Quebec public-service unions are seeking annual wage hikes of 4.5 per cent a year for three years, a position that will test the new Liberal government's resolve to rein in spending and clean up the province's finances.
Premier Philippe Couillard has repeatedly warned Quebeckers they face tough decisions as the province enters an era of austerity, and has vowed his government would make $1.3-billion in cuts in the first two years of its mandate.
Quebec voters, who swept Liberals into office with a strong mandate last month, say they support him. A Léger survey published in Le Devoir on Saturday found an overwhelming 71 per cent of respondents supported cuts to government spending and 80 per cent backed a civil-service hiring freeze.
But the unions representing state employees have yet to sign on for the measures. A common front representing 400,000 civil servants in Quebec says public-sector wages lag those in the private sector. On Sunday, the unions announced they would consult their members on proposals that include salary hikes totalling 13.5 per cent for their three-year contract.
"We need to catch up," Daniel Boyer, president the Quebec Federation of Labour and a spokesman for the common front, said in an interview on Sunday. "Employees of the state have done enough. They've paid their share for years."
Negotiations to renew public-sector contracts tend to be stormy affairs in Quebec. Talks begin this fall for a new collective agreement. The current one expires next March.
The government has already floated the idea of tying wages to productivity, an idea swiftly panned by union leaders.
Finance Minister Carlos Leitao is set to table a budget early next month that will offer a road map to how the Couillard government plans to redress the province's finances; during the election, Mr. Couillard promised a review of all government programs. The Liberals have revised the deficit to $3.1-billion for the current fiscal year, up from $2.5-billion projected by the previous Parti Québécois government last year.
Health Minister Gaétan Barrette said last week he would ask Quebec medical federations to delay their planned pay hikes. Treasury Board President Martin Coiteux called Quebec's finances "serious, difficult."
Mr. Boyer said his members have been worried by the dire warnings, but added: "It's not because [Mr. Couillard and his ministers] say we don't have the means that we're going to just give up."
An expert in labour relations says both the unions and government are positioning themselves for the start of contract negotiations. Michel Grant, an associate professor of labour relations at the University of Quebec at Montreal , says Quebec's once powerful public-sector unions have lost their traditional clout and have been in a weakened position for several decades.
And successive government in Quebec City always tend to begin their mandate warning of the poorer-than-expected state of public finances.
"Like Yogi Berra said, 'It's déjà vu all over again,' " Prof. Grant said.