Union bargaining

Common Front deal for Quebec public sector workers wasn’t as good as advertised

A closer look at the agreement reveals inflated numbers. Who will be held accountable?
Photo: MOD

Now that the dust has settled on Quebec’s negotiations with public sector workers, it’s time for public sector workers to look back on the campaign that was.

For the 400,000+ members of the Common Front, a coalition of public sector unions, one issue in particular demands critical reflection: the manipulative and dishonest way that information about the tentative agreement on salary was presented to the media, the public and the Common Front’s own members.

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In general, the act of consciously making untrue statements is considered to be something for which politicians should be held accountable. Many a powerful world leader has fallen as a result of dishonest behaviour, including most recently the president of Iceland. The question for Common Front members is whether this same principle should apply to leaders of labour federations.

To illustrate just how dishonest the Common Front was in presenting the salary agreement to the public, let’s compare it to how this same salary agreement was presented by another labour federation, La Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE), which is not part of the Common Front.

Spinning the deal

On Dec. 20, 2015, the Common Front held a press conference where its leaders announced that they had “achieved their objective” of “stopping the continued impoverishment of their members” with a negotiated salary increase of 9.15 to 10.25 per cent over five years. And they didn’t stop there.

Quebecers were left with the impression that Christmas had come early for the province’s public sector workers.

Jacques Létourneau of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux was quoted in La Presse as raising the possibility that “considering inflation … workers should make up some lost ground in terms of salary.”

The media got the message loud and clear that this was a generous deal. The Journal de Montreal story led with the headline, “Three times more money than expected: Quebec finally agrees to a salary increase of nearly 10 per cent for its employees”. CBC’s report described the government as having moved “light years” from its initial offer. Le Devoir’s story contained the heading “Workers are the winners.” Thanks to the Common Front’s press conference and the media reports it generated, Quebecers were left with the impression that Christmas had come early for the province’s public sector workers.

Same agreement, different messages

The FAE sent a very different message about this exact same salary agreement. “In the end, in spite of the information that has been circulating, the proposed salary offer amounts to exactly 5.25 per cent over five years,” the FAE cautioned in a Jan. 29 press release. It also explained why the information that had been circulating was incorrect: “As for the two lump-sum payments proposed, they do not constitute a salary increase.”

When FAE members finally voted to accept this salary offer, FAE president Sylvain Mallette was crystal clear as to what this salary deal meant for his members. “The agreement does not permit members to catch up on any lost ground in terms of salary and in fact confirms the continued impoverishment of teachers.”

So while the Common Front said the 10.25 per cent increase would stop the continued impoverishment of members and “should” result in them catching up on lost ground, the FAE described an increase of only 5.25 per cent, continued impoverishment, and no catching up on any lost ground. These descriptions contradict each other to such a degree that one could be forgiven for thinking that they referred to different agreements.

Given that they describe the exact same salary provisions, only one can be accurate.

Comparing the numbers

In assessing the accuracy of these statements, take a look at inflation. Given that inflation in Quebec has averaged a little over 2 per cent a year over the last 30 years, a deal that could actually stop the continued impoverishment of workers would require an increase of at least 10 per cent over five years. The only way a 10 per cent increase could result in workers actually making up lost ground is if inflation stays below its historic average of 2 per cent.

While this is certainly within the realm of possibility, to suggest, as the Common Front did, that this should happen is highly questionable, particularly since low rates of inflation in recent years have been driven largely by cheap oil whose prices have nowhere to go but up.

However, the more the actual numbers run below that 10 per cent threshold, the more tenuous the claims that this deal will stop the continued impoverishment of members or result in a catch-up.

As I wrote in January, the Common Front claim that the salary agreement represents anything close to a 10.25 per cent increase is nothing short of preposterous. Not only does it count one-time lump-sum payments as salary increases, it also includes the fruits of a separate set of negotiations on salary relativity and money designated for bonuses and investments in resources in its calculations of the salary agreement. If one removes from the Common Front’s 10.25 per cent the 1.5 per cent in lump-sum payments, the 2.5 per cent in salary relativity and the 1 per cent in money for bonuses, one is left with 5.25 per cent — the exact figure offered by the FAE.

Clearly the Common Front inflated its numbers in an effort to convince its members and the public that this was a deal worth voting for. And for better or worse this tactic worked, as the vast majority of members voted to approve the deal.

Holding leaders accountable

The question for the 400,000+ members of the Common Front now is, should the leadership be held accountable for the manipulative way that information about the salary agreement was presented? Even if one sincerely believed that this deal was the best possible under the circumstances, does that justify presenting it as something it is not?

Like the Common Front, the FAE’s leadership also recommended this deal to its members. But they had the integrity to treat their members as adults and provide them with truthful information they could use to make an informed decision. Should the members of the Common Front not expect the same level of integrity from their own leaders?

Teachers in at least one Montreal high school believe they should; they also believe that some form of accountability is necessary if similar dishonesty in future negotiations is to be avoided. Earlier this month a motion of censure was submitted to be voted on by the reps of the Montreal Teachers Association. Though a motion of censure amounts to little more than a formal slap on the wrist, it at least sends a clear message that union members demand a greater degree of honesty from their leaders than they got last December.

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