Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard faces the biggest challenge yet to his attempt to rein in spending as unions launch a series of rotating strikes that will test the patience of Quebeckers along with the Liberal government's resolve.
Some 400,000 unionized public-service employees have formed a "common front" and will take turns walking off the job for a day or two this week. Myriad government services from health care to ferries will be limited to essential services, but the two-day shutdowns of public schools across the province will cause the greatest ripple by forcing hundreds of thousands of parents to scramble for child-care arrangements.
"They're major inconveniences for the population, we see that, but we have to balance the greater good," Mr. Couillard said Sunday after a breakfast with party supporters. "On one side, there are demands that can seem legitimate, but on the [other] side are the limits of the state's limited resources."
Nearly one million public-sector workers are without a contract. Unions are seeking a 13.5-per-cent raise over three years while the government has countered with an offer of 3 per cent over five years. The government also wants to cut some benefits such as raising the retirement age for public-sector workers to 62 from 60.
The dispute with the teachers has played out more publicly with a limited one-day strike in September and protests from sympathetic parents. The teachers are fighting proposed larger class sizes and a boost to classroom time that they say would reduce preparation and help for individual students. The government wants to boost their work week to 35 or 40 hours from 32, with no extra pay.
"We're looking at a substantial increase in workload, and they're getting into our teaching methods in a serious way," said Caroline Proulx-Trottier, a long-time teacher and vice-president of the West Island teachers' union. "We fight for our working conditions, of course, but it's also about the learning conditions of our students."
This week's provincewide strike is bound to test sympathy as parents dip into vacation time, pay for babysitters or makeshift programming at local community centres and rely on the kindness of relatives and friends.
Marc Deslesclefs, the father of a Grade 1 boy who will be staying home Wednesday and Thursday, said he is irritated that the dispute appears to be an accounting exercise between government and union rather than a broader examination of the education system.
"I'm not of the opinion you have to throw money at it, but I haven't heard the case for how what the government wants to do will improve education," said Mr. Deslesclefs, who will dip into vacation time to cover one day of the strike and try to work from home along with his wife for the second day.
"One thing I'm quite amazed by is the utter lack of political conversation. It's either framed as austerity and anti-education or a need to balance the books. How about a little discussion of the educational and political philosophy behind all this?"
Mr. Deslesclefs's family moved to Canada from Britain 18 months ago and they have little family support in Montreal. He works for Bewegen Technologies Inc., a bike-share startup, and has a heavy workload pitching his company's product around the world. The unions are threatening more job action the fall, a prospect that will make work life daunting for his family.
The labour dispute is part of a wider debate in Quebec about the squeeze on spending in the province. In the last budget, the government said it would achieve balance by increasing health spending modestly and cutting or freezing just about everything else, including education. The province has ended universally cheap fees for public daycare, cut fertility programs and frozen hiring.
Unions are airing television ads accusing the government of ruthlessly pursuing an austerity agenda, often taking direct aim at Martin Coiteux, the treasury board chair who is Mr. Couillard's point man on budget restraint.
"We will not veer off from our financial framework," Mr. Coiteux said Friday. "We will not sign a collective agreement that will bring us back into deficit, when we've worked so hard together to balance the budget, and we will not be raising taxes."