Quebec: Students, Solidarity Strikes and Shutting Down Austerity at the Point of Production

Thousands of striking Quebec students shut down Rue Berri, a main avenue by the University of Quebec at Montreal. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)Thousands of striking Quebec students shut down Rue Berri, a main avenue by the University of Quebec at Montreal. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)

“Nurses have been going to college’s nursing programs and telling students you guys better vote for that fricking student strike. And daycare workers too,” says Louisa, a UQAM student organizer deep in Montreal’s Little Italy. “Even cops have been going to the cop programs and been like, ‘you guys better vote for that strike.’”

On March 21st, the first day of spring, Quebec students went on strike over the Liberal Couillard government’s austerity policies; those numbers swelled to over 60,000 striking students by Monday the 23rd. Approximately 140,000 total Cegep (pre-university vocational college), college and university students will hold strike votes with renewable mandates this spring. As the constituent power and momentum of the strike builds one general assembly at a time, at least 105,000 students have voted to shut it down at the point of production on April 2nd. Printemp 2015 is attempting to unite striking student unions with 400,000 public sector workers in contract negotiations in a province-wide “social strike” May 1st. The goal of which is to preserve social solidarity and healthcare and education as public goods, by resisting austerity’s extreme economic ideology of cultivating a debt crisis, and thereby privatizing much of what the State provides.

During the March 21st manifencour these unifying motivations seemed tenuous, as an officer with red patches on his body armor, a signifier of his opposition to cuts to police pensions, punches a female student in the face on St Denis as a late March snow falls.

Neoliberal restructuring attempts to dismantle the social uplift and progress of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution

“Often, we are asked why we, the students, are mobilizing ourselves against austerity measures,” said Camille Godbout, Spokesperson for the 80,000 person Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ) in a statement. “For us, the answer seems clear: the government is trying, through its repeated compressions, to place the entirety of our public services in permanent crisis.” Godbout cites cuts as a way to destabilize social programs to open the door to privatization. “We refuse this logic which reduces us simply to consumers who will need to pay for each use of our health, education, daycare and all other services necessary for the good functioning of a rich society.”

Speaking with the Information Network, the President of the Treasury Board, Martin Coiteux, maintained that job cuts, fewer services and privatization prefigure a bright future where “young people will have access to quality public services and access to good jobs.”

As public sector workers across Quebec go into collective bargaining this spring, the Liberal government is putting in place far-reaching cuts to health care, primary education, higher education, as well as special laws which would essentially nullify union bargaining and replace the community based democratic health care structures.

“Tons of Cegeps were founded between 1963 and 1969 and it’s also health workers you have all these CLSCs, or grassroots health clinics based in the areas that had popular councils,” says Louisa. “The state had to incorporate these grassroots clinics into their structures in order to control them.”

“Austerity hurts everything daycare, universities, the health system,” says Pascale a public sector healthcare worker. “There are two main laws impacting austerity: Law 10 and Law 20. Law 20 actually asks doctors to see a lot more patients in a lot less time, which will impact the quality of medical care.” Additionally Law 10 would foster the systemic crisis Godbout spoke of, creating an opening for privatization of healthcare, cutting 1,300 jobs in the healthcare system, effectively eliminating whatever is left of communities’ democratic control like CLSC’s, and winnowing away the province’s 18 healthcare and social services agencies and nearly 200 healthcare institutions into 28 facilities. In an interview with Amy Goodman, Economist David Stuckler and physician Sanjay Basu detailed the dramatic public health implications for European and North American countries which have already instituted similar neo-liberal policies.

Are there other sources of revenue? According to a coalition of unions, student unions, and civil society groups austerity is a political choice, as is reducing the general tax on large corporations making record profits. Approximately the same amount of revenue sought by the government in cutting public expenditures could be raised by closing tax loopholes for top income earners and making corporations pay their fair share.

During a 2012 Maple Spring night demo one carre rouge organizer quipped students were shutting down colleges and streets to fulfill Quebec’s promise to their parents’ generation; a promise of decommodifying education and making it a fundamental human right. Public Francophone higher education, which didn’t exist in Quebec prior to 1962, was created through the student strikes; the cheapest tuition in North America was defended from attempts to commodify it through a strategic repertoire of concerted activity, cancelled classes and taking to the streets. Now a similar mobilization attempts to preserve the social uplift and progress of the Quiet Revolution.

Austerity and the feminization of poverty

International Women’s Day 2015 in Montreal, led by low-wage migrant domestic workers and student unions. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)International Women’s Day 2015 in Montreal, led by low-wage migrant domestic workers and student unions. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)

“Most of the jobs in the public sector are gendered towards women,” Mathieu explains. “With the money that they take from the schools, the hospitals, the healthcare [the Liberal government] is increasing gender inequality building roads and mines in the north of Quebec with international corporations employing men.”

Indeed, a new study published by the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques (IRIS) details how the Couillard government’s austerity exacerbates rather than remedying existing gender based inequalities. The Coalition Against the Privatization of Public Services – comprised of more than 85 unions, feminists, community, student and popular groups- states,“The new cuts that will affect all departments, will limit the state’s ability to protect the common good, [and] greatly harm the achievement of equality between men and women. The Coalition protests including the amputation of 40% of the budget of the Secretariat for Women.”

“The government offered us frozen salaries to every type of worker in the health system,” says Pascale a healthcare worker. Like the ASSÉ spokesperson, she sees the combination of special laws, increased workloads, closed facilities and reduced budgets underfunding the public health system as an attempt to create a healthcare crisis. Pascale has been organizing and agitating with a caucus inside her union to join the students in a social strike. “The big unions did not say yes to that. The feeling is that they want to negotiate, the workers would rather something stronger going out.” Pascale points to the student unions as a guiding north star for labor to navigate a return to its social justice unionism roots. “They are organized and they go to more drastic measures. The big unions have thousands of workers, lots of money, and lots of things they could do if they decided to take more drastic action, which they are not doing. That’s going to block the movement in a way.”

“The call that has been made is to make contact with healthworkers, the publicly funded daycares are projecting that half of the kindergartens [daycares] are going to be bankrupt by July,” says Bela a student organizer at École polytechnique. “If you want to have children, that two weeks of being on strike is going to be repaid to you big time.” Bela recounts how inside his organizing conversations, technical education students were skeptical about organizing around education, because their programs are already commodified, privileging market demands over educational outcomes. “If you tell them, well, you won’t have any kindergarten. You will have to stay at home or your partner will have to stay at home. What kind of society do you want? Then they’re ready to strike.”

Re-invigorating the Maple Spring from below

Organizers with the “springtime committees” cite a disillusionment at a huge influx of “Quebec Solidaire social democracy into ASSÉ.” Rather than wait for the massive combative syndicalist student union to lead, a core group of student organizers began the grueling movement building leading up to the strike a full year before, in January 2014.

“Once you hit 25,000 students [on strike] it’s going to jump to 60,000,” says Bela. “You really bust your ass to get the first 25,000. So I went on Thursday to mobilize people for the strike. I’ve been to two places. One was a Cegep on the south shore, a petty-bourgeois area. It was like hitting a concrete wall. After like 200 no’s, and I hate you’s, and fuck you’s, it’s hard. I went to Cegep St-Laurent and the students were very receptive.”

In cloistered, department specific general-assemblies, University students vote for strike mandates, whereas Cegep student associations –comprising all departments- vote as a single body, some as large as 5,000-6,000 to join the strike. Founded as means of social uplift during the Quiet Revolution, the Cegeps’ and Francophone universities are suffused with working class students who, facing declining expectations and downward social mobility relative to their parents’ generation, prefigure the dynamism for the strike according to Bela and Louisa.

“A lot of people who were on strike in 2012 are now in the unions and a lot of people are saying come on board with us,” says Louisa. “Student now are not students in the sixties, 75% of all full time students at UQAM are working. The majority of Cegep students are never going to go into university, and are going to go directly into the labor market having already done solidarity strikes. What’s missing is a working class movement connected with the students.”

“Basically we’ve got to get beyond the system of labor law”: Reclaiming Quebec’s radical public sector union history

SPVM police forcefully eject a student from thousands-deep march on the first day of the strike. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)SPVM police forcefully eject a student from thousands-deep march on the first day of the strike. (Photo: Jonathan Leavitt)

“The fact is the public sector unions are super-organized and the general feeling is ideas aren’t coming from the base, they are coming from the top,” says Pascale. “If they do want confrontation it’s pretty symbolic: ‘we’ll put an ad on TV.’ But when it comes to the idea of a strike or civil disobedience, they don’t do it.” That said, the worst outcome, according to Pascale, would be for left leaning rank and file union members to abandon the largest and most powerful structures of social uplift and social solidarity in this current slash and burn historical moment. Teachers at three Cegeps have already voted to join students in the May 1st social strike no matter what the constraints of labor law, provided a critical mass of unions join. In a statement following their vote teachers at Cegep de Sherbrooke called on the rest of Quebec labor to join them:

“What to do when faced with a government that refuses to implement tax alternatives for increasing the state’s revenue without penalizing the poor and the middle class? What to do when faced with a government that prefers to accumulate surpluses on the backs of the most vulnerable people in Quebec? […] We believe that the gravity of the situation requires that we have recourse to another mode of action. We chose the social strike on May 1, 2015.”

Sixteen more unions have upcoming strike votes scheduled. Yet even with 40% union density in Quebec, restive voices of rank and file union members resound in the streets. “Basically we’ve got to get beyond the system of labor law,” says Pascale. Labor historian Joe Burns writes of this dynamic, in his history of public sector unionism: “The first step for today’s trade unionists is admitting both the necessity and possibility of breaking free of repressive anti-labor structures.”

“It’s illegal according to the rights of labor in Quebec to stage a political strike,” says Mathieu, “actually there are some interesting things being tried by people in the healthcare system called an inverse strike. The cuts and the austerity measures that are taking places will reduce the number of healthcare providers on the floor to six or seven people.” In this context the “inverse strike” would be a political strike by default, because the essential services law requires at least nine workers on the floor in defiance of the Coulliard government’s austerity measures.

“At some point,” says Pascale, “workers need to take back their unions, start taking back those structures from people who want no confrontation with this government.”

“Each four years or five years all the big unions unite themselves in a common front to negotiate against the government,” says Mathieu. “In 1972 was the first time unions united in a common front, it was a vast strike in the public system.” During the 1972 public sector strike the government passed a special law to force workers to return to work and making it illegal for union leaders to call workers and tell them not to respect the special law, punishable with a year jail sentence. “The leaders of the union decided, whatever, called out to the workers to continue the strike, and refused the special law, and so they were arrested and sent off to jail, which led to a Quebec-wide general strike demanding their liberation and the demands of the common front. The general strike was more or less victorious, the three stayed in prison for the year, but the government met all the demands of the common front.”

Interestingly, Quebec’s public sector unions had far less in resources, pensions, and real estate holdings in 1972 then today, yet they were taking far greater risks then, than in this current historical moment.

“An entire town was seized by the workers, a radio station was seized by the workers. It was a pre-revolutionary state,” says Mathieu of 1972. “Actually I’m not sure we are prepared for this kind of action because right now the big unions are more gentrified, but who am I to predict the future.”