Big Unions in Quebec Coming under Siege

DENYS ARCAND'S LATEST hit movie, The Barbarian Invasions, is a caustic, stinging indictment of the woes plaguing the public health-care system - and a remarkable example of artistic prescience, too.

Big Unions in Quebec Coming under Siege

DENYS ARCAND'S LATEST hit movie, The Barbarian Invasions, is a caustic, stinging indictment of the woes plaguing the public health-care system - and a remarkable example of artistic prescience, too. In the movie, Rémy, an aging baby boomer (read: "old Quebec") is dying of cancer in an overflowing hospital ward, tended by nurses who are overworked, rude and demoralized. At the same time, a part of the hospital is closed off for lack of operating budgets, thanks, in good part, to a labour UNION whose leaders are depicted as thugs running the ward like a racket, oblivious of everything but their own selfish interests. Rémy's son, Sébastien - who speaks English all the time and has made money trading commodities in London ("new Quebec") - bribes both union and management into reopening a wing so his old man can die with dignity.

That fictional plot is now echoed by a real-life drama unfolding at Saint-Charles-Borromée hospital, a long-term-care unit for disabled patients in Montreal. Media reports of patients being neglected, abused and psychologically tortured by staff members have escalated into the biggest scandal to rock the province's problem-laden health-care system in years. Here too, relatives had to become involved to help a patient, leaking taped evidence of staff misconduct to the press, after filing official complaints that led nowhere. The drama soon turned into a tragedy when the hospital's director, Léon Lafleur, committed suicide in a suburban hotel room, leaving behind a letter taking some responsibility, but actually blaming others and The System for the problems.

In a tragicomic choice of wrong strategy, union spokesman Sylvio Robinson called on the media to get off the hospital's case, accusing them of amplifying things. This, after it was disclosed that two culprits - one of them a union executive member - were suspended for a mere two days for their misdeeds. Public outrage erupted on talk radio and in letters to the editor. Finally, last week, Health Minister Philippe Couillard fired the hospital's board of directors, placed the institution under trusteeship, and named a special troubleshooting director who has 120 days to straighten the situation out.

Couillard seized the moment to state that he knows that similar cases of patient abuse occur elsewhere. Pointedly, he urged patients, staff and managers to "break the code of silence" pervasive throughout the system, an omertà that "protects a hard-core minority of bad employees." And he urged everyone to "start over, on better bases." Decoded version: at the core of the problems paralyzing the health-care system is a weak authority that has abdicated to terror-wielding union rule. The System. Denys Arcand's diagnosis, precisely. And, as it happens, Premier Jean CHAREST's point, too.

The scandal could not possibly have happened at a worse political moment for the province's trade unions - traditionally, the most politically involved in Canada. It broke right in the middle of an increasingly vociferous labour campaign opposing the Liberal premier's "conservative" agenda. In pre-Saint-Charles-Borromée days, the unions had cranked up the rhetoric and triggered a series of demonstrations, some of them disruptive and violent, to protest the government's plan to "re-engineer" the way the public sector works and is governed.

Henri Massé, leader of the Quebec Federation of Labour, promised that his members would "fight like pigs," while another leader warned of "nuclear war." Confédération des syndicats nationaux boss Claudette Charbonneau accused the Liberal government of plotting to "destroy Québec." Union commandos attacked riding offices of Liberal politicians in Montreal and the Gatineau, destroying files and equipment. They stormed the Sainte-Justine hospital for sick children in Montreal to disrupt a planned public appearance by Charest, and staged large demonstrations of up to 30,000 in Quebec City.

The unions take exception to three bills currently being debated in the National Assembly. One aims to change the way some health services are provided, another aims to reduce the number of union accreditations in the health-care system. A third would bring changes to the province's labour code and open the door to outsourcing jobs now performed by unionized public sector employees. Charest has vowed to use a gag order in the National Assembly, if necessary, to see the bills become law before Christmas. Since June, some 430,000 public sector employees in Quebec have been without a work agreement. Talks are due to get underway early next year.

Then, in the middle of this fracas, the Saint-Charles-Borromée scandal broke. It soon became apparent that the unions might have misread the public mood. A recent CROP opinion poll indicated that 59 per cent of Quebecers support transferring some government services to the private sector, and that a majority would also give the nod to outsourcing and to user fees as ways of maintaining the current level of services without raising taxes. In short: Charest's campaign platform in the April election.

The unions quickly toned down their pitch: no more vandalism, no more threats of a "fight to the finish," no more accusing the government of "jeopardizing social peace." Last week, they were criticizing the government's "lack of openness" and "refusal to dialogue" instead.

The culmination of the unions' so-called public mobilization campaign was billed to be a "day of massive disruptions" slated for last Thursday. It was an impressive display - there were demonstrations everywhere in the province. Transit was disrupted in Montreal and Quebec City, ports were closed all along the St. Lawrence River, daycare centres were shut, roads to outlying regions were blocked by pickets. But, mindful of the violent preamble, many had expected much worse.

Back in the '70s the Quebec unions, fuelled by Marxist ideology, talked of "destroying the system to liberate the people." Quebec labour smartly meshed its nationalist-separatist agenda and its struggle for progressive measures, and was able to parlay both into a level of political clout unparalleled in Canada. But now, with a Liberal-conservative, federalist government in power, and nationalist fervour in the cooler, these unions appear, to an increasing number of voters, as part of The System themselves - the "social consensus" so dear to the Parti Québécois - a system Charest has promised to overhaul.

The premier certainly did not increase his popularity on the left last week, but he was able to stare down labour over its claim to talk "in the name of the people." But labour, even stripped of its nationalist-populist grandstanding, was able to muster an impressive display of anger and mobilization.

So, the first inning ended in a draw, with new Quebec and old Quebec at loggerheads. It will be a long, hot winter here.

Maclean's December 22, 2003