Skip to content

Québec public sector workers mobilized for better wages and working conditions

Union activist Benoit Renaud reports and reflects on the recent victory of Québec public workers.

Québec public sector unionist Benoit Renaud submitted an initial report on the Québec public sector strikes in January of 2024. Several months later, he sat down with Tempest to reflect on the strike’s victories and impact. What follows is the initial report and a transcript of the post-strike interview. This text is following up on a previous contribution to Tempest by the same author.

Strikes by teachers, nurses and other public sector workers have been the main topic of discussion and media attention in Québec since the middle of November 2023, when the four unions of the Common Front (420,000 workers) went on strike for three days and a teachers’ union, Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE), began an open-ended strike.

Immediately, the government increased its wage offer slightly and signaled a willingness to abandon their demands on pensions. But negotiations over working conditions for each union were still moving very slowly.  As a result, the Common Front announced it would go on strike for a full week from December 8 to 14, which increased the pressure on the state, as the FAE strike dragged on.

Just as the Common Front started its week-long strike, Prime Minister Legault spilled the beans and admitted that he would be willing to increase the wage offer of the government if the unions accepted more “flexibility” in how their work is managed. This meant two things: 1) that the government had been lying for months when it said it couldn’t afford to pay better wages; and 2) that the real aim of the bosses, all along, was to increase their power over the workplace.

One of the leaders of the Common Front replied that they were not negotiating “for acrobats at Cirque du Soleil”… But more seriously, this showed that the mass mobilization of workers over several weeks was having the desired effect. The government increasingly seemed inconsistent in its views and willing to concede more to workers’s demands. The wage offer was again increased, but still shy of maintaining purchasing power in the face of inflation.

One movement, three strategies

It should be noted that not all public sector unions are part of the Common Front. This means we are witnessing different strategies at play simultaneously.. The Common Front itself decided to get mandates from its members to basically go on strike whenever the leadership thought it made sense and for however long they saw fit. The series of strike votes took place in September and membership adopted a motion giving the leadership the right to go all the way to an  open-ended strike, but preceding that ultimate step with “strike sequences” of unspecified duration. In practice, this has meant that the 420,000 members of the Common Front were on strike for a few hours, then for three days, then for a week. Unless tentative agreements are reached for all those workers soon, an unlimited general strike could begin sometime in January.

This strategy  spreads the pain for workers (most of whom do not have strike pay). It also shows the bosses that the strike threat is very real while keeping the ultimate weapon available only if necessary. This puts enormous pressure on the government, since a continuation of the strikes in early 2024 would be seen, at least in part, as its fault and a result of the government’s incompetence as negotiators. The downside of this strategy is that it limited the level of solidarity with unions not in the Common Front.

FAE, the autonomous teachers union, took a very different approach. They decided to go directly into an unlimited general strike starting on November 23, a few days after the marks for the first semester were recorded for most students. This had the advantage of putting a big spotlight on the issues faced by teachers in a sustained way. But the government had the opportunity of isolating that union and it seems to have decided not to settle with them separately, at least so far. Why did FAE go that route? Probably because of their recent history. That union was formed from a split within the main teachers’ union back in 2006, following strong disagreement within that union over the round of bargaining of 2005. Their former union being a key component of the Common Front, FAE was never invited to participate. In the subsequent rounds of bargaining, FAE had a tendency to go on strike first and settle first. They came out of the 2020 bargaining with a triumphalist attitude which may have led them to overestimate their ability to win on their own. The current situation could show the limits of their “autonomous and combative” strategy.

The other public sector unions have gone on strike for a few days at a time, without seriously threatening to go on an unlimited strike. On the part of the nurses union, Fédération interprofessionnelle de la Santé du Québec (FIQ), this could simply be because the essential services legislation doesn’t allow them to be on strike at all. Their job action has some impact on health care services (mostly delaying interventions not considered urgent). Also, they are probably counting on the settlements achieved by the Common Front to apply to them down the line. This is also the case with Syndicat des professionnels du gouvernement du Québec (SPGQ), a union representing professionals working directly for the government in different departments and agencies as well as some higher education institutions.

The next few days will be crucial. Will the government make enough concessions to reach tentative agreements with all unions? Will the union leadership be willing to accept a mediocre deal and possibly face the wrath of their mobilized members? Will the conflict linger and radicalize all the way to January, polarizing Québec society like the student strike did back in 2012? The current dismal approval rating of Québec’s Prime Minister and his government and the unprecedented level of support among the broader public are strong factors in favor of a positive outcome for workers. One inspiring example of this solidarity was the decision by the Québec section of the Steelworkers to give $100,000 to striking workers who don’t have strike pay and who need help just paying groceries. No one remembers anything like that ever happening before. With that level of solidarity across the whole union movement, how can we lose?

Post-strike interview (May 2024)

Tempest Collective: Your report takes us up until the moment that the Common Front begins a week-long Strike in November. At the same time the FAE is engaging in an ongoing general strike. Can you give Tempest Readers an update. What has happened since November?

Benoit Renaud: Since late November, quite a lot has happened. The FAE strike kept going until the Christmas break, basically, until about the end of December. For the Common Front, we had a week-long strike. This was seven days for the healthcare sector because they work on weekends, so it was actually seven full days for these workers. For those Common Front union members outside the healthcare sector, the whole thing was just five days. During that week with so many people  on strike, there were massive demonstrations all over Quebec, in nearly every region. In my region there were demonstrations every day. Sometimes it was just people in my specific union federation, and at other points every union who was part of the Common Front participated. We demonstrated together–that was during the strike week at the end of November.

At this time, the leaders of Common Front, those four big unions, were saying: “we’re going to give one last chance to negotiations. We’ve just been on strike for a week. We can feel that the pressure is having an impact at the bargaining table, but we’re going to give negotiations a chance until the holidays. If we can’t reach a deal by the end of December, then we’re going to consider going on an unlimited general strike in January.” The Common Front leaders could do this because they already had the mandates from their membership.

The strike votes that had taken place in September and October gave the Common Front a mandate to bring us all the way to a strike, including an unlimited general strike if they thought it was necessary. The leaders of those four big unions still had that card in their back pocket in December, and they could tell the government, you know, we have the right to put all our members on strike indefinitely if we don’t reach a deal.

By the end of December, there were tentative agreements reached at the different bargaining tables. Basically between Christmas and New Year’s most of the Common Front unions reached tentative agreements with the exception being a smaller union in the healthcare sector. Most of the nurses were not part of the Common Front. They have their own separate union, but some nurses were part of my union, which is essentially a public sector union. That particular federation inside my bigger union did not reach a tentative agreement and neither did the main nurses’ union. Actually, as we speak now, the nurses still don’t have a new collective agreement. So this is still dragging on now and we’re in May.

Most unions in the public sector got tentative agreements at the end of December including FAE, which is a teacher’s union that was not part of the Common Front.

Ratification votes began after the holiday throughout January. Each local union had to accept or reject the tentative agreement that was reached, and for most unions in the Common Front the ratification votes were pretty strong– 75-80 percent in favor, that sort of thing. The Common Front represents about 420,000 people.

For FAE, the ratification process was actually suspenseful, and we didn’t know until the very last vote if the tentative agreement was going to be ratified or not. There are nine regional unions that are part of that particular federation, and in order for ratification to be successful, they needed to have positive votes overall and from five out of nine locals. Some of those local unions voted against the deal and some voted for it.

The locals didn’t vote all at the same time, so the whole process was actually covered by the mass media on a day to day basis. It was front page news. At one point near the end of January, there were four unions voting in favor and four voting against.

The last local to vote is the one who ultimately decided the outcome, and it was a narrow vote in favor. As a result, FAE came out of that whole process bitterly divided. Throughout the process there were really intense debates going on and on social media and in the FAE meetings. Their general meetings were really, really long. For example, the one in Montreal, I think, lasted like eight hours. The members ended up voting at one in the morning or something like that.

It was very contentious, very tough, which is understandable because they were on strike for a month with no strike pay at all. The union had told their members back in the spring, to save money for the general strike because members were not going to get any money while on strike. That was really hard and really intense. On top of that, members are outside picketing in the cold in December, which is very unpleasant. In the end, many were generally not happy with the result.

TC: What, in particular, were members unhappy about? What was some of the opposition to the agreement?

BR: I think the most contentious issue was working conditions and mostly workload. Many of the members were basically saying you’re filling up our classrooms with as many students that will fit between the four walls and you’re not giving us any support. Many of the students have learning disabilities or special needs of some kind or another. Some do not know the language that the teaching will be happening in, and the public school teachers are expected to provide for the students in these challenging conditions. The workload has been increasingly hard on the teachers and they wanted to have some guarantees that the school system was either going to reduce the number of students in the classroom, or add resources to help such as more adults in the classroom. Students have diverse needs and sometimes the work becomes completely overwhelming if it’s just one teacher. II think that class size and workload was the main thing the teachers were hoping to make significant gains on and it didn’t happen, so there is some disappointment.

TC: What were the wins of the strike?

BR: We won on the issue of wages very clearly. Everybody, the FAE teachers, the Common Front teachers and all the other public sector Common Front members won significant wage increases. We also won on pensions. Initially, the government had ideas of pushing for some deterioration of our pensions (later retirement, less money) but that was abandoned  pretty early on in the negotiating process when they saw how mobilized people were. So, we basically got the status quo on pensions.

We won, I would say significant wage increases that are a little bit above inflation. I don’t have the details off hand, but for the first year of the agreement, we’re getting six and a half percent.  After that it’s around two to two and a half percent each year for the rest of the five year agreement. Overall it’s about a 17 and a half percent increase over five years. That was a victory, but the government. had been pushing really hard on the issue of flexibility. Workplace flexibility ended up being the obvious priority on the part of the employer. They want managers to have more power to decide what you’re going to be doing and where and when and, they’re trying to remove all kinds of obstacles to the power of management to organize work schedules and tell people what to do.

For the nurses, one of the reasons why they still haven’t reached an agreement six-months later is that the government wants to be able to tell a nurse who spent basically their entire career at a maternity ward, for example, now they’re going to work in psychiatry or in the emergency room. The employer is refusing the notion that nurses specialize. Nurses work hard to become really good at what they specialize in, and nurses are saying we already have terrible working conditions when it comes to schedules. We’re overwhelmed. We don’t have enough people in the hospitals and other healthcare institutions, and on top of that, you’re going to tell us that we can’t keep doing the work that we’re good at and that we really know how to do well? That is just unacceptable.

Another very contentious issue is mandatory overtime. The employer can basically force someone to do overtime because they’re constantly short staffed, and it becomes a bit of a vicious circle. The working conditions keep getting harder in the healthcare sector, and so people drop out or  move to the private healthcare and organizations that actually provide better working conditions than the public healthcare system and so understaffing becomes a very difficult issue to resolve, on that front.

TC: Could you speak to the autonomous teachers union (FAE)? I understand they broke from the Common Front. Can you talk about that?

BR: The FAE broke from what used to be a single union for all teachers.

There used to be just one big teacher’s union with everybody in it, and in the early 2000s, I think it was the bargaining round of 2005, a number of locals were very unhappy with how the negotiations and the whole process was led by the executive board. So they decided to quit and create their own union a couple of years later. It was a disagreement over how to bargain and how to mobilize.

After the FAE break with the larger union, they were reasonably successful. This was my union when I was a teacher for about ten years.They were reasonably successful up to and including the bargaining round of 2020 at the height of the pandemic.

My theory about why it was so hard for them this time is that they didn’t correctly assess why they got a reasonably good collective agreement in 2020 (for only three years). At the time the government was smart enough to think, we’re going to conclude things amicably right now because we have the pandemic to deal with and can’t do everything at the same time, but it’s going to be only a three year agreement and  we’re going to have another another opportunity soon to push for what we actually want as an employer.

When the next round of bargaining took place last year, that particular federation thought “we did well in 2015, we did well in 2020, we can do even better this time.” So they had an oversized confidence in their ability to win on their own.

Because they had several rounds of bargaining on their own without being part of a broader coalition (from 2010 all the way to 2020), they thought “ok we can go on an unlimited general strike in order to make really significant gains”. However, they misread the balance of strength between the parties–the balance of forces. They overestimated their own strength and so they basically hit a brick wall.

TC: Would it be fair to say that the FAE were able to achieve the wins they did at the bargaining table this time around because the Common Front also went on strike, even if not unlimited strike?

BR: Well, it was part of the equation, but that’s always difficult to analyze because these two mobilizations were taking place at the same time with different strategies. You might conclude that the common front strategy was the more effective. If you look at the kind of ratification votes they got in January,the members were generally happy with the results, so I guess that’s one way to measure success.

But on the other hand, the fact that those like 60,000 teachers in the FAE were on strike nonstop for a whole month was certainly part of the reason why the government had to make a deal with the Common Front unions. Also it’s important to note the Common Front’s potential unlimited strike in January. The pressure piled up from all sides and the government could have decided to go the other way and say, ok, we’re going to reach a deal.

TC: In the past you have emphasized the important role that cross union solidarity played in this round of bargaining. Did that solidarity continue? What are cross union relations like now?

BR: Well, the Common Front is a temporary arrangement between independent organizations, so as soon as the bargaining was concluded the Common Front also concluded. It’s like a supergroup in music, you know, like they did their one big concert and now they’re going back to their usual band. The strategy had a lot of success. To me that means there’s likely to be a Common Front again in four years with the next round of bargaining.

In terms of solidarity from other unions, the most remarkable thing back in November and December was that some private sector unions actually gave money to the strikers,  especially the teachers. You know, the teachers were on strike for four weeks with no pay at all. That was hard and that struggle struck accord with some private sector unions and other public sector unions not in bargaining, who decided to give money to help them keep going. There was that feeling of solidarity from the entire labor movement. With the public sector strikes going on, that was a very good sign for the health of our labor movement in general.

There were at least two significant unions that were not on strike but that put forward around a hundred thousand dollars each for groceries for the strikers.

TC: You mentioned the steelworkers union was one of them. Do you know the other union?

BR: I think the other one was actually a union that has a lot of members in the public sector but at the municipal level (CUPE). They were not on strike because their members tend to work for cities or universities and other institutions that were not affected by the strike. The steel workers, who are just in the private sector, gave a hundred thousand dollars. That was pretty impressive, you know, like to give a hundred dollars worth of groceries to a thousand teachers on strike. It doesn’t change the world, but it’s a significant gesture.

People who got that money appreciated it, and so I think overall that strike was a good thing for the union movement as a whole.

Another thing that came out of the strike actions that’s remarkable is the effect the actions had on the political landscape. It’s hard to have a precise idea of cause and effect here, but the current Quebec government–Coalition Avenir Québec, a nationalist, conservative party–who led that entire negotiation operation, had just been elected to their second term. This party came to power for the first time in 2018 and then they were re-elected in 2022 with a stronger majority like an overwhelming domination of the political landscape. They got something like 40 percent of the vote and won three quarters of the National Assembly as a result. But, when the opinion polls came out in January that party had lost something like a third of their popular support.

Another party that did very badly in the last two elections (Parti Québécois) came out on top in the polls. For the Coalition Avenir Québec, who tried to confront the public sector unions and make all those workers accept all kinds of concessions, it looks like they lost their advantage and popularity in a major way. They tried to impose significant setbacks on pensions and wages and working conditions and the end result is not only that they were unsuccessful in pushing for all those setbacks, but also that the union movement came out of it with a sense of confidence. The Coalition Avenir Québec lost a big part of their popular support and is unlikely to be elected again in 2026. Things can change between now and the October 26 election, but it doesn’t look good for them.

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at
And if you've enjoyed what you've read, please consider donating to support our work:


Benoit Renaud View All

Benoit Renaud is a long-time socialist based in Gatineau, Québec who has been involved in Québec Solidaire from the beginning, including as a candidate and a member of the leadership. He is currently working as a teaching adviser and is a member of the Educational Professionals Federation (FPPE-CSQ), one of the many unions affiliated with the Common Front.