chapter of Quebec's largest union, the FTQ, is the main contact for those logistics. 

The Union of Metal Workers (Syndicat des metallos), part of the FTQ, has been promoting rallies, gatherings, as well as logistics for disruptive actions throughout Quebec, including a convoy along the busy Highway 30, ending with a big rendez-vous. The Union of Metal Workers Spring 2015 newsletter focused heavily on anti-austerity popular education, and featured several calls to action for May 1, telling people to talk to their local FTQ representative for more information.

Montreal may get much of the press on May 1, but Lucie Martineau of the Public and Parapublic Sector Union (SFPQ) emphasized the sentiment in the regions all over Quebec, as quoted in Le Devoir. "Believe me, it's been 25 years that I've been here and I have never seen people so fed up. Especially in the regions. We have been under a hiring freeze for 11 years. The quality of local services is crumbling. Offices have closed, opening hours are reduced. Staff are under pressure." Martineau went on to discuss the disruptive actions, noting they were being kept secret until the day of, and talked about the troubles in negotiating with the government. 

Almost 550,000 public sector unionized employees had their collective agreements with the Quebec government expire on March 31, and the offers of the two sides are far apart. There is discussion within organized labour groups of a general strike in the fall. Student associations and other anti-austerity groups have been heatedly discussing if and how to mobilize collaboratively with unions this autumn. 

Unions' ability fit into larger social movement infrastructure that is fighting austerity at a fundamental level remains to be seen. Will the unions apply pressure during collective bargaining, push to get a good contract settlement, then step away from the fray, leaving students and small community groups alone again? While always a possibility, the shift seen on the part of Quebec unions this year for May 1, taking a combative stance and collaborative role with other organizations, could be indicative of a transition to a more integrated society-wide approach on their part.

Click here for more information on May Day events happening near you!


David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects and doing corporate social responsibility consulting. He is trying to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and educate himself on how to be a responsible white guy. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.

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