Behind the scenes: contract talks with the government

Behind the scenes: contract talks with the government

Since the beginning of 2020, the Legault government has made no concessions at the bargaining table. It is sticking to positions that would erode the working conditions of APTS members and potentially hasten the exodus of personnel to the private sector, further weakening the public system. What is behind this (unwise) government strategy?

For public-sector negotiations in Québec, the law stipulates that when either side calls for mediation, there is a two-month mediation process that ensues. The APTS requested a mediator on January 28 of this year, which means that the mediation period is drawing to a close without the outcome we were hoping for: an agreement in principle. In the past, mediation has often been seen as a necessary step to take before strike action can be invoked to pressure the government. In this case, however, the APTS called for a mediator in the hope of breaking the deadlock. There is a deep sense of disappointment among members of our bargaining team.

The team includes Sophie Cloutier, a lawyer who acts as our spokesperson at the bargaining table;  Emmanuel Breton, APTS 1st vice-president; Charles-Alexandre Bélisle and Véronique Papillon, national bargaining coordinators; and Karine Ferland and Diane Mathieu, two APTS members released from their regular work to assist with contract talks. All were convinced that after numerous sessions with mediator Jean Nolin, where the two sides explained what they hoped to achieve, a shared perspective would emerge.

“Management negotiators have had the same mandates for the past year,” explained Emmanuel Breton. “Right from the outset, the government decided to pay closer attention to certain groups’ demands, particularly those with specific job titles in classes of personnel other than ours.  Under pressure from media coverage surrounding the Special Commission on the Rights of the Child and Youth Protection, the government later turned its attention to our members in youth centres (Class 4 personnel). But not even the prospect of a damning report from the Commission could induce the government to reconsider its paltry proposals.”

What can account for the government’s incomprehensible decision to drag out negotiations, when the pandemic has exposed the fault lines in the system and the need to support personnel? Why, under these circumstances, is the government dismissing our solutions?

“The same old counter-productive strategy from previous negotiations is being trotted out again,” remarked the APTS national bargaining officer, “even though the pandemic has revealed the disastrous consequences of past decades of neglect. The problems are still there and are in fact getting worse, yet the government is relying on the same totally ineffective remedies and seems to have learned nothing from past mistakes.”

“The government is sending a devastating message to the public sector. It’s a perfect recipe for staff demoralization and defection (to the private sector),” Emmanuel Breton concluded.

Legitimate and reasonable demands

The APTS sectoral demands offer solutions to attract and retain personnel the health and social service sector. They include a weighting system to assess workloads, particularly in youth centres; greater professional autonomy and fewer statistical ″duties″ in social work; access to training to keep up with scientific and technological developments; measures to help employees balance family responsibilities, work and studies; and premiums adjusted to the realities of certain sectors facing specific issues. These are all winning strategies to make our public system competitive and boost its powers of attraction. Yet government decision-makers seem to be clinging to an archaic management model based on short-sighted mathematical calculations.

“It’s about more than just investing in opening up jobs,” explained Emmanuel Breton. “You have to ensure that qualified people want those jobs. Without better working conditions, those investments won’t bear fruit. The government has to remove its blinders and take into account the kinds of options that private companies and placement agencies are offering new graduates.”

There are some who believe that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of government to force the public sector to use personnel agencies, thereby eroding public services and paving the way for their privatization.

Others believe that by allowing negotiations to stall, the Legault government is trying to force the unions into a corner in order to gain the upper hand in the court of public opinion. But the unions have no other options.

“We’ve tried everything. We’ve got figures to back us up, but nothing helps. It’s true that by blocking progress at the bargaining table for such a long period, the government is impelling unions to ask their members for strike mandates,” the APTS vice-president concedes. “Does Mr. Legault think that imposing a decree on the public sector will seem less odious to the population in the context of an impending strike?  I can’t believe that the government elected by Quebecers would stoop so low and be so calculating, especially after all the declarations of praise and gratitude made by the premier over the past year.”

In this troubling context, local APTS teams are now inviting their members to vote on pressure tactics to be rolled out in the coming months in the hope of getting their message across to the government. It’s time that the government realizes how deeply public employees in health and social services care about their work, and about the well-being of the population they serve.

By Chantal Mantha  |  With Mathieu Le Blanc | march 22,  2021