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Montreal’s Francophone teachers strike against austerity

The front of the teachers march in Montreal on September 30. (Twitter/Hélène Bauer)

The banner at front of the teachers march in Montreal on September 30 read “The government is abandoning public schools.” (Twitter/Hélène Bauer)

Thousands of Francophone teachers, along with students, parents, and other supporters, flooded Montreal’s streets for a one-day strike on September 30. The strike is the first of six planned by the Federation Autonome de l’Enseignement, or FAE, a coalition of eight of Quebec’s French-speaking teachers unions, as part of their negotiations with the provincial government over proposed cuts to education.

“We are taking the streets today to tell the population and the parents that we are with them, and that their schools, teachers and their students, deserve more,” Nathalie Morel, vice president of the FAE, told CTV Montreal. “We deserve better.”

Sylvain Mallette, head of the FAE, first announced the strike on September 8, and on Wednesday, around 34,000 French-language teachers walked off the job and marched on the streets of Montreal. The FAE usually gives seven business days notice before it strikes, but Mallette said they wanted to give parents enough time to make alternate plans for their kids. More than 270,000 students across Quebec were also given the day off by the strike.

The Quebec provincial government has been engaged in a series of collective negotiations with public sector employees. Teachers are one group of workers who have been renegotiating their contracts with the government and have been working without a contract since April.

In March, the government announced that it would be increasing its education budget by only 0.2 percent, which actually amounts to a decrease once inflation is taken into account. The government has proposed increasing class sizes for older elementary and high school students and increasing the work week for teachers from 32 to 35 hours without any immediate increase in pay. When it comes to teachers’ salaries, the government wants to freeze wages until 2016 and then increase teachers’ pay by 1 percent each year for three years after that. The teachers, on the other hand, want a 13.5 percent raise over the next three years.

“In the last few years, public schools have been hurt by budget restraints and cuts,” Mallette told CBC News back when the strike was announced. “We’re at more than $1 billion in budget restraints and we’re asking teachers to do more with less.”

The government has also proposed cutting pension plans, cutting funds for programs for special-needs children, getting rid of 800 resource teacher and special education teacher jobs, and no longer taking into account whether a child has a learning disability when calculating class sizes.

“We are seeing cuts in remedial teachers and special education teachers who work with students who need help or those with behavioral problems,” Chantal Gagnon, a primary school teacher, told the Montreal Gazette. “They want to integrate the kids in the classroom but they are not giving us the support.”

Education Minister Francois Blais has denied that the government wants to increase teachers’ workloads or cut special education programs and insists that “it isn’t possible to ask taxpayers to pay” for a 13.5 percent wage increase for teachers.

The strike began a little before noon with protesters rallying at Square Victoria. At around 12:30 p.m., after a few speeches, protesters began to march starting from Boulevard Robert-Bourassa and Avenue Viger O. At the head of the march was a black banner reading “The government is abandoning public schools.” Music blasted at the front of the march as protesters shut down downtown Montreal and disrupted traffic. The protesters eventually made their way to Square Dorchester where they rallied and ended with a few more speeches. After a few hours, the thousands of marchers finally made their way to end without any arrests being made.

English-speaking teachers in Quebec have also vowed to go on strike this fall. On September 24, Anglophone teachers unions voted to hold six strike days sometime after the federal elections on October 19.

“We’re probably looking at October 26 to October 28 at the earliest,” John Donnelly, president of the Pearson Teachers Union, told CBC News.

Meanwhile, the FAE has announced that its next strike day will be between October 14 and October 30. The teachers, along with students and parents, can only hope that these strike days helps out with the negotiations, which are set to continue on October 1.

“I wanted to send a message that enough is enough,” Jean-Philippe Lajeunesse, a parent who took his two daughters to the march, told the Montreal Gazette. “They want teachers to do more with less. We have to make a choice as a society, do we want austerity and a balanced budget or do we want good public education?”