Labour

Battle for $15 per hour minimum wage escalates in Quebec

Long strike at Old Port of Montreal focuses attention on demand for a living wage
Photo: Caribb

The fight for 15 is alive in Quebec, where workers at the Old Port of Montreal have been on strike for four months.

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“The 300 federal employees of the Old Port of Montreal have been unable to secure a decent wage and sick days,” said Konrad Lamour, president of the Union of Employees of the Old Port of Montreal.

“These were the two main demands that would have brought us into the middle class. It is an utter deceit when you consider the electoral promises that were made by the Trudeau government, promises that allowed it to win the last federal election.”

Lamour was speaking at a press conference held by the progressive provincial party Québec Solidaire and the striking workers at the Old Port, on Sept. 15. The event marked a three-day blitz of signature gathering for a petition, endorsed by Québec Solidaire, demanding a $15 per hour minimum wage in Quebec, and support for the Old Port strike’s demands.

The press conference also announced a march for a $15 per hour minimum wage, planned for Oct. 15.

Quebec Solidaire deputy Manon Massé spoke about why the party has decided to support the striking Old Port workers. “If we support your struggle, it’s because your cause is just. Whether you work in ticketing, or maintenance, you all contribute to the success of the Old Port.”

The press conference followed the third rejection of a tentative contract by the Old Port workers in early September.

Liberal government goes on the attack

The rejected offer followed several exchanges in August between provincial politicians and the movement for a $15 minimum wage.

On Aug. 13, Carlos Leitão, Quebec’s minister of finance, publicly claimed that $10.75 is an “appropriate” minimum wage, a day after hundreds marched in Montreal for a $15 per hour minimum wage. The march was planned to connect World Social Forum attendees to the workers at the Old Port of Montreal, 40 per cent of whom make less than $15 per hour.

Françoise David, spokesperson for Quebec Solidaire, addressed the crowd saying, “Now is the time for a $15 per hour minimum wage.”

A week later, the union gave it right back to Leitão when over 50 members of the Old Port occupied his offices.

“Minister Leitão pushed the button a little too hard last week by insisting that the current minimum wage is appropriate. This statement has incurred the wrath of our striking members,” underscored Magali Picard, regional executive vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada - Quebec.

The same day, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard played good cop to Leitão’s bad cop, and called for a “debate on a $15 minimum wage” to “examine what has happened elsewhere,” without taking a position on the question. In the meantime, there have been articles about the campaign for $15 on a regular basis in Montreal dailies La Presse and Le Devoir.

Support for the $15 campaign has grown with the strike of the workers at the Old Port of Montreal, a renowned historic site and one of Canada’s most popular tourist areas. While the workers have notably succeeded in shutting down the Old Port’s signature holdings, including the science centre, the Port d’Escale Marina and the Clocktower Beach, dozens of privately run concessions have operated since the beginning of the strike with scab labour.

Old Port workers

The Old Port workers have become the human face of the fight for 15 and against precarious work in Quebec.

Barred by an injunction from entering the Old Port grounds, the workers have been marching on its borders six to seven days a week chanting, “Un rattrapage urgent pour un salaire décent!” (“Decent wages now!”) From the beginning, the Old Port workers have linked their strike to the wider struggle for $15 per hour, carrying out actions every month in solidarity with the broader North American campaign.

Although they are employed by the federal government, the workers at the Old Port are classified as federal workers rather than civil servants, which allows the government to sub-contract their jobs to private agencies. The employer, the Old Port of Montreal Corporation, is a subsidiary of the Canada Lands Company, a crown corporation. Old Port workers are unionized through the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which has 180,000 members across Canada.

Jacques Fontaine is part of the Old Port worker negotiation team.

“As a small group faced with great challenges, we decided early on to reach out to the movement for the $15 per hour minimum wage for support,” he said.

“Indeed, this relationship has been one of the bright spots in what has been a very challenging fight. Throughout negotiations we’ve kept up a steady drumbeat of actions to place pressure on our employer: pickets of Canada Lands Company offices in Toronto and Ottawa, meetings with local Liberal members of parliament, and marches during high-profile events, such as Canada Day, the Montreal International Triathlon and other events held at the Old Port.”

15 maintenant

Organizers favouring a more centralized approach see the creation of the 15$ maintenant Quebec campaign, which calls for a $15 wage immediately, indexed to inflation, as a chance to address deeper political questions for post-Maple-Spring Quebec.

“It’s time to rethink the strategy of diversity of tactics. It’s a convenient way to hide our differences, without working together effectively, much less democratically,” said Bruno-Pierre Guillette, an $15 organizer and delegate in his union, the Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux (Social and Health Services Federation), whose parent federation, the Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux, has launched its own campaign demanding a minimum wage of $15 per hour “as quickly as possible.”

Meanwhile, 15maintenant has organized a pan-Canadian action for a $15 per hour minimum wage on Oct. 15.

With its flagrant use of scabs and refusal to grant its workers a decent wage and sick days, the Old Port of Montreal Corporation has revealed the lengths that the 1% will go to to keep wages low. By refusing to endorse Quebec Solidaire’s motion for a $15 per hour minimum wage, the Parti Québecois and the Liberal Party have shown that they stand with the 1%, no matter what their rhetoric is.

Facing this formidable wall of opposition are Quebec Solidaire, the union federations such as the FTQ and the CSN, the workers of the Old Port of Montreal, and the left forces now grouped under 15maintenant. The unwillingness of the Parti Québécois and Liberals to endorse a $15 per hour minimum wage has created an unprecedented electoral opening for Quebec Solidaire, while the Old Port workers exert a continuous pressure on the party to mobilize for the workers and the larger issue of a fair minimum wage.

A $15 per hour minimum wage in Quebec and a just settlement to the Old Port workers’ strike would represent a concrete gain. Fortunately, Quebec Solidaire provides left forces and workers with a political party that can bring together the Old Port strike with the wider campaign for $15. A key question now is whether the Old Port workers and left forces can force Quebec Solidaire to fight an electoral campaign that keeps the wider issues of precarity and neoliberalism front and centre, so that the party doesn’t surrender to the Liberals’ minimum wage proposals once they are announced.

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