Interview with Robert Comeau and Josée Fréchette

2023 contract talks: how can we win?

2023 contract talks: how can we win?

Excitement is in the air at the APTS. We’ll be tabling our demands and launching the next round of public-sector contract talks in just a few days, and our whole organization is mobilized to make sure we’re ready. We asked APTS president Robert Comeau and APTS 1st vice-president Josée Fréchette, political officer responsible for national bargaining talks, to share their thoughts just before this key moment in our union life.

We’ve barely come out of the last contract talks and already we’re starting a new round. What did you learn from the previous talks?

RC: The greatest lesson we learned from the Legault government is straight out of Machiavelli. By defining some job titles as more deserving, because the public is aware of them or feels sympathy for them, the government was able to drive a wedge between workers who were all employed in the public sector – sometimes even in the same sector of activity – and who belonged to the same union. We need to be clear about what happened. What the government did was not a matter of chance – it was a choice arising from a political strategy to weaken employees’ power dynamic with the government. This time, we have to avoid taking the bait. We have to close ranks when the government tries to undermine our unity.

JF: That’s why we decided to present a shorter set of demands this time. We have fewer demands, but every one of them will benefit all of our members, regardless of job title or sector of activity. This will enable us to protect our cohesion and deflect the government’s attempts to destroy our solidarity.

By defining some job titles as more deserving, the government was able to drive a wedge between workers who were all employed in the public sector – sometimes even in the same sector of activity – and who belonged to the same union.

What obstacles do you think will arise in this upcoming trial of strength, and how do you plan to overcome them?

RC: The Legault government is determined to view the private sector as an effective and viable solution to the labour shortage problem. But many studies demonstrate that the opposite is true, and this is confirmed when we take stock of neoliberal policies enacted over the past decades. While we may not be able to get the government to see reason, we can work to mobilize workers and Quebecers around the idea of a strong public health and social services system that delivers on its promises in terms of quality and accessibility. There’s only one way to achieve that: massive investment in the system to make it attractive again. This is a key issue for the APTS, and we’ll be intensifying our efforts to raise awareness and make our opposition known, both at the bargaining table and in parallel venues such as the consultation forums around Minister Dubé’s plan to reform the health system.

JF: I would also say that during the last round of contract talks, the Legault government showed itself to be surprisingly rigid and unyielding – and given the outcome of the last provincial election that gave the CAQ an even bigger majority, we can hardly expect greater dipomacy this time around. To fight back against government pressure, we’ll need to present a strong, determined and united front. That’s why the APTS has chosen to be part of the Front commun with the CSN, CSQ and FTQ.

In concrete terms, what is a common front, and what does this particular common front represent for you?

JF: A common front is a coalition formed by different labour organizations to give them a greater collective weight in negotiating with the government at what’s called the central bargaining table. Traditionally, four matters defined as intersectoral are negotiated at this central table: pay, pensions, parental rights and regional disparities. In these areas, the government is willing to grant the same working conditions to all of its employees, regardless of what union they belong to. That’s why it makes sense to form a common front to negotiate these matters.

RC: Becoming part of the Front commun is a major event for the APTS, because it’s the first time an independent union joins this kind of coalition in its own name. This is a sign that our union is now a major player in the health and social services system.

And to gain even more weight in our dealings with the Treasury Board, we made a strategic choice to form the broadest alliance possible. The common front now represents 420,000 workers employed in the public and parapublic sectors, standing together and speaking with one voice.

What are the top priorities for these contract talks?

RC: The Québec government was viewed as an employer of choice a few decades ago, but these days it’s a really lousy boss. In terms of overall compensation, there’s now a gap of almost 10% between government employees and other Québec workers1! That means a substantial pay increase is absolutely necessary, especially at a time when inflation is rampant and is making Québec government employees poorer.

And the pay issue is crucial because workers aren’t the only ones affected – the impact is felt by all Quebecers. Better working conditions in the public sector are an essential requirement if we want to deal with the labour shortage that is currently depriving Quebecers of the care and services they need.

JF: Workers in health and social services also want to take care of themselves and the people they’re close to, especially after the many sacrifices to which they “agreed” during the pandemic. Vacation leave, work schedules and mandatory overtime are some of the more specific issues our members are worried about, and the APTS will be putting them at the centre of these contract talks. And there are other topics we plan to discuss with the CPNSS (the management bargaining committee for the health and social services sector) when the time comes to negotiate sectoral matters. These include unpaid hours worked by employees, rest periods, and compensation for the inconvenience experienced by employees who work evening, night, or weekend shifts.

What’s the recipe for success in these contract talks?

JF: Joining the Front commun is a move that gives us more power, but the key factor, of course, is the mobilization of union members who support their bargaining committees. No one has ever succeeded at the bargaining table unless workers made their dissatisfaction known.

RC: Yes, that’s exactly true, and it’s something anyone can do. Every one of our members has the power to move the needle, whether you’re raising people’s awareness at a family gathering or over drinks with friends, or proudly wearing your bargaining committee’s colours, or showing up for visibility actions and other demonstrations. A union isn’t just a head office and some elected local representatives. It’s each and every one of us, standing together behind the same banner, standing up for demands we know are just. It’s time to get moving… and we won’t back down!

C O M I N G  U P

• The Front commun will file its demands with the Treasury Board on October 28, and live speeches from APTS, CSN, CSQ and FTQ elected officials will be streamed on our Facebook page. Don’t miss this key moment in our contract talks – see it happen on Facebook!
• On October 28, the APTS will also file its sectoral demands with the CPNSSS. Stay tuned – we’ll have more information soon.
• To follow the bargaining talks for your 2023 collective agreement, keep an eye on our Web page: 2023 contract talks. We’ll be providing regular updates.

1Institut de la statistique du Québec, Faits saillants – Rémunération des salariés. État et évolution comparés 2021, Québec, ISQ, 2021, 9 p.


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