Challenges facing Quebec students

July 5, 2012

Roger Annis reports on the battles ahead for Quebec's student strikers.

THE STUDENT movement in Quebec is facing a crucial summer of discussion and organizing. Law 78 that suspended classes at strike-bound institutions last month directs their resumption in mid-August.

The government of Liberal Party Premier Jean Charest is preparing a judicial and police assault against striking students and their associations that would force open school doors and see its proposed 82 per cent university tuition hike (over seven years) prevail.

Some of the student groups are preparing to campaign against the governing party in a provincial election that could happen as early as September. The forward-thinking sections of the movement are pressing forward a debate throughout the working class on their proposal for a 'social strike' that would challenge the entirety of the government's anti-popular agenda.

All the student groups are coming fresh off another, successful monthly day of protest on June 22. This fourth, consecutive monthly protest drew as many as 100,000 people into the streets of Montreal and 4,000-5,000 in Quebec City, a first large march for that city. (See two reports on June 22 here and here).

Students join in a caserole march through Montreal, banging on pots and pans
Students join in a caserole march through Montreal, banging on pots and pans

In a speech delivered two weeks ago in Montreal, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, co-leader of the CLASSE student association, outlined the challenges faced by the student strike in the new Law 78 stage.

He began by explaining that students "have reached their maximum capacity for mobilization and disruption." They have mobilized in unprecedented numbers for four months. At its height, 75 percent of post-secondary students in the province joined the strike. Still the government did not back down, he said.

The community mobilizations in support of students, notably the "pots and pans" movement, have been extremely important, but by themselves they don't have enough social and economic weight to tip the balance. The workers in the factories and offices do have that weight, he said. Can their unions be mobilized to join the struggle and help tip the balance?

Workers and their trade unions cannot be expected to engage in sustained protests, including strikes, for education demands alone. They must also bring their own workplace and societal concerns into the fray.

Nadeau-Dubois ended his speech with an appeal to the trade unions and broader working-class movement to join the student struggle and broaden it with their own demands. This is what CLASSE means by its perspective of a "social strike."

A meeting of CLASSE's national council on June 17 decided to co-host broad conferences in all the regions of Quebec this summer to discuss and plan for a social strike. It will publish a brochure to make the case for a broad, fighting social alliance.

Since re-election in 2008, the Liberal government is increasingly trumpeting "user pay" principles for delivery of social services in what it calls a necessary "cultural revolution" in citizen attitudes.

CLASSE estimates there are 11 billion dollars of spending cuts and increased service fees to social programs contained in the government's 2012 budget. It also notes there have been some $10 billion in tax breaks doled out to individuals and corporations by successive governments since 2000.

Debate in the trade unions

There is stiff opposition to the social strike from top union leaders in Quebec. A May 28 letter by Michel Arsenault, president of the FTQ, the largest union federation in the province, is addressed to union leaders across Canada and argues forcefully against the social strike. CSN president Louis Roy said several weeks ago at a public conference that his members were not ready for it.

Arsenault wrote that the best course for students was to negotiate with the government. The letter was written on the eve of negotiations that ultimately failed. The government walked out of talks and turned to police and judicial violence and threats to resolve the deadlock. Now it says, in the recent words of Quebec Minister of Finance Raymond Bachand to the French daily Le Monde, "The only possible exit from this crisis is by way of an election..."

If unions in English Canada want to support the Quebec students, Arsenault wrote, "I invite them to contact me." A parallel letter by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), also dated May 28, urges affiliates across Canada to follow Arsenault's directive.

The collapse of negotiations in late May did not prompt any rethink among the union leaders of the social strike. The three large union centrals--FTQ, CSN, CSQ--did not announce the June 22 march in Montreal on their websites. (The FTQ is the only Quebec union central affiliated to the CLC; it exercises a complete autonomy within the pan-Canadian federation.)

The CSQ (teachers) made a small announcement of the march to take place in Quebec City, reporting with apparent satisfaction that the main organizers of the march (the FECQ and TACEQ student associations) had submitted their proposed route to police, in conformity with the requirements of Law 78. The march was "therefore legal."

Like the Parti Québécois, the main opposition party in Québec's National Assembly, union leaders are urging compliance with Law 78. That places them squarely at odds with the massive wave of civil disobedience that has washed over the province against the law following its adoption on May 18.

Nonetheless, there were many union banners and contingents present on the marches. The lead banner on the Quebec City march read: "Let's join together, students and workers in Quebec." Discussion in the unions of such a course will clearly intensify in the weeks ahead.

Members of Québec Solidaire are part of this discussion. A key issue will be the defense of student strikers and picket lines when the school year resumes.

Law 78 prohibits any act of public protest of more than 50 people that does not have prior police approval. It outlaws all but token picket lines or other forms of protest at educational institutions. It sets out harsh penalties against individuals and organizations that participate or counsel participation in so-called "illegal" protests.

As a recent article by QS member Jessica Squires describes, Law 78 is a grave threat to the very existence of student associations.

Election card up government sleeve

Having failed to date to break the student strike with police riot squads and Law 78, the government has another card up its sleeve - an election call. Here it enters favorable terrain, where the power of money, lies and media misrepresentations weigh strong.

In its pre-election, multi-million dollar television and radio advertising program, the government is arguing that students are being 'unreasonable. The government, we are told, has made all kinds of funding available to low-income students and families that would soften the blow of its tuition hikes. (A demonstrably false argument, according to research by the student associations.)

Soon to come will be the government's 'law and order' message: students are not respecting 'the law,' they would have society descend into chaos and anarchy. Already, an ominous-looking, black and white television advertisement shows PQ leader Pauline Marois joining in a "pots and pans" march last month.

But there is a major fly in the ointment for the government's election card, namely the proceedings of the commission of inquiry into corruption in Quebec's construction industry. The commission is looking into the industry, the government ministries that oversee or contract to it, and the multiple financial links between it and government ministries and the two parties that have governed the province in recent decades.

The Charest government was obliged to convene the commission after it could no longer keep a lid on public outrage over the brazen illegality and scandalous abuse of public funds that prevails there. It is headed by Quebec Superior Court Judge France Charbonneau.

The revelations during the first few weeks of its hearings, to resume in September, have been very damaging. The former head of a government anti-corruption unit, for example, has testified that 70 percent of the money going into the coffers of the major political parties is done outside the law regulating such financing.

The government has 17 months left in its mandate, but the longer it waits to call an election, the more it will be stained by the Commission's revelations.

At a press scrum prior to the June 22 march in Quebec City, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois pointed to the Charbonneau Commission as a new element in the student protests. He explained:

Today's demonstrations are taking a particular turn because of the information coming out of the Charbonneau Commission and staining the Charest government.

It's very insulting to students, on strike for more than 100 days, to be asked by the government to "do our part" (accept a tuition hike) while hearing news of hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds fattening the pockets of the friends of the Liberal Party that could otherwise finance education.

An electoral alliance with the PQ?

An online petition campaign is calling for a united electoral front of the three, pro-sovereignty parties in the Québec National Assembly-Parti Québécois, Québec Solidaire and Option Nationale. The petition has gathered more than 11,000 signatures.

The only party to stand foursquare with the student movement, Québec Solidaire, has resisted such a call, citing the anti-social governing record of the Parti Québécois. The PQ has governed Quebec for 18 of the past 35 years. But last week, the party said it would agree to talks under certain conditions.

A statement by Québec Solidaire's National Coordinating Committee (CCN) sets out conditions for an electoral agreement, including a new electoral system of proportional representation, a freeze on tuition fees, the abolition of Law 78 and scrapping of all criminal charges arising from it, and major reform of Quebec's mining law that presently has the lowest mining royalty (taxation) rates in Canada.

It is unlikely that the PQ could agree to Québec Solidaire's conditions. As if to recall the party's past record in government, Pauline Marois has recently ceased to wear the red cloth square that is the symbol of the student strike. Many members of her caucus frankly oppose the student strike; officially, the party is for a one-year moratorium on any tuition increase, during which time talks would take place to set an appropriate increase.

The FEUQ (university) and the FECQ (junior college) student associations say they are gearing up for an anticipated election and will target electoral districts where the PQ has the greatest chance of defeating the Liberals. CLASSE, on the other hand, also favours the defeat of the governing Liberals but says student demands should not be hitched to the electoral fortunes of a party (the PQ) with an education record hardly better than that of the governing party.

Most top union leaders traditionally favor the election of the PQ as a lesser evil to the Liberals; increasingly, this is also their alternative to the social strike now that any negotiations with the government appear out of the question. They had a similar approach in 2010 when the government announced new "user pay" fees (including to health care) and privatizations of public services; the union centrals gave only perfunctory backing to mass protests that erupted but were short lived.

Solidarity across Canada

Solidarity with Quebec students is slowly growing in the rest of Canada. Unions have been providing funding for logistical support and legal defense of the student associations. The national postal workers union penned a letter to its local and regional bodies on May 29 urging such support. CUPE Ontario wrote on June 21 that it is reaffirming and stepping up its support to Quebec students.

The "pots and pans" (casseroles) protest movement that first sprung up in working-class neighborhoods in Montreal and other cities in Quebec is being emulated in cities and towns across Canada.

In Vancouver, there were no less than three public forums last week discussing the movement in Quebec. Seventy-five people heard writer and activist Judy Rebick speak on June 17 about lessons of the Occupy movement and now the Quebec student movement. Two nights later, Martine Desjardins and Yanick Grégoire of FEUQ spoke to 125 people in a public forum hosted by the BC Federation of Labour and the Canadian Federation of Students. The following night, students and faculty at Simon Fraser University hosted three activists from CLASSE at a teleconference attended by nearly 100 people.

Desjardins and Grégoire gave an informative overview of the history of the Quebec student movement. There have been nine student strikes in Quebec since 1968. They presented the results of research by FEUQ showing that government claims to be making post-secondary education affordable for working class families is false.

They spoke with confidence and praise for the 125,000 members of their association, explaining that one of the strengths of the student movement in Quebec has been its democratic functioning, including holding regular general assemblies of all interested members to decide policy.

The CLASSE activists focused their remarks on how their association has organized itself. Xavier Lafrance explained that historically in Quebec, there have been two broad currents in the student movement. One has focused on lobbying governments for education improvements. The other, codified in the emergence of the ASSÉ association in 2001, is militant and activist. It has a social agenda broader than education alone.

CLASSE is a broader regrouping of ASSÉ begun last year. Since the beginning of the student strike, some 10,000 members of the other associations have migrated to join CLASSE, attracted by its more radical social program and grassroots, democratic functioning.

The two, broad currents described by Lafrance have grown closer through the recent battles.

The FEUQ and CLASSE activists were asked at each meeting about the prospects for a social strike in the autumn. Both acknowledged the difficulties in drawing trade unions into this. Each cited laws that prohibit workers from going on strike when collective agreements are in force, though Hugo Bonin of CLASSE went on to explain that as the student strike has shown, authorities have difficulty in imposing anti-democratic laws if enough people decide to assert their rights and defy them.

CLASSE co-leader Jeanne Reynolds told the U.S. Socialist Worker newspaper on June 22, "We have to talk to the base of the unions because the leadership may not be for the social strike. We hope to find a lot of support amongst those workers. Our futures are the same."

Desjardins and Grégoire said that FEUQ general assemblies would discuss the social strike during the summer. The student associations are calling for the monthly mass protests to continue on July 22 and August 22.

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