The government's initial offer to Quebec's teachers makes it perfectly clear that current negotiations will be unlike any in recent memory. There is almost no aspect of the status quo that remains unaffected in the proposal.
In a context where Quebec's teachers are already the lowest paid in all of Canada, the government is proposing a salary that will likely erode their real earnings by at least seven per cent over the next five years.
In a context where the vast majority of Quebec's teachers work untold numbers of unpaid hours on evenings and weekends because the current contract doesn't provide them enough paid hours to execute their responsibilities, the government is proposing an increase to teacher workloads that would require them to be present in school for longer hours. It wants to be able to "assigns tasks" to teachers during these extra hours, which means even less time for planning, marking, communicating with parents and the myriad other tasks that teachers are responsible for.
In a context where limits on class size have been easily skirted in Quebec, the government wants to remove these restrictions altogether. School boards have been able to exceed provincial limits on class size by paying teachers a small amount of over-sized class compensation, but at the very least this represented a small financial deterrent.
In a context where support for the ever-growing number of students with special needs is already woefully inadequate, the government is proposing to remove the weighting system that reduces the size of classes with higher numbers of students with special needs.
All of this is happening at a time when all jobs in the public education system have been made more precarious by a series of deep cuts to school board budgets in recent years. These cuts have only exacerbated an already bad situation for teachers. Quebec's newspapers have reported for many years that one in five teachers in the province leaves the profession within the first five years.
If public education was at the heart of the progressive social reforms of Quebec's Quiet Revolution, the Couillard government's extreme austerity agenda is looking more and more like a quiet counter-revolution.
The dilemma for Quebec's teachers, and indeed for all people concerned about public education, is how to react.
There will certainly be talk of strike action. While this option cannot be ruled out, it needs to be considered very carefully.
The question for teachers is not merely whether to strike. The more pressing question is if we strike, how will we deal with the inevitable special law that will be enacted to decree a new contract and force us back to work?
A recent study by Université du Québec à Montréal history professor Martin Petitclerc and master’s student Martin Robert demonstrates the extent to which increasingly draconian special laws have become the rule rather than the exception in Quebec. In the 10 years following the enshrinement of the right to strike in Quebec's Labour Code, 11 special laws have been enacted to end strikes. Since the early 1970s Quebec's public sector workers have been subject to six special laws. This has ensured that the real wages of public sector workers have steadily eroded for the last 30 years.
If the current assault on public education is to be stopped, teachers and their unions are going to have to find new and creative ways to resist.
The long battle
The thousands of unpaid hours Quebec's teachers work every year has to be considered a powerful source of leverage. It's questionable whether the system could even continue to function if teachers across the province withdrew the thousands of volunteer hours they donate to the education system each year.
Achieving the discipline and unity required to make such a work-to-rule campaign effective, however, will not be easy. Most teachers don't put up with the work burdens they have to for the mediocre salary the job offers. They do it because they love helping students learn and succeed. A work-to-rule campaign would essentially demand of teachers to give up the aspect of their job that provides them the most personal fulfillment.
Nonetheless, teachers have to start talking about a work-to-rule option as a real possibility because it has several advantages. First and foremost, it is impossible for the government to legislate us to do work for which we are not paid. It also highlights for the public the fact that Quebec's teachers are already providing a massive subsidy to the province’s public education system in the form of volunteer hours worked. A final advantage is that, because it is immune to legislation, it is a pressure tactic that can be applied for as long as necessary. We may need tactics suitable for a long entrenched battle.
The story of the remarkable victory of the Chicago Teachers Union in its 2012 strike action may be quite relevant to the predicament in which Quebec's teachers find themselves. Chicago teachers faced a series of government reforms representing a fundamental attack on the very principle of public education. Yet despite an aggressive push by all three levels of government, the union found a way to not only fend off these attacks but actually advance the interests of its members.
In the years leading up to the strike, the Chicago Teachers Union put a new emphasis on grassroots organizing. Its mission was to first empower its own members as activists and then do outreach to the broader community. Teacher-parent action committees were formed in each school. Then when negotiations began, these committees served as venues for teachers to consult parents on local pressure tactics and the decision to strike.
This ensured that when the strike began, the teachers received vocal public support from parents, which effectively thwarted government and media attempts to portray teachers as greedy and against the public.
From teachers to networks of solidarity
Given the fact that the government's proposal is not merely an attack on teachers but also a full frontal attack on public education, mobilizing an effective movement of teacher-parent solidarity seems well within the realm of possibility. Indeed such efforts have already begun with the establishment of Facebook group Parents contre l'austerité.
Teachers and their unions need to consider establishing broader networks of solidarity. There is almost no segment of Quebec society that is not negatively affected by government austerity. Therefore the conditions are developing for a broad mass movement involving labour, students, environmentalists and community groups.
The central demands of such a movement could include reversing cuts to public spending, cancelling increases to user fees, repealing Bill 3 (which unilaterally slashed public pensions) and committing to the principle that if pension reform is to occur it must occur within the context of negotiations, dealing in good faith with the province's public sector workers without resorting to special laws, and most importantly addressing the real cause of Quebec's current deficit: nearly $12 billion in tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the rich.
While striking on our own as teachers would be somewhat suicidal given the government's propensity for special laws, joining a mass movement for a province-wide general strike offers a real possibility for developing the rapport de force necessary to pressure government to change its course. Though such a unified general strike movement is certainly a long shot given the resistance likely to come from the leadership of the labour federations involved in le front commun, this is nonetheless a possibility that public sector workers need to begin discussing now, because ultimately union members have the power to determine their union’s tactics.
Many of us don't see ourselves as the type to engage in strikes and protests in the street, but this may be one of those historical moments that demands we leave our usual comfort zones and re-imagine for ourselves what is possible. The stakes have never been higher for Quebec's teachers, and if we dedicate our passion, creativity and pedagogical skills to educating the public about just how disastrous the government's proposals are, this is a struggle we can win.