Calls for separatism in Quebec are replaced by pleas for jobs

Premier Rene Levesque, his dream of Quebec independence now in limbo, is absorbed in trying to put the French-Canadian province's troubled economy back in order.

The problems have come to the fore in a bitter, illegal strike by provincial workers that has disrupted government offices, health clinics, schools, and other services for the province's 6 million people.

The work stoppage, which threatened to snowball into the worst labor action in provincial history, involved 200,000 civil servants, a group that has traditionally been the strongest supporters of the dual policies of Quebec nationalism and social democracy espoused by Mr. Levesque's Parti Quebecois.

But the strike appears to be fizzling out. Last weekend, 37,000 hospital nurses signed a new pact with the government. On Monday hospital workers called off picketing to study a new contract offer by the government.

Many unionists complain that Levesque, saddled with the worst-performing economy among Canada's 10 provinces, has singled out his old allies, government workers, to bear the brunt of his attempts to revive the economy by trimming government spending.

Quebec's treatment of civil servants, who have among the highest-paid and best-protected government jobs in the country, has contributed to a whopping provincial deficit now running at more than $3 billion annually. Unemployment now stands at 14 percent.

Levesque recently pushed through legislation abruptly cutting provincial workers' wages by 19 percent and freezing their incomes and working conditions until 1986.

Jobs and industrial growth have become the dominant issue in the province, even though Levesque, who came to power on a platform calling for Quebec independence, still holds that goal as a long-term strategy.

The specter of Quebec independence, along with the new laws meant to enhance the role of French culture and language at home and in the workplace, have disturbed much of the Canadian business community.

Dozens of major companies have moved their head offices from the province, hurting investment and taking away high-paying jobs that are needed to boost consumer spending and keep the economy healthy.

One of Levesque's most conspicuous miscues in pursuit of his economic nationalist goal has been the province's costly plunge into the asbestos industry. Last year, Quebec took over Asbestos Corporation, a move that was done to promote provincial control of the economy but ended up saddling provincial taxpayers with the potential burden of owning a major company in a fast-declining industry.

Many of Quebec's economic woes stem from the world recession and the shift of industrial muscle to low-wage countries.

This has meant a wave of business bankruptcies and the disappearance of many jobs. The economic growth rate fell 7 percent last year, by far the worst record of any province.

How Levesque will reverse the province's economic slide is unclear. But most business observers agree that curbing the power of the province's public sector unions, as Levesque seems to be doing, will certainly be a start.

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