Quebec construction workers fighting for work-life balance

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Michel Giroux/CSN

On May 24, about 175,000 construction workers from across Quebec walked off their construction sites. The workers called an unlimited general strike, and construction across the province stopped.

During the strike week, thousands of workers protested in Quebec City, plastering the streets surrounding the National Assembly with neon stickers that said: Ma famille d’abord, my family first.

L’Alliance syndicale de la construction represents the workers in negotiations. The Alliance includes members of of FTQ-Construction and CSN-Construction. The 175,000 workers represent a majority of construction workers in the province, and it’s the second general construction strike in just four years.

They are negotiating a new collective agreement with the Quebec Construction Association. The old one expired in April.

Despite both sides expressing their desire to reach a negotiated settlement, the provincial government imposed back-to-work legislation, forcing workers to return to their jobs on May 31. While arbitration is ongoing, the special law gives workers an immediate 1.8% salary increase for the duration of arbitration. As the former collective agreement remains in force, it’s in the interest of the employer to drag out negotiations as a tactic to save money for workers’ costs.

At the heart of workers’ demands is work-life balance: being able to keep the time off that they have previously won to spend with their families or friends. It’s a fight to defend the most basic gains that the labour movement has made in Quebec.

The employers’ group is trying to force workers to work on Saturdays if a day the previous week had been missed due to a factor like inclement weather. The workers are demanding that they be paid more if the employer decides that they need to work on Saturday.

The workers are also refusing to accept the employer’s demand to have work start as early as 5:30 AM. Most daycares and before-school programs don’t open until 7:00 AM and workers are worried about finding ways to work around such a schedule with children or other family responsibilities.

They are also seeking annual salary raises of 2%.

The employers’ association has expressed its fear that government-imposed arbitration will mostly side with the workers. On June 6, the Association issued a statement saying that it was frustrated that while workers will receive a 1.8% salary increase during bargaining, none of the employers’ demands were imposed during the period of arbitration.

The special law threatens financial penalties against members and union leaders who refuse to go back to work. It was introduced by the Liberals and supported by the Coalition Avenir Québec. The Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire voted against.

The parties have until October 30 to participate in government-coordinated arbitration. If there is no collective agreement by then, the legislation states that the government can impose a contract.

In 2013, a two-week strike of 77,000 construction workers in the commercial, institutional and industrial sectors was brought to an end by back-to-work legislation. It was introduced by Agnès Maltais, Parti Québécois MNA. That legislation had the support of all parties except Québec Solidaire.

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