By a near unanimous vote, 1,500 unionists rejected the latest concessions from the cable company Videotron and decided to continue their strike, now in its fourth month. They cheered the results and stood on chairs chanting "So-So-So-Solidarité" [solidarity].
The company locked out some 2,200 workers 15 minutes after they went on strike May 8. The workers are fighting a drive by the bosses to eliminate as many as half the jobs, slash wages, and deal a serious blow to the union. Caught in the free-fall of high tech stock, the value of Videotron has declined by more than $3 billion since it was acquired by the media giant Quebecor in September 2000. At the same time, it is facing stiff competition from satellite dish companies.
At the heart of the conflict is the question of contracting out jobs. After the strike began, Quebecor signed an agreement to sell its installation and repair departments, covering 650 employees. The wages of technicians are to be cut by an average of 30 percent. It further proposed 30 percent contracting out across all departments.
The union does not recognize this sale, which was prohibited in the expired contract, and refuses to negotiate without the inclusion of the 650 workers.
"They want to give out all the work to subcontractors and then they’ll say they have no work for us and lay us off," said a worker who identified himself as Noxs.
Quebecor billionaire president Pierre-Karl Péladeau also proposes that the workweek be increased from 35 hours to 37.5 but workers will be paid for only 36.25 hours. He has the audacity to call this arrangement a 3.57 percent increase in weekly revenue.
"The offer is an insult," said David Alexandre.
The fighting spirit of the workers that was displayed at the August 15 meeting has been present throughout the strike. After the failure to reach an agreement through government mediation, the workers organized a series of protests. On August 8 the strikers picketed in front of the TVA television station, which is owned by Quebecor, preventing employees from entering the building and thus delaying morning programming. The police were called to force the pickets away from the door. The workers then organized a demonstration in front of the offices of the Caisse de dépôt et de placement du Quebec, a Quebec government financial agency that owns 45 percent of the shares in Videotron. These are but two of a number of actions that had been held since the beginning of the strike.
The company has attempted to undercut these mobilizations and the solidarity they have won by accusing the strikers of acts of sabotage such as cutting cables. While the company and the cops have no proof of union involvement, Quebecor is tripling to $15 million its lawsuit against the union and has doubled to $50,000 its reward for "information" about vandalism.
Union members reject these charges, pointing to a history of severed cables and company charges of "sabotage" on the eve of earlier union mobilizations.
Moreover, there is documented history of the use of agent provocateurs and frame-ups against the labor movement in Quebec. In 1974 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police attempted to plant a bomb during a strike against the Steinberg food chain to discredit the union. In the fall of 1987, Canadian Security and Intelligence Service agent provocateur Marc Boivin admitted to carrying out bombings during a union struggle at the resort Manoir Richelieu. And last year, on the eve of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, an RCMP agent infiltrated the group Germinal, inciting the young people to take more radical action and provided them with materials as well as transportation to the summit.
But the accusations of sabotage and the disruptions of cable service have failed to stop the growing solidarity with the Videotron strikers. At secondary pickets in front of video clubs and music stores owned by Quebecor, strikers are collecting signatures on a petition calling on the government to pressure Videotron to negotiate an end to the conflict and to respect the rights of workers. More than 60,400 signatures have been garnered so far.
On July 29, the 12 strikers picketing Videotron offices on Berri Street in Montreal marched with their placards to join the picket line of striking hotel workers at the nearby Crown Plaza Hotel. "It really gave a lift to the hotel workers and to us. It was great to see that we were not alone," stated Antoine Comtois, a technical service representative.
Another striker, Tulsa Valin-Landry, added that "unions need to get together. Messages of solidarity are good but nothing replaces a visit to the picket line."
The unity and solidarity of the ranks that was underscored by the near unanimous vote to continue the fight has steeled the determination of the workers.
"The battle will be waged to the end," said Noxs.
"Péladeau is the one that is going to give in. Not us," declared Sylvain Naud, from Internet technical support. And referring to the 650 "sold" employees, added, "We are going to be 2,200 when we sign."
Al Cappe is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
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