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October 16, 2015

Headed for a showdown in Quebec

Ashley Smith explains the background to the simmering struggle shaking Quebec

Grève

MORE THAN 150,000 trade unionists, their families and supporters poured into the streets of Montreal from all over Quebec to protest Premier Philippe Couillard's attack on public-sector workers and government services.

In front of throngs of cheering demonstrators, Daniel Boyer, president of the Fédération des Travelaileurs du Québec (FTQ), declared, "I'm not going to say that this will be the last peaceful demonstration, but we're moving toward more muscular tactics."

This march came on the heels of a strike by 34,000 teachers on September 30 organized by Fédération autonome de l'eseignement (FAE) that shut down French schools throughout Quebec. And, on World Teachers' Day this past Monday, teachers across the province staged protests in front of their schools to denounce Couillard's cuts to education.

Parents are out in protest as well. Organized by Je protégé mon école publique, 20,000 parents formed human chains in front of their children's schools on September 1 and October 1. They are planning an even larger wave of school defenses on November 2.

These are all echoes of the angry anti-austerity resistance that fired the mass student strikes in Quebec in 2012, known as the Maple Spring. But this time, the struggle is reaching into the Quebec working class to a far greater extent--which raises the stakes even higher for the government.


THIS SPIRIT of resistance to neoliberal austerity was set in motion by the Maple Spring student strike in 2012. Led by Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ) and its larger student union coalition, CLASSE, students shut down their post-secondary schools, called CÉGEPs, and universities. The goal was to stop then-Liberal Premier Jean Charest from imposing a tuition hike and demand free public higher education for all.

Charest turned on the students, demonized them and made the mistake of passing a special law to limit their right to strike, assemble and protest. His crackdown backfired, triggering a dramatic escalation of struggle. Students defied government restrictions. They staged massive, unpermitted marches in Montreal, reaching into the hundreds of thousands. Their teachers formed their own coalition, Profs contre la hausse, which joined the protest.

The broader working class rallied to the students as well. In their neighborhoods in Montreal, workers organized unpermitted evening marches they called casseroles. Protesters demonstrated in the streets banging pots and pans--and everyone donned the symbol of the strike, the red square, which symbolized a life trapped in debt.

The wave of protest forced Charest and the Liberal Party to back down and call an election, which it lost to the Parti Quebecois (PQ). Charest himself lost his seat, and the Liberals suffered one of their worst electoral defeats in their history.

But after the PQ betrayed their promises to students, the Liberals capitalized on the demoralization and managed to return to power in 2014. Since then, they have declared war on Quebec's public services, their unionized workers and their clients. They are trying to balance the budget on the backs of the province's workers, poor and oppressed.


THE DRIVING motives of this attack are both economic and ideological. Quebec capitalism, although not in recession like the rest of the Canadian state, is mired in sluggish growth, low private-sector investment and therefore a drop in tax revenues for the provincial budget. Quebec's economy is projected to grow at only 1.3 percent for 2015.

To escape this slump and balance their provincial budget, Couillard's Liberal Party government hopes to impose wage freezes on state workers and cut social services. Benoit Renaud, a teacher and activist in the left-wing party Quebec Solidaire, observed, "We are not facing a tired and weak government like Charest's. Couillard's government got elected with a strong majority and doesn't have to call a new election until 2018. They aim to crush the union movement. They are trying to impose a neoliberal wish list on us all for the benefit of the 1 Percent."

In an abortive attempt to spark the struggle against Couillard's austerity agenda, the student union ASSÉ went on strike this past spring. Students hoped their strike would encourage public-sector workers to go out as well. But the militants hadn't laid enough groundwork among students, and the unions, despite the expiration of contracts on March 31, were not yet legally able to strike.

As a result, the government and school administrators were able to isolate the students and repress some of their most militant activists, especially at one of their key bases, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). Police cracked down, especially at UQAM, and expelled some activists.

The attempt to trigger a broader struggle didn't succeed, but the anti-austerity mood was by no means squelched. This spring's May Day had some of the largest and broadest actions in years, as the momentum began to recover, with some teachers, inspired by the students' militancy, shutting down their schools with unpermitted strikes.


OVER THE summer, the unions declared an impasse in negotiations. Couillard had refused to budge an inch at the bargaining table with five public-sector unions organized in the Common Front, as well as in separate talks with the teachers in FAE and the nurses' union Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ). These unions represent over half a million government workers--some 250,000 in health care, 185,000 in schools, 80,000 civil servants, 35,000 in the CÉGEPs. More than 75 percent are women.

Couillard wants to impose wage freezes on all these unions for the first two years of a five-year contract, followed by meager increase of 1 percent for the final three years of the contract. He also wants to raise the retirement age to 62 and cut pensions. According to Benoit Renaud:

Anger about Couillard, his demands, and just the general working conditions in the public sector is intense. People are threatening to quit their jobs because of the increasing workload. People say they're already losing their minds as a result of previous concessions. They are very worried and angry about the possibility that it will only get worse if Couillard gets his way.
In education, Couillard wants to increase class sizes; count children with special needs as one child, instead of three, as has been the norm; and increase the workweek from 32 to 40 hours. In health care, the government wants to raise the number of patients for each nurse, increase forced overtime and deny any increase in bonuses for working night shifts. Conditions are so bad 47 percent of active nurses over 50 years of age are considering retirement.

The union's proposals in negotiations are the polar opposite of Couillard. They want raises of 13.5 percent over the life of the five-year contract, increased investment in public services, and improvements of their working conditions. Each side is drawing a line in the sand.

Once they declared impasse, union leaders went to their members to seek authorization to strikes. The result was overwhelming--on average, over 80 percent of members voted in favor of job actions. The strikes, protests and organizing will now unfold and intensify over the next month.

The teachers' unions in the FAE, which already shut down their schools on September 30, are planning rotating strikes on October 26-28. If the government doesn't relent after that, they are threatening another strike date. The nurses in FIQ have yet to announce their plans to strike.

The rest of the unions, all in the Common Front, say they will follow through on their promise of militancy made at the demonstration in Montreal. They have called for six days of rotating regional strikes, timed to start after the federal elections on October 19.

In the meantime, unions are staging all sorts of actions. And during their strikes, unions in the Common Front are authorizing picketers to stage direct actions against corporations and political parties that are behind the drive to austerity.


THE STUDENT unions are also preparing to join the fray in solidarity with the unions, and with their own set of demands and proposals. The government is planning on $70 million in cuts in education funding for 2015-16. ASSÉ has called for a student strike and mass march in Montreal on November 5. Their expectation is that this will coincide with one of the strike days called by the Common Front.

ASSÉ has put forward an alternative plan to Couillard's austerity budget. ASSÉ member Myriam Leduc says, "We are demanding that the government stop attacking education and public services. We are demanding that they do the opposite. We must force them to tax the rich and use the money to invest in the public sector."

ASSÉ has reached out to union activists throughout Quebec. The students have organized local meetings between student activists and trade unionists in the hope of spreading their method of democratic and militant unionism. They have also played a key role in the Red Hand Coalition, which brings together students, labor unions and community organizations in a united front against austerity. The Coalition passed a motion to call for a social strike if the government passes a special law to restrict the right of the unions to strike and demonstrate.

As ASSÉ's spokesperson Hind Fazazi stated:

We are calling for students and workers to stand together against austerity. We are planning our strike to coincide with the peak of the workers struggle. And we are arguing that if the government imposes the special law like they did against us in 2012, we have to try and organize a social strike to stop them. We know that Quebec has the money to pay for free education, quality social services, and good wages and working conditions for public-sector workers.

Community organizations have also initiated plans for actions against the austerity budget. Many of these depend on government funding threatened by Couillard for an array of services like tenants' rights, women's rights and popular education. They, too, are planning to occupations and shutdowns in solidarity with the unions and student strikes.


THE OPPOSITION to austerity initiated by the students in the Maple Spring in 2012 has thus permeated much of Quebec society. Indeed, many students have since graduated and become teachers, nurses and public-sector workers, bringing their experience of militancy into their unions.

At the same time, the government is trying to isolate these militant forces by claiming that Quebec's welfare state is an unaffordable luxury that keeps taxes high on working-class people and must be cut. And they have cultivated a base of support. Nearly 50 percent of Quebecers think that unions have too much power.

The government's relentless austerity agenda risks provoking a new wave of resistance--this time a Maple Fall, with workers at the center of the struggle.

But there is no guarantee of that happening. The struggle stands at the crossroads. Union leaders gave militant speeches at last Saturday's march. At the same time, they have a history of using such threats to improve their bargaining position, only to agree to slightly less concessionary deals which they then try to sell to their membership.

The big question is whether the ranks of the unions are prepared to push their leaders to fight. At this point, a majority of the rank and file is very angry about the attacks on them and the services they provide, but they are neither organized, nor do they have the experience of militant strikes in recent years. As Philippe de Grosbois, a teacher and member of his local union executive, explained:

Our unions have not struck in quite a while, and when we have the struck in the past, they have been short and symbolic. The kind of struggle we must organize now is on a whole different level. We are not used to that. So we have muscles that we have not used in a while that are frankly a bit atrophied.
Militants inside the unions are trying their best to build a current of a new combative unionism. They have formed a network called Lutte Commune that has an open letter, signed by nearly 400 union members, calling for union locals to organize joint local strike committees to organize discussions and democratically planned local actions. They argue that these committees should reach out to the broader working class, make the case that their unions are fighting for everyone's services and living standards, and build broader class support.

The network is organizing public meetings in Montreal, Gatineau, and Quebec City to bring together the beginnings of rank-and-file networks to strengthen the democratic self-organization of local unions, improve their capacity to fight, and try to push the leadership to escalate the struggle. But these activists admit they are just at the beginning of the process.

Given all these factors, the trajectory of the struggle is unpredictable. The actions of Couillard will be decisive. Will he stand firm in his demand for extreme concessions? Will he impose a special law against the right to strike? Or will he back off his most draconian demands and get the union leadership to accept a milder but no less concessionary deal and call off the strikes? Will an angry but disorganized base accept such a deal?

Much is up in the air right now. As de Grosbois said, "If Couillard does impose a special law, it may detonate and widen a larger social struggle. People may then say, 'Ya basta! That's enough!' just like we did when they imposed the special law on the students. Then we erupted in struggle and brought down the government."

This brewing struggle is putting Quebec's political parties to the test. The Liberals are the naked face of the ruling class in Quebec. The nationalist party, the PQ, which so betrayed the hopes of the Maple Spring, is no alternative, despite its historic relationship with the union movement. It is now led by multimillionaire media executive Pierre Karl Péladeau. The only political party unequivocally on the side of the resistance to austerity is the left, independentist party Quebec Solidaire.

All of this ferment shows that the struggle initiated by students in 2012 was the start of the process of fighting neoliberal austerity. That fight has now expanded into a broader struggle of public-sector workers to defend their livelihoods and the vital services they provide to the entire working class. This process is creating a whole new generation of students and workers organizing to push for a new social and political order in Quebec.