Premier François Legault told Quebec's nurses, teachers and elderly care workers on Sunday that the government had no money left in its coffers to offer them pay raises much higher than inflation.
Earlier on Sunday, Legault met with the heads of several public-sector unions, representation around 550,000 workers, in an effort to sell them on the government's latest offer. He was joined by Treasury Board chair Sonia LeBel.
The workers, who include many of the health-care professionals Legault referred to as Quebec's "guardian angels" during the first wave of the pandemic, have been without a contract since March 2020.
The government is offering them a five-per cent pay rise over three years, and a further three-per cent if inflation exceeds five per cent. Inflation for that period has been estimated at 4.87 per cent by the government.
But the government is also offering higher pay rises for patient attendants in long-term care homes (23 per cent) and first-year teachers (18 per cent), in an effort to attract more applicants to positions where Quebec is facing severe staffing shortages.
The public-sector unions had already indicated the salary offers were too little for their members to accept, particularly those who don't qualify for the larger raises.
Legault, though, said Sunday that with the province facing several years of deficits because of pandemic spending, that salary offer was as good as it's going to get.
"We've reached the capacity of what we can pay. So when some union leaders say 'We want more money,' well, we don't have anymore money," Legault said at a news conference following the meeting.
"I think it was important to say clearly to the union, even if you continue asking for [more money for] another six months, or a year, there won't be anymore money on the table."
Legault added that he had been patient with the unions for the past year, but now wants to see the contract negotiations wrapped up in the next several weeks.
Unions angered by Legault's inflexibility
The union leaders held a press conference of their own Sunday, expressing disappointment that the government had refused to boost its offer, which it initially tabled in March.
They said that without more significant pay raises, the public sector would continue to have difficulty attracting young workers, and retaining more experienced ones.
Throughout the pandemic, many critical areas of the health-care system has struggled to provide services to the public because of long-running staffing issues.
"People realized in the pandemic that without the public sector nothing would work in Quebec," said Caroline Senneville, a vice-president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux, a union that represents around 160,000 public-sector workers, including CEGEP teachers and nurses.
"A school without a secretary — that doesn't work. A operating room that hasn't been cleaned — you can't operate there even if you have doctors."
The Quebec Workers Federation, another large labour federation involved in the negotiations, said in a news release that the average annual salary of its public-sector workers is $39,819.
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