Quebec public sector workers march in Montreal amid stalled contract talks

MONTREAL — Quebec public sector employees, some with kazoos and horns, marched in Montreal on Saturday to demand higher wages and better working conditions amid stalled contract negotiations with the provincial government.

A coalition of four union groups representing more than 400,000 school, health and social-service workers organized the afternoon demonstration, which began at the eastern base of Mount Royal before descending into the streets of downtown.

At the start of the march, the leaders of the groups issued a warning: their goal is not to strike, they said, but if that's what it takes to get the government to act on their demands, workers are ready to do so.

Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec President Magali Picard pointed to the number of demonstrators who travelled across the province, including from Quebec's westernmost region, as evidence of their resolve.

"If you look at the number of school buses that are here, the number of charter planes that left Abitibi this morning, our people are ready, because they have nothing left to lose," Picard said.

Andrée Morin was among the public sector employees who flew into Montreal to participate in the march. She works in the health-care network in Quebec's Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, north of Quebec City.

"It's for our conditions, the conditions of the people to come," Morin said. "We can't back down, we have to keep moving forward."

Pay increases are at the top of the unions' list of demands. They're seeking raises to match inflation, plus additional sums to provide what the groups in a statement called a "general catch-up pay increase."

As staff shortages affect Quebec's education, health and social service institutions, Éric Gingras, president of the Centrale des syndicats du Québec — an organization that includes teacher and health-care worker unions — said higher salaries are necessary to preserve the public workforce.

The demonstration, Gingras said in a phone interview, is a message to Quebec Premier François Legault and Treasury Board President Sonia LeBel to "be sure to really take care of their workers (with) better salaries, better working conditions in order to attract and to keep them (in) the public services."

LeBel said in a statement posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, on Saturday morning that the government's goal is to reach agreements with workers' unions "as quickly as possible" to avoid disruptions to those services. She insisted, however, that unions demonstrate more "flexibility" in the collective bargaining process.

"We can't keep taking the same action and expect a different result," LeBel said.

But Gingras rejected the suggestion that public sector employees need to do more, saying union flexibility in the past only served to make way for poor political decisions.

"It's not about flexibility," he said. "It's time to give better salaries and better working conditions. It's not time to ask more from the workers that work in the public services."

— With files from Coralie Laplante in Montreal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2023.

Thomas MacDonald, The Canadian Press