Trade union negotiations, authoritarian governance and social rights
Despite its dominance over world news, the pandemic cannot paralyze all political and economic activities. This is how the government of Quebec went from the idea of suspending negotiations for the renewal of the collective agreements of the 550,000 people employed by the state to an accelerated scenario where everything should be resolved in a few days, taking advantage of its increased powers to put undue pressure on trade union organizations which are already overwhelmed by the need to equip their members in times of health crisis.
In all this history, the government should not forget at least three things. In the first place, if it receives considerable support from the population, it is because all its decisions to protect it recall the centrality of public institutions alone capable of concretely guaranteeing the right to health.
These institutions are not limited, far from it, to hospitals. Without being able to produce an educational map of the interaction of public services here, we can all perceive in real time this complex, fragile and nevertheless essential dynamic of the public sector. It used to be fashionable to praise individual values in the name of the market and free competition by denying the very existence of the collective and the importance of public services. This is basically the model set up as a system since the 80s. The current crisis allows us to better understand today what a just society means, which is not a simple philosophical fad, but a political choice that is relies heavily on public services.
We must make this choice now and for the future in favor of a solid public sector capable of going through crises and staying the course on its mission in the years to come. No one can predict what the economy of Quebec will be like after the pandemic, but we have never had as much evidence of the importance of ensuring adequate public sector workers. Our social rights are chimeras without the daily labor of all those people who work most often in the shadows.
Second, the government cannot forget that what it is negotiating now goes far beyond the working conditions of those employed by the state. Ultimately, it is about preserving and increasing the quality and quantity of all public services. The private system will never be able to meet demand and compensate for the difficulty in finding teachers who are competent and who have the future of our society in their hands. Nurses and health personnel have for years denounced an excessively cumbersome administration focused on objectives set by an entrepreneurial logic that has nothing in common with the reality on the ground.
Third, it is crucial to grasp the full political role of unions in times of crisis. In parallel to the state, and with the community and advocacy organizations, it is such organizations that consolidate social ties. I will be answered by denouncing the corporatism of unions or by pointing the finger that a very large part of the population does not enjoy union protection. That is true. However, the political weight of the union movement is undeniable, as is its ability to mobilize. Over the past ten years, I have led conferences and debates within the majority of union organizations in Quebec. Everywhere I saw the same desire to give new meaning to union activism.
The role that labor organizations will play in the transition period following the end of the pandemic is underestimated. It is neither private companies nor the wealthiest people who will be able to put themselves in contact with governments on the subject of social organization, transport, public health, education, care of the most vulnerable. , etc. They will not be able for the simple and good reason that such is not their primary function, or if they act, it will be able in the end only in a superficial way. Conversely, the fundamental mission of trade union organizations is to fight not only for the rights of workers, but for social justice as a whole, because the former are empty shells without the latter.
Christian Nadeau is also a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Montreal