Restraint, Resistance & Public Sector Unions

By Bickerton, Geoff | Canadian Dimension, June 1991 | Go to article overview

Restraint, Resistance & Public Sector Unions


Bickerton, Geoff, Canadian Dimension


OTTAWA -- The 1980s were difficult years for public sector unions. Cutbacks, contracting out, and special legislation combined to push the unions onto the defensive. Confronted with anti-labour right wing governments, unions at the provincial and federal levels have been hard pressed to negotiate inflation level wage increases, much less achieve breakthroughs at the bargaining table.

It is not surprising that these unions have increasingly looked towards political action to combat what is a political attack.

Still, the response of the public sector unions is neither co-ordinated nor uniform. The difference in the political response to the current escalation of the attack on public sector unions can be seen by contrasting the actions of Public service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Quebec public sector unions to the recent federal and Quebec budgets.

Quebec "flexibility and

maturity

For decades Quebec public sector unions have earned their reputation as being the cutting edge to resistance to anti-labour measures. Hospital workers, teachers, hydro workers, Montreal transit workers, and many others have conducted tenacious struggles.

For many outside of Quebec it came as a surprise when it was announced that instead of fighting the Quebec government's recent restraint program the major public sector unions agreed to freeze wages for six months and then see wages increase by three per cent.

There can be no doubt that the agreement is superior to the terms that the Quebec government initially threatened to impose through special legislation. The timeframe may also provide labour peace until after the proposed sovereignty referendum.

The agreement does not likely herald "the beginning of a new partnership" as claimed by Quebec Treasury Board President Daniel Johnson. Still it was unusual to hear CSN President Gerald Larose explain that the unions had shown "flexibility and maturity" because they recognize Quebec is experiencing serious economic difficulties.

PSAC strike alert

Although it does not have a longstanding tradition of militancy, there was never any doubt that the leadership of the Public service Alliance of Canada would organize to fight the federal wage guidelines announced in Michael Wilson's budget.

Even before the budget was tabled the union's National Executive Board had authorized PSAC President Bean to hold a strike vote in the event controls were announced. …

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