The swimming pool of the Lévesque government

(Quebec ) Close your eyes. Imagine interest rates at 20%; everywhere signs for sale, posed by owners bled white. Inflation? It reaches 10%, a peak anywhere in the world. And unemployment? Nothing more encouraging, we are at 15% overall, but we climb to 26% among young people. Quebec has more than 400,000 unemployed people.

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It’s 1982. 40 years ago, the stage was set for what will remain the most violent confrontation between the government and its union members. “It was driving you crazy,” says René Lévesque in his memoirs. The world economy had finally “given birth to a hurricane whose violence reminded the elders of the darkest days of the Great Depression”.


René Lévesque was Premier of Quebec in 1982, when the economic situation was particularly difficult.

Before the 1980 referendum, at the 1979 negotiations, the Lévesque government had largely loosened the purse strings. But in 1982, the recession came to strangle public finances. At each meeting of the Council of Ministers, in the spring, the President of the Treasury Board, Yves Bérubé, tabled documents on “the financial impasse”, it is necessary to cut 725 million per year in spending. Two avenues are available first: “carry out [coupes] services or reduce remuneration in public and parapublic services”, retain the minutes of the meetings. Quickly, we decide to look at salaries – public sector employees who enjoy absolute job security earn about 16% more than private sector employees, it’s an average of $17,600 per year in the public sector. against $14,800 in the private sector. It remains to be seen how these painful cuts will be made. These 1982 cuts are above all the story of a failed operation.


Camille Laurin was Minister of Education under René Lévesque.

The following spring, the Minister of Education, Camille Laurin, returned with a bloody face to the Parti Québécois convention, the result of a clash with demonstrators, mainly teachers, who were protesting against government cuts. Union members in the public sector also smash the windows of ministers’ limousines going to the Concorde in Quebec City. Lévesque’s vehicle is attacked with a baseball bat. At the time secretary general of the government, Louis Bernard clearly remembers the heartbreak that these decisions imposed: “The civil servants, the teachers, they were our supporters since the beginning of the party. »

The Butcher of New Carlisle

This year we observe an apology without false notes for the late Prime Minister born 100 years ago. But at the time, the news daily evoked the war criminal Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon.


Premier René Lévesque arrives at Collège Ahuntsic, where union members are demonstrating, on April 10, 1982.

The union posters will stigmatize the Gaspésien: “I became the Butcher of New Carlisle! It was somewhat forced, but fun all the same. Sadly,” Lévesque wrote in his memoirs. “This whole episode hit him deeply,” recalls Martine Tremblay, deputy chief of staff at the time, in an interview recently.

One wonders if this wasn’t the beginning of the end [pour René Lévesque].

Martine Tremblay, then Deputy Chief of Staff

Behind the closed doors of the Council of Ministers, two theses had collided. The collective agreements were due to end in December 1982, a six-month extension had been requested by the centrals and imprudently granted by Jean-Claude Lebel, then secretary of the Treasury Board. “We had just sown the seeds of the crisis”: the last increase was going to cost the government 725 million annually, writes the government negotiator, Lucien Bouchard, in his memoirs, With face uncovered.

The notes of the meetings of the Council of Ministers, now public, testify to a waltz-hesitation. On May 2, 1982, René Lévesque asked if we could not instead increase the tax burden on businesses. Parizeau replies: Quebec already taxes them more than Ontario, “in any event, such an increase would risk bringing in little,” adds the great fundraiser.


Jacques Parizeau and René Lévesque, March 31, 1981

Since the start of this confrontation, Lévesque has been wary of Parizeau, after the sudden appearance of a $700 million hole in the books.

Young versus old

Rather than blowing up the fund, the youngest members of the Council of Ministers, Pierre Marc Johnson, Michel Clair, François Gendron and Pauline Marois, want Quebec to reopen the contracts immediately to cancel the increases granted. Informal negotiations had even been started, René Lévesque had proposed that the centrals be satisfied with indexation, to renew the agreements. It was a refusal without too many nuances on the side of the centrals, remembers Jean-François Munn, then coordinator of negotiations for the CSN. He still remembers the often dogmatic positions of the centrals, especially the CEQ led by Yvon Charbonneau. “After this refusal, the negotiations began… with more inconsistent requests than the others,” he recalls in an interview. “This round of negotiations was decisive, it sparked a major crisis! “, observes Maurice Charlebois, a long-time negotiator for the government thereafter.


Jacques Parizeau is one of the ministers who vehemently opposed the reopening of contracts to cancel the increases granted.

Veterans Yves Bérubé, Marc-André Bédard, Camille Laurin and especially Jacques Parizeau oppose the reopening. Parizeau puts all his weight in the balance. Not to grant the promised increase would be to deny the word given. “Mr. Lévesque did not want to humiliate Mr. Parizeau,” summarizes Louis Bernard, then the first government official. Lévesque’s support for the position of Monsieur, nickname of Parizeau, “was a major strategic error”, agrees Bernard in an interview.

The swimming pool ”

“It was clear that Parizeau would have resigned. From the beginning, he had put his foot down and Lévesque felt that he was going into the wall if he objected, “recalls Guy Morneau, then young head of negotiations for the Treasury Board. . Finally, the collective agreement will be respected, the increases paid, until December 1982, but the government will return to seek these sums in wages in the first three months of 1983. A drain of 20%! We would lower the water in the “pool”, a somewhat lame image that will survive for a long time.

“The centrals were convinced that the government would not go that far,” recalls Jean Royer, then at the Parizeau cabinet. Conversely, in the government, we were convinced that the centrals would bend their knees before the ax fell on the three special laws, which will decree wages and working conditions for the 300,000 state employees. The last, 111, nicknamed “the atomic bomb”, gave teachers two days to return to class or they were fired.

Each day of absence caused three years of seniority to be lost. It was planned to abolish contributions deducted at source. Also, $10,000 fine per day of strike for a union leader, $50,000 for a union.

An employee who earned $926 every two weeks will see his pay reduced to $751. “Jean Roch Boivin, René Lévesque’s right-hand man, explained to us that it was the ‘big pool’, which will be followed by the ‘small’ one. After April 1983, all salaries will subsequently be reduced by 6% ad vitam æternam,” recalls Pierre Lamarche, then right-hand man of Norbert Rodrigue, boss of the CSN. Another measure, more pernicious, is also imposed: the indexation of pension funds will no longer be automatic, it will be the price index minus 3%. As a bonus, all employees will be deprived of a year of seniority, and no one will move up that year.


A few weeks before the fall 1989 elections, alongside Louis Laberge of the FTQ, Parizeau had deplored the “smear campaign” that had targeted the public service, but recalled that at the time, the government had no other recourse in view of the centrals’ refusal to negotiate.


Trade unionist Louis Laberge, president of the FTQ from 1964 to 1991

Did the 1982 confrontation have political consequences? Even 40 years later, “the PQ candidates are still reminded of these cuts when they go door to door,” said Pascal Bérubé, PQ MNA for Matane-Matapédia. “My father was a teacher, at home it was often a subject of discussion,” he adds.


Pascal Bérubé, PQ MP for Matane-Matapédia

In 1989, the FTQ publicly supported the PQ in the general election. It had also done so in 1976 and 1981. The only exception, in the 1985 elections, the delegates from the public sector, CUPE, opposed it. The vote at the special convention had rejected support at 58%, recalls Louis Fournier, author of a history of the FTQ.

“I did not see myself representing myself in front of my voters in Charlesbourg”, recently underlined Denis De Belleval, who will end his political career at the end of 1982. With the exception of Jean Garon, whose majority was reduced to Lévis, all the PQ candidates in the greater Quebec City region bit the dust in the 1985 general election, recalls Martine Tremblay. Of course, the PQ was then seeking a third term, a major challenge, but faced with the carnage in Quebec, “we can say that this negotiation had left its mark,” she summarizes.

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