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Quebec: Student strike movement reaches turning point

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“Most powerful challenge to neo-liberalism” in North America

Last week, 400 socialists from across Europe and all around the world met in Belgium at the CWI Summer School. Below, Brandon Madsen reports on the commission which dealt with Quebec and the inspiring student movement taking place there.

In response to rising tuition fees, Quebec society has been shaken to the core by four months of student strikes, which have garnered support from trade unions and been linked to far-reaching anti-austerity demands.

Though student involvement varies – with some striking indefinitely, some for a specific time, and others remaining more passive – student support for the movement has been overwhelming. At the movement’s peak, the demonstrations turned out an estimated 310,000 students: that is, three out of every four students in Quebec.

The Guardian journalist Martin Lukacs describes the mass movement in Quebec as “the most powerful challenge to neoliberalism on the continent”. The symbol of the “red square”, originally used by unemployed workers in 2003 and then by students during the strike of 2005, is a ubiquitous sign of solidarity in what is being called the “Quebecois spring”.

It all started in the spring of 2011, when Education Minister Fine Beauchamps cynically attempted to sell a 75% increase in tuition fees over the next five years as a ‘cultural revolution’, ostensibly justified because it would bring Quebec tuition fees closer to those charged in other Canadian provinces.

The young people of Quebec have responded by showing Beauchamp and the rest of the neoliberal regime what a real cultural revolution looks like. Under the pressure of the determined mass demonstrations, Beauchamp resigned in May, and the movement has continued.

Amid all the excitement and inspiration, important questions remain: what is the balance of forces in this struggle, and what can bring it forward to victory?

‘Largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history’

CLASSE (the main radical student union) put out the call last autumn for strikes starting on 13 February of this year. The first major actions took place 16 February, when students joined together with workers and activists to blockade the streets surrounding stock market buildings.

From the beginning, the demonstrations were linked to a rejection of all austerity measures being carried out by the government. The 16 February demonstrations included three main demands: no increase in tuition fees, no increase in electricity charges, and no to all fees for health services.

The government’s complete intransigence and outright rejection of all student demands only poured fuel on the fire of the movement, which reached its first peak between 13 and 22 March. All supposed offers for negotiations have been non-starters designed merely to stall for time. Many of the offers in these “negotiations” are actually worse than the Education Minister’s initial proposals (for example, adding in cuts to education programmes on top of fee increases).

The Liberal Party in Quebec, concerned about the upcoming provincial elections which will take place this coming fall, have since tried to use “chaos in the streets” hysteria to distract voters from the numerous corruption allegations against them. It is estimated that as much as three quarters of the financing for the main traditional parties of Quebec is obtained illegally. By taking a hard line against demonstrators, they hoped to apply pressure that would divide and potentially break up the movement while simultaneously courting the “law and order” vote.

In line with this strategy, the new education minister Michelle Courchesne immediately proposed and proceeded to ram through a repressive new anti-protest law known as Bill 78, which went into effect on 18 May, mere days after Courchesne took over from Beauchamp. As a “special law” which specifically targets the political rights of the demonstrators, Bill 78 not only restricts education employees’ right to strike but more generally inhibits the freedom to protest on or near university grounds. It requires that all demonstrations receive approval from the police before taking place.

Far from curtailing protests or breaking up the movement, however, the law has stirred up even more outrage in broader layers of society; the protests in defiance of the law were the largest yet, with up to 500,000 marching in Montreal in ‘the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history’.

Historical roots of the student strike

Bruno-Pierre Guillette from Alternative Socialiste (CWI in Quebec), who introduced the CWI School commission on Quebec, began his remarks by comparing the student strike movement today to the ‘Quiet Revolution’ that transformed Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s.

Like the current ‘Quebecois spring’, the Quiet Revolution was an expression of a profound social crisis in Quebecois society. Despite never reaching the numerical size that today’s student strikes have at their height, these earlier movements had strong revolutionary currents within them. They were able to transform the political landscape and win reforms which improved the lives of millions. The Quiet Revolution marked the beginning of a powerful student movement, and between 1968 and 1977 there were major strike actions, most notably in 1972, which was one of the largest working class rebellions in North American history.

The development of a more secular society and the welfare state was accompanied by the rise of a stronger Quebecois national identity. The industries of health care and education, which had previously been in the hands of the Catholic Church, were taken over by the provincial government; corresponding Ministries of Education and Health were created. The civil service was unionized and electricity production and distribution were nationalized. There was massive public investment in infrastructure and education.

The years 1988-89 marked the decline of the student movement in Quebec as a call for a general student strike was unsuccessful. The Quebec Federation of College Students (FECQ), created after the experience of the failed strike, quickly took a turn towards collaboration with the university bureaucracies and bourgeois politicians and away from independent struggle. Today this organization continues to pursue a collaborationist policy and maintains ties with the centre-left nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ).

Still, there was another student strike in 1996 which resulted in a 10-year tuition freeze. Since then, both the PQ and the Liberal Party have been actively complicit in carrying out austerity measures. In 2005, the Minister of Education decided to change scholarships into student loans (which, unlike scholarships, would have to be repaid). This resulted in a massive student strike, which was successful in stopping this measure despite the heavily co-opted main student federations being used as a tool of the government against the radical wing of the movement.

It is only because of these earlier movements that Quebec’s tuition fees are so much lower than the rest of Canada’s to begin with and now the government is attempting to eliminate the hard-won gains of the past all in one fell swoop.

The tuition freeze expired in 2006 and fees have been on the rise ever since. The average Quebec university student now graduates with C$14,000 in personal student debt. This reality has served as the backdrop to the current struggle and provided the combustible material that allowed for the explosive movement of today.

The role of police repression and Bill 78

Bill 78 was the attempt of the Quebec ruling class to contain that explosion. This attempt has so far profoundly backfired on them; turning up the heat and pressure has only made the explosion more powerful.

Since the passage of Bill 78, support for the student movement in broader society has only increased. Layers of workers and activists who took part in the demonstrations previously are now coming out in defiance of the law because they are enraged by its assault on basic political rights of individuals to organize and protest.

Nonetheless, because of Bill 78’s highly repressive and undemocratic nature, it is a danger to all future movements. As such, it is urgently necessary to fight to overturn it.

Due to this law, it is now legally forbidden to have spontaneous demonstrations; everything must be reported to the police eight hours in advance or the protest is deemed illegal. Police now have the power to order changes in the timing, location, itinerary, and march routes of demonstrations. Protests or pickets within 50 metres of a university building are now illegal.

As for the right to free association: if a student society decides to support the strike, it can not only face steep fines (up to C$125,000 per day), but be legally dissolved and forced out of existence. Individual participants can be fined up to C$5000 per day and leading organizers up to C$35,000 per day.

In the last four months, the police have arrested 3000 people in what have been termed “preventative arrests”, meaning that those arrested have not actually committed any unlawful acts (implied: yet). One tactic used by the police has been to simply block off a section of street filled with demonstrators and arrest everyone indiscriminately.

These arrests have been widely condemned both within Quebec and internationally. Ten people have been seriously injured by the police in these arrests, and according to activists in the movement it is only a matter of good luck that no protestors have been killed yet.

Students need to build concrete links with workers and unions

Although there is a “truce” for now over the summer, the students have elected a strike committee that will vote on whether to take further strike action in August, which seems likely. In order to fully defeat the neoliberal austerity policies of the government, however, it will require spreading the struggle to the organized working class of Quebec.

The basis for the working class to play a leading role is there. The current attacks have not been limited to targeting students: there are plans for a new “health tax”, and healthcare subscription costs have already gone up by a factor of eight since 2010. Workers across the province are fighting against layoffs and workplace closures. Rent and utility prices are rising while wages stagnate. In Canada, more broadly, Canadian Pacific Railway workers are planning a 72-hour strike for their pensions, while the Canadian federal government tries to pass its own “special law” like Bill 78 to make that strike illegal.

The situation is ripe for the anger of the working class to be channeled into active participation in this ongoing movement. Though workers have individually taken part in the demonstrations out of the strength of their own anger and convictions, organized support from workers’ unions has been limited mostly to lip service, so far.

Connected to this are union officials’ ties to the PQ. While it is the Liberal Party who has been leading the charge for austerity and against the demonstrators, the PQ does not have any principled disagreement with them. The main difference from the Liberals is they might bring in a few superficial reforms in attempt to take the wind out of the movement instead of a one-sided cracking down. To oppose neoliberal policies effectively, the workers and their unions but be able to act politically independently from all pro-capitalist parties, including the PQ.

For the moment, the student movement’s main call to workers has been for them to use sick days to come out to demonstrations rather than take actual strike action. At the same time, they have raised the general idea of a “social strike” of all who oppose austerity. The ability to organize this type of strike action, societal in scope and political in character, is precisely what will determine the success or failure of the movement to achieve fundamental change in the long run.

If the students remain alone at the end of August, when the government intends to force them all back to the universities, this will not bode well for the movement’s success.

Will unions join student struggle?

So the key question hanging over the movement in the period ahead is: when classes start again in the fall, will the unions rise up and join the movement and full partners, or will they stand aside and allow the strikes to be crushed?

The decisive factor in this situation is the degree of rank-and-file organization, activism, and political consciousness within the unions. The only way that the unions will be mobilized to enter the struggle in full force is by a relentless push from below. This type of development can be encouraged by bold calls to the unions from the student movement. Socialists, in particular, have an important role to play in popularising the idea of a united anti-austerity fight back amongst all sections of the movement.

This is the work that Alternative Socialiste (CWI in Quebec) is doing right now, concretely by calling for a 24-hour general strike as the next step to bring together workers and students against austerity, for free education at all levels, and for decent jobs for all to combat youth unemployment.

Regardless of what happens in the fall, the raising of consciousness this movement has brought about cannot be erased. Together with the Wisconsin uprising and the advent of the Occupy movement last year, the picture is becoming increasingly clear for all to see: class struggle is back on the agenda in North America.

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