Québec fights back against austerity

We are supposed to accept austerity as being as natural as ocean tides. Or be demoralized by the power of the forces that continually press down on working people around the world. But there is an ongoing, organized fightback going on — in Québec.

A series of rolling strikes by public-sector employees and students throughout 2015 appear to be headed toward a provincial general strike in December. Haven’t heard of this? That is not because it is francophone workers and students are who are driving these actions but because there has been a near total blackout of this news in the North American corporate media.

It would be all too easy to assume that that the owners and managers of corporate-media outlets don’t wish you to know that such fightbacks are possible. That may be so in some cases; it is more likely that the activity of working people, as opposed to the proclamations of business elites, simply aren’t seen as “news.” Read through the business section of your local newspaper — you will find it chock full of hand-wringing on behalf of corporate interests, with neoliberal ideology presented as the only possible orientation.

Downtown Montréal from Mont-Royal (photo by Anna Kucsma)

Downtown Montréal from Mont-Royal (photo by Anna Kucsma)

There are other possibilities, and such alternatives are being loudly put forth in Québec. Although the outcome of the current struggles for a fair contract for public-sector workers and increased support for education are far from being settled — much less the larger social issues thrown up by the neoliberal project — victories have been won, going back to the Maple Spring of 2012.

The 2012 student strike was so successful that it caused the provincial government to fall. The Québec government, then controlled by the Liberal Party, intended to raise tuition by 75 percent over three years. Protests and strikes quickly blossomed, shutting down universities and leading to street battles as police repeatedly attacked near daily demonstrations that sometimes numbered more than 100,000 as students were joined in large numbers by older people. The Liberal government dug in its heels, not only refusing to negotiate seriously but passing a law making the demonstrations illegal.

After months of struggle, the government called an early election, which it lost, ushering in a Parti Québecois government that promptly rescinded the tuition increases, canceled the anti-demonstration laws and, in an environmental gesture, reversed the Liberal support for fracking. Unfortunately, this victory is also an exemplary lesson of how capitalist reforms are ephemeral: The Parti Québecois ultimately failed to live up to its promises, itself called an early election, and was handed a stinging defeat, bringing the Liberal Party back to power.

Back in office, back to attacking

Québec’s new Liberal Party government, now headed by Premier Philippe Couillard, resumed its neoliberal assault. (A lesson that ought be borne in mind by those celebrating last month’s national election of Justin Trudeau.) The Québec government seeks to impose a de facto wage cut (offering a three percent increase over five years, well below the rate of inflation), institute a two-tier wage scale, raise the retirement age and cut pensions. In education, Premier Couillard wants to add eight hours to the workweek, cut teacher staffing for special-education students by two-thirds and impose drastic cuts in funding. For health care, he wants to impose funding cuts, more forced overtime and greater number of patients per nurse.

The Québec government claims a lack of money is behind its austerity measures, yet it had no hesitation in handing Bombardier Inc., one of the province’s biggest corporations, a $1 billion subsidy this year. Bombardier did report a loss in 2014 and is in the red for this year, but only due to accounting tricks; it reported $2.8 billion in net income for the previous four years.

As always, there is plenty of money for corporate handouts. Ideology, then, is the real reason behind these attacks. This has not gone unnoticed, by either the students or the working people who are uniting to fight back. Camille Godbout, spokesperson for the student group Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), said:

“Often, we are asked why we, the students, are mobilizing ourselves against austerity measures. 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. The final objective of this government is that we turn more towards the private sector and establish a ‘user-payer’ model in Québec. In rendering our services non-functional due to inadequate financing, the solution of Mr. Couillard and his minsters will be to raise individual fees.

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.

As soon as we note that the six biggest banks in Canada had profits of over 34 billion in 2014 and that, despite everything, they are taxed less and less, we know that we have the means to do things differently. It would suffice to go find the money there where it can really be found rather than systematically making the population poorer. For example, the return of a 1% tax on capital gains for financial institutions would bring in more than 600 million for the state.”

Calls for unity

A November 8 communiqué issued by the Front Commun, an umbrella organization of 400,000 workers from three unions across Québec, also made clear its belief in unity:

“Our members will not agree to become impoverished to finance tax cuts for business and the rich. [The government] ignores the conditions that we asked, that no one should get poorer at the end of this restructuring and that the wage freeze was not acceptable. … 18,000 people would see their salary reduced overnight … and many young people would start their careers with lower salaries. We can not accept such parameters.”

More than 60,000 Québec students went on strike in March; dozens of May Day demonstrations were held; parents have formed human chains in front of their children’s schools to symbolize their intent to defend them against cuts on three separate autumn days; schools were shut down across Québec by teacher strikes on October 7; 150,000 demonstrated in Montréal on October 10; and a series of rolling two-day strikes in cities and regions across the province have taken place throughout November by health care workers, teachers, administrative officials and others.

This was to culminate in a three-day provincial general strike beginning December 1. But, for now, that general strike has been called off. The Front Commun announced on November 18 that because the government has finally made a counter-offer, although inadequate, it will continue to negotiate. It said that it “has no plans to cancel the strike days, or to suspend the movement” and said its postponement of the December strike will be “short-lived” in the absence of significant movement at the negotiating table.

Several organizations have been in the forefront of Québec’s fightback against austerity. In addition to the student union ASSÉ, which played a leading role in the 2012 Maple Spring, and the union federation Front Commun, parents have organized the Je protège mon école publique, more militant rank-and-file union members are organizing through Lutte Commune to maintain pressure on union leaderships, and the Red Hand Coalition brings together unions, community organizations and students.

Lutte Commune’s open letter urges union locals to reach out to the broader working class through convening local strike committees that would make the case that the unions are fighting for the services and living standards of everybody. The group also has vowed to campaign for a rejection if union leaders accept a concessionary deal.

Solidarity as the key to struggle

The Red Hand Coalition has called a November 28 demonstration in Montréal, demanding the provincial government obtain the money to meet worker and student demands by reinstating the tax on capital gains for banks; increasing the number of levels of taxation to ensure genuine progressive taxation and a greater contribution of the richest; and increasing taxes for large companies rather than decrease them again. The coalition, which is organizing a series of conferences in anticipation of united mobilizations, says:

“While millions of dollars in further cuts await us, how can we together stop the destruction of public services and social programs by the Couillard government? By solidarity!”

That is a lesson for all places. That there is a robust public sector to defend is a product of a united front in 1972 and a bitter strike that held because of solidarity. During the strike, the government passed draconian laws mandating workers return to work. Union leaders were slapped with year-long jail terms for not calling off the strike, but a province-wide general strike was victorious.

Three years ago, when the previous Liberal Party assault was pushed back by the Maple Spring, ideology and not finance were really what counted for the government. Students estimated that the provincial government spent C$200 million, citing police and related costs, the value of canceled classes, the costs of personnel maintaining empty buildings and the cost of making up a lost semester. Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, a student association with 125,000 members, said to The Montreal Gazette that those costs exceeded what would have been collected from the tuition increases:

“The tuition for seven years was supposed to bring in about $170 million. So you can see it’s not about economics, but about ideology. It just doesn’t make sense.”

In terms of common sense, it doesn’t. In terms of class warfare waged from above, alas, it makes much sense. Class warfare has been a one-sided affair since the dawn of capitalism. It is long past time we fought back.

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16 comments on “Québec fights back against austerity

  1. Sounds a lot like Kansas, without the pushback…

  2. Vive Quebec! I sent my daughter to university at McGill in the hope she would be exposed to a culture willing to publicly challenge the dictates of the corporate elite. It was worth it – it seemed to open up a whole new world for her.

    • I imagine there are many McGill students taking part in the current fight. Those students and workers who understand each group needs the other, and that this is a fight for everybody, are showing true leadership. Students are workers who haven’t necessarily entered the workplace yet, although many (as was the case for me) due work part-time while attending university full time.

      • I am from Montreal and francophone. Unfortunatly Mcgill is an elitist university and the level of activism is very low. At large anglophone do not mingle with francophone. During the last student strike anglophone CEGEP and universities did not participate in thegeneral strike or participated in the demos

        • Sorry to hear this. I do realize that the movement is primarily francophone but I would hope anglophones would realize in greater numbers their interests in solidarity. The Montreal Gazette reported that “thousands of teachers from Montreal and Laval’s English school boards” participated in a November 16 strike, perhaps a sign that more support may be forthcoming. But that trade schools and universities are sitting out is disappointing — and self-defeating.

        • Ozzie says:

          That is not true at all. McGill is a conservative school and it did not participate in the student movement and the strike of 4 years ago but Concordia did. Each school of Concordia voted on the issue and many of them, with the exception of the Business school, Engineering, and Computer Science voted to go on strike.

          Regarding the anglophone and francophone divide, I wrote a long comment that touches on this issue as well as other “segregationist” tendencies within the province. Somehow, my comment does not appear and I only hope that it’s awaiting the moderator to approve it:-)

      • Ozzie says:

        As an expat who has lives in Québec and has lived there for the past 5 years, allow me to tell you that Québecois are economically leftists but when it comes to social justice, they’re as much to the right as our own hillbillies! I was here during the students’ strike and printemps érable and I was every bit supportive of their movement. In my neighborhood in Montréal, it felt like we were under siege with the cops and helicopters hovering around every night. As a life long leftist, I was in awe of the courage and persistence of these young people. My daughter was a Concordia student at the time and I had forbidden her from crossing the picket line. Unlike McGill, which is comparatively is a bastion of conservatism, her school was one of a hand full of Anglo universities (if not the only one) that went on strike. Those were amazing times! And yes, as you mentioned in your article, PQ won the election but they did stick it to the students with tuition hikes anyway.

        What you failed to mention was the PQ’s racist campaign for the Charter of Québec Values that followed shortly after they took over. They wanted to pass a law forbidding government workers from wearing any religious symbols. That is in a province that keeps a giant cross in their National Assembly! After the Sikh and Jewish doctors threatened to leave the province for their refusal to do away with their turbans and yarmulkes, the government made an “exception” for the hospital workers but NOT for teachers, daycare workers, clerks, and ordinary low income citizens of Québec. This was a racist and divisive campaign that was using the Québecois’ nationalism and xenophobia to punish Muslim immigrants. Indeed, the PQ lost the election but partly because the anglophones and allophones got scared of this nationalism and came to the voting booth to vote them out.

        The recent debate on the Niqab issue is another example of this xenophobia. It helped resurrecting Bloc Québecois party, which had been decimated by NDP 5 years ago. In short, the penchant for nationalism and xenophobia in Québec alienates a sizable minority who could join the Left on economic issues. The situation is not unlike the old union’s racism in the US before the civil rights movement. The unions used to exclude Blacks in our country because of their racism. The Québecois’ obsession with the French language and what they refer to as québecois de souche has the same effect.

        While the anti-austerity movement in Québec is admirable, let’s not forget that this is very much a segregated society that is not inclusive of all its members.

        • Thanks for the additional information on the Parti Québecois, Ozzie. It was clear that voters had punished them, and when it is by a large margin, there are usually multiple reasons.

          A couple of decades ago, when maneuvering ahead of the independence referendum was going full force, I recall that First Nations leaders said that if Canada were divisible, then Québec was divisible, meaning they intended to stay with Canada even if the province voted to leave, an indication to me of the complexities there.

        • Neoagrarian says:

          An articulate representation of the reality on the ground. From the outside looking in, I’m sure that Quebec appears to have all the necessary requirements for idyllic “greener pastures” scenario. I have lived here for twenty years, having immigrated from “The rest of Canada”, as an anglo, to a rural region within the province, not Montreal or any other urban center. Montreal is not Quebec. It bears more resemblance to a city state, and in general there is a sharp contrast between Montreal and what are deemed “the regions” when it comes to issues of open-mindedness and acceptance of “other”.

          But I have to concur, however regrettably, that there is a barely latent undercurrent of xenophobia that informs the zeitgeist of Quebec society and its politics. It manifests in the most banal of examples, and having endured its effects for this long has prompted me to examine its origin. I think it is mostly attributable to the collective sense of “we” (white francophones) as victims, as “we” being under seige – from the perceived “sea” of english that is the “rest of north america”. This current mythology of siege helps explain some of the craziness, the schizoid nature of Quebec society at times.

          “In short, the penchant for nationalism and xenophobia in Québec alienates a sizable minority who could join the Left on economic issues.”

          I couldn’t agree more, and it is unfortunate. If you have progressive, leftist, socialist or environmental political tendencies here, you are pretty much obligated to side with the nationalists, because there is “no other game in town”!.

          Many Canadians perceive the US as a monolith, which it is demonstrably not. Similarly, Quebec itself is not a monolith.

          • Understanding Québec is a challenge for someone from elsewhere, as I am, and all the more difficult due to my very poor French-language skills. A demonstration of the contradictions within Québecois society that left an impression on me was from Jacques Parizeau.

            I watched a press conference he gave during the 1995 independence-referendum campaign, and he struck me as a very reasonable person, saying that the province would take responsibility for its fair share of the Canadian debt, among other positions that sounded sober and rational to my ear. But then when the vote was narrowly lost, Parizeau lashed out with his infamous statement, “We are beaten, it is true. But by what? Money and the ethnic vote.”

            That brought home to me the divisions that divide the province; the sense of being under siege on the part of francophones and the unease the manifestations of those feelings of siege have on anglophones and First Nations peoples. The language laws also bring these points home. I wish the anti-austerity movement all the best, but it’ll be limited as long as it doesn’t spread to other communities and locales.

            • Neoagrarian says:

              You are remarkably well-informed as someone from “elsewhere”, and an American at that! As you well know, Canada is not typically on the radar of American public discourse, unless it has to do with talk of “harboring terrorists” or some such inanity. Second, one can only glean so much by way of media representation of events. There is always another story, the story on the ground as it were, of the “little people”, which media and the historians tend to disregard. Think Howard Zinn.

              Yes, Parizeau’s statement of defeat was an embaressment to his cause, and an embarressment to most who heard it. I actually empathize with that cause – the right of a “distinct culture” to self-determination. I would not be in a committed relationship of more than two decades with a francophone were that not the case. My own mother was of Acadian francophone origin.

              So the problem appears to be, from all that I have empirically witnessed over time living here, that the desire for self-determination has morphed into a rigid ideology, and has all the fatal flaws of rigid ideologies. Many of the architects of Hitler’s third Reich were cultured and learned men, capable of sounding reasonable in a limited way and under certain circumstances. But they had thrown there lot in with a collective psychopathy, perhaps because it appeared at the time to be the “winning side”. Problem is, there is no short supply of gullible and impressionable people among any given population, anywhere.

              The “nationalism card” is relentlessly used as a political control ploy in galvanizing the electorate along “party lines”. What could be more convenient as a political tool? You have a similar kind of thing in the US viz a viz “undocumented workers”….the “threat within”. It’s the age old “common enemy” trick, which is venal and divisive and indefensible.

              At least within the political jurisdiction of Quebec, this quest for self determination is invariably portrayed as a zero sum game. Any “gains” made by the anglophones are automatically seen as a “loss” for the francophones, and vice versa. This creates political division and anomie between the “two solitudes”, whereas on the ground people are just people trying to live their lives. At that level, people generally don’t perceive each other as mere “categories”, which of course is always dangerous.

              • Ozzie says:

                To reaffirm what’s been already said, the nationalism in Québec gets in the way of progressive politics. As our francophone comrade, Richard Guillemette said earlier, the only true progressive party in Québec is Québec Solidaire but they’re a separatist and nationalist party that can’t deviate from their main platform, which is seceding from Canada. Now, seceding from Canada would only make sense if your average separatist’s politics would be any different than that of the rest of Canada. But such is not the case as evidenced by the provincial government’s main opposition parties, PQ and CAQ that are both separatists but not much different than other parties in the rest of Canada.

                And Neoagrarian hit the nail on the head with the root cause of xenophobia in Québec and that being this sense of victimhood. Needless to say, some 40 years after the Quiet Revolution, francophones are no longer victims of church and anglophone industry barons. Nevertheless, they feel besieged by 350 million anglophones and unfortunately, this is the basis for all policies in Québec, including the French language preservation laws that get in the way of everything rational. For example, when it comes to subsidizing higher education and universities, Québec is the most generous province in Canada and that’s a good thing. The tuition for out of province and foreign students is by far lower than that of Ontario or BC but this same non-québécois student population that benefits from the generous subsidies of the Québec government leaves the province upon graduation because there are hardly any jobs for non-francophones due to strict language preservation laws that are rooted in Québec nationalism.

                I remember a few years ago when I was in a town hall meeting hosted by Québec Solidaire where the progressive representative, Amir Khadir was answering questions from the public. I recall that in response to someone’s anxiety about jobs, he turned it into a “language” issue and claimed how anglophones can automatically land on a job in a downtown establishment but such is not the case for a francophone! Needless to say, this cannot be further from the truth, which brings me to the point that Neoagrarian raised earlier: when it comes to leftist politics, the only game in town is a nationalist party!

                You may find the following essay, which takes a look at the province from the context of Denys Arcand’s trilogy interesting:

                http://puritan-magazine.com/the-history-of-the-decline-and-fall-of-quebec-according-to-denys-arcand/

  3. MaryQuiContrary says:

    Remarkably succinct summing up of the “story behind the (non) story”. It is true that Quebec seems to have retained an ‘all for one and one for all’ ethos that is nearly extinct elsewhere in North America. The corporate agenda looms large in all facets of modern life; one needs only to track the insidious creep of “public/private partnerships” that essentially turns public good into private profit. Nothing less than a 21st century iteration of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. Thank you for your insightful article.

    • The taking away of the commons is always at the forefront of capitalists’ assaults, and so it is in Québec. We live in a world where the primary function of government has become to guarantee the biggest possible profits for corporations.

  4. the PQ is a nationalist party that has lost it’s “progressive image” a while ago. it is funny that nobody mentioned quebec solidaire that has 2 members in the parliament. i sugggest that you have a look at their platform. i am sorry about Concordia it is true that they are more grounded if i can say so. also MCGill cater to foreign students that do not any roots in this province but comes in because of our cheap education fought by the francophone. As for xenophobia in quebec it is true that it is here and easily manipulated as a divisionnary tactics.Quebec always had a defensive reflex being worried about being drowned in the anglo world.Now the quebec elite is stirring the pot in order to gain support for it’s nationalist platform because it has lost it’s base that supported the socialist ideals of the beginning. it would be nice if more solidarity could be build between canada and quebec. As for natives a new bridge is being built right now and we saw that merging during printemp erable and the scandal in val d’or.iddle no more in quebec is red to show support with the red squares. i just hope that this meeting will last. also with the fight against fracking and dirty oil pipelines more solidarity can be built

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