Meet the condescending face of hypocrisy & greed in Quebec

Quebec is playing a con game in public-sector negotiations, and Treasury Board President Martin Coiteux — a former professor — is a man in need of a conscience.


Martin Coiteux

Quebec Treasury Board President Martin Coiteux says the government and unions representing 550,000 public servants are “light years” apart in their salary negotiations and blames the unions for refusing to budge.

Which is a little like a rock accusing a slug of moving too slowly.

With a condescending smirk on his face, Coiteux on Wednesday rejected the union group’s latest counter-offer, which essentially dropped salary demands by a third. They even agreed to call off a planned three-day strike for December to help provide some breathing room in negotiations.

Coiteux, however, responded almost immediately that the counter-offer didn’t go far enough. Which is funny, given that his own “improved” offer a few weeks earlier amounted to, as the unions said, “four quarters in exchange for a dollar.” The government originally offered two years of salary freeze followed by  three years of 1 per cent increases — in short-hand, 0-0-1-1-1. The “sweetened” offer moved the numbers around to 0-1-1-1-0.

It’s hardly surprising that the province’s nurses, teachers and civil servants found the offer insulting. It was, in fact, a taunt from Coiteux, who has been playing a cat-and-mouse game that is leading up to an eventual government decree that will impose an agreement on its workers.

The decree may even sweeten the pot, just to show how generous the dictator can be. Maybe workers will get 1-1-0-0-1 or even 1-1-1-0-0! You can just imagine the joyous faces around the Christmas tree as workers figure out how to spend the new-found bounty that will ensure, once more, that their salaries continue to buy less and less each year.


Successful negotiations require movement, which the unions have shown they are willing to accommodate. Quebec, not so much — unless, of course, you’re talking about the massive salary increases they’ve got planned for MNAs and cabinet ministers.

Interestingly, in their effort to spin the 54-per-cent MNA pay hike as a good thing, the government has argued that the higher salaries for politicians will generate greater tax revenues, which they calculate as a “savings” for taxpayers.

With that logic, imagine how much money we could save by offering teachers and nurses salary increases that would start to narrow the rather large gap between them and their counterparts in other provinces. Not only would tax revenues rise, but the marginal increase in purchasing power of 550,000 Quebecers means household spending could increase, creating more employment, more taxes and more economic growth.

Certainly, investing $1-billion more in a workforce of a half a million people will have much greater economic spinoffs than, say, throwing the same amount at a risky aeronautics venture that employs a few thousand. But Quebec doesn’t hesitate to justify that kind of investment, arguing that borrowing money to buy a $1-billion (U.S.) stake in Bombardier Aerospace protects “highly skilled” jobs (as if the skills of our teachers and nurses pale in comparison to the guys and girls soldering joints or upholstering seats in a C-Series jet).

This sort of thinking just demonstrates the inability of Coiteux and his government to recognize that the province’s public sector workers are not merely a government expense. They are also taxpayers and citizens, just as much as you or I, and their spending represents a significant force that ripples through the economy, from agriculture to housing to the arts. And unlike someone on the Bombardier assembly line, their working conditions also directly affect our living conditions, from the quality of the education they give our children to the care we receive in our hospitals.

They deserve respect that Coiteux, a former university economics professor who has himself struggled to make ends meet, refuses to grant them as he plays a waiting game that will inevitably lead to the decree the Couillard government has been planning all along.

If he really wants to close the “light year” gap between government and union offers, the treasury board president needs to stop shuffling the same five cards and instead deal out a fresh hand. Until then, the responsibility for that gap rests with the player who refuses to budge. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.