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How long can this go on for? We try to answer key Quebec strike questions

Les membres du syndicat des enseignants de la FAE défilent le jeudi 23 novembre 2023 à Montréal.

Les membres du syndicat des enseignants de la FAE en grève illimitée depuis jeudi soir

Photo: La Presse canadienne / Ryan Remiorz

RCI

When will it end? Can the Quebec government legislate teachers back to work?

Public sector workers in Quebec held historically large strikes last week and teachers who are part of the Fédération autonome de l'enseignement (FAE) remain off the job indefinitely — keeping 368,000 students out of school, according to the Education Ministry.

Negotiations between the unions and the government are ongoing, but, after a week spent with their kids out of school, some parents are growing impatient. 

We understand the teachers' right to strike but on the other hand we don't want our children to be affected by the strike if it goes on for weeks, said Sylvain Martel, a spokesperson for the Regroupement des comités de parents autonomes du Québec, a parents' group. 

We would think that with 800 schools closed indefinitely in Quebec there would be urgency to reopen those schools and we don't feel there is this urgency in the air right now and that's really troubling.

But teachers say they'll stay on strike as long as it takes to secure a favourable contract, and the common front, a coalition of unions representing 420,000 public sector workers in education and health care, announced a week of strike action Dec. 8 to 14. That raises the possibility that students could remain out of class for weeks or even months.

So, here are some answers, or almost-answers, to some questions you may have about the strikes: 

How long can the strikes last? 

Well, nobody really knows.

Teachers affiliated with the FAE say they'll continue striking until the government offers them a deal that includes better working conditions. They're asking for smaller class sizes, better support and higher pay to keep up with inflation, among other things. 

Those teachers, the common front unions and the heath-care workers represented by the Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), have also highlighted forced overtime, stagnating salaries, unpredictable schedules, job insecurity and other difficulties that contribute to what they say are poor working conditions. 

Last week Premier François Legault hinted at the government's willingness to put more money on the table in exchange for worker flexibility in contracts.

Negotiations are continuing. The leaders of the common front said Tuesday that they had made more progress in negotiations with the government over the past two weeks than they had in a year, but they signalled their intention to strike in December and warned of the possibility of a general unlimited strike in the new year. 

What will it take to end the strikes? 

A deal, of course. The government and the unions will have to agree on a tentative deal, first, which the unions will then have to present to their members for a vote. A majority of union members would have to approve a deal for it to be accepted.

WATCH | Quebec parents try to cope with school strikes:

Half a million Quebec public workers are striking. This is how parents are coping

Parents have been scrambling to find childcare amid ongoing strikes in the province. Some found help from camps and others brought their children to work.

Can the government table back-to-work legislation? 

We asked Barry Eidlin, an associate professor in the department of sociology at McGill University with expertise in labour movements. 

He said the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to strike as part of freedom of association. But that hasn't prevented other provincial governments from trying to pass back-to-work legislation, he said. 

In this case, however, it doesn't seem like the Quebec government is leaning toward forcing an end to the strikes. 

It's never something you can just discount out of hand, he said. I just think that in this case it's going to be difficult precisely because of the mass public support for the public sector workers and what they're fighting for.

Government officials have so far said they sympathize with parents left finding ways to care for their children who aren't in school but have provided no indication they would table any back-to-work legislation.

It's clear that they have the right to strike even though this is not good for the patients, this is not good for the parents, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Tuesday. That's their right and we'll respect that.

WATCH | What's behind the massive public sector strikes in Quebec:

At the centre of Quebec's massive public sector strike

More than a half million Quebec workers, mostly from the education and health-care sectors, are off the job. Some are striking for an undetermined period, and many took to the streets Thursday.

What will happen to students who have missed time in class because of the strikes?

Education Minister Bernard Drainville suggested earlier this month that the school year could be extended to make up for the time students lose during the strike. 

A spokesperson for the Education Ministry said school service centres would be responsible for rescheduling school days, if they need to. 

Quebec law stipulates that the school year be a maximum of 200 days long, 180 of which must be devoted to educational activities. 

Matthew Lapierre (new window) · CBC News 

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