by Johan Boyden
Students in Quebec have stepped‑up their escalating strike action for accessible education, with a massive demonstration of over 250,000 people on March 22. The mobilization far exceeded the expectations of organizers, creating a human river of protestors as wide as four lanes of traffic and almost eight kilometres long, effectively shutting down the center of Montreal.
The student demonstration, one of the largest protest marches in Canadian history, has rocked Quebec and "upped the anti" for a movement on a collision course with the provincial Charest Liberal government.
"We are just getting started" the students spokespeople said at the rally, calling for all groups in Quebec society to join them, including labour, and by all accounts it looks like the struggle here could be just beginning.
Hard work pays off
The mass demonstrations come after a long haul of organizing by students and allies. Sharp debates on campus just a year ago questioned whether the student unions could forge the unity necessary to launch an effective resistance, and if the students themselves were willing to fight.
The initial announcement of a significant increase in fees by the Charest government came in 2010, but it was only with the 2011 provincial budget that the exact amount of the hike was revealed: $325 annually over five years, adding up to $1,625 more per year, plus ancillary fees. The 2012 budget, tabled a few days before the demonstration, continues this plan of attack by the Liberals - but in new conditions.
Months of sustained resistance starting in December have seen tens of thousands of students, professors, parents, labour and community movements on the streets virtually every week. Even right-wing media commentators are calling for the government to negotiate with the students.
Now the question is whether the students can take the moral pressure of their strike and join forces with the labour movement.
Militancy and unity
Opposition to the tuition hike has already brought together a politically disparate group of student unions known as much for their militant actions as in‑fighting. Quebec has a long history of student mobilization. This is the eighth student strike in the last four decades, and the fruits of that pressure has been to keep fees frozen, giving Quebec the most accessible education in Canada - something the government, ironically, never fails to remind people with an all‑out media blitz of radio and TV campaign ads in support of the increase.
The stories of the student mobilizations are a hard lesson in the power of unity. Students collectively marched out classes - often for over a month at a time - in 1968, 1974, 1986, 1988, 1996, 2005. While not all students hit the streets, so many acted together that, despite fear mongering by university administrations, they were not academically penalized. All but one mobilization forced the government to back down.
But the one mobilization that did fold, in 1988, fractured the movement and leading to the end of the l'Association nationale des Etudiantes et des Etudiants du Québec (ANEEQ).
The left ‑ CLASSE
Today there are four centers of student unity and many independent unions. The largest group driving the mobilizations is called CLASSE - the Broad Coalition of the Association pour une solidarité syndicale Etudiante. CLASSE temporarily unites a number of student unions not affiliated with any broader association with the much more established Association for Student Union Solidarité (ASSE).
Know as a "left pole" of the student movement, ASSE presents itself as different kind of progressive student association, taking a bold, combative and sometimes provocative approach to the struggle. It emphasizes student union democracy, feminism, as well as anti‑globalization and social issues beyond the campus.
It is also home to different leftist and anarchist tendencies that continue to have difficulty setting aside differences over tactics like direct action and violence, the labour movement, or what to make of free education in socialist Cuba. ASSE is led by two spokespersons, a man and a woman, but the young face of Gabriel Nadeau‑Dubois has come to express the fighting voice of this movement.
Larger in membership numbers and media presence but with perhaps less capacity to mobilize are the two Federations. La FECQ et la FEUQ, represent college and university students respectively. There is also a loose network of student unions including McGill and Laval, but the FECQ and the FEUQ are bigger players.
The FEUQ is particularly dominated by one of the more powerful conservative student association in Quebec, based at the University of Montreal - sometimes represented as the Eye of Mordor from Lord of the Rings, a play on the prominent main tower of that university.
The FEUQ is wedded to the Parti Québécois and is susceptible to a more electoral strategy - wipe the tuition fees increases out by voting the Charest Liberals out of office in the upcoming provincial election. But the Federations have their own internal differences and contradictions, including many that play a positive role in this battle of ideas.
Despite these different strategies, the movements have managed to march together - literally. Last semester the students came to a unity agreement including on the demand to reduce fees and strike and staged a mass action. The agreed upon date for the strike to begin was March 22, but as early as February student union members voted to support immediate action and walk out of class. The March 22 demonstration was initially called by the FECQ‑FEUQ, but perhaps unexpectedly Gabriel Nadeau‑Dubois announced on the very popular Quebec TV show Tout le monde en parle that the CLASSE would join forces.
Today there now just under 200,000 students on what is called an unlimited general strike, meaning no participation in classes for unlimited period. For the March 22 demonstration a total of 300,000 students voted for a limited strike, such as a one day of action. This includes the lion's share of the French‑language students and, since our report in the March 16-31 issue of People's Voice, a much larger number of English‑language schools. Several departments in Dawson College, and the universities of Concordia and McGill have now voted on this question and caught the winds of change in their sails.
Strike votes, taken at a General Assembly of all students in a department‑organized student union, are taking place every week and more students are steadily joining the unlimited strike. But the clock is ticking down. In a month the semester will be over. The moral pressure of the strike, the most effective weapon of the students, will be gone.
Unity with Labour is key
That's why all eyes are now on the actions of the labour movement, who so far have offered full support to the students in words - but not so much in terms of action. The Quebec Federation of Labour and the Congress of National Trade Unions (CSN) have formed the Social Alliance Coalition, which came out of the Common Front actions of last year, although the group has yet to really bring forward its membership.
Local unions as well as the Montreal council of the CSN have more been strongly supportive of the students, forming a coalition with many other people's movements called the Red Hand Coalition. Among other things, the Red Hand coalition has suggested the need for a general political or social strike against the Charest government and its austerity measures.
As well, on their convention books most of the labour movement has adopted some form of action plan; the idea of a political strike, for example, was endorsed by the last convention of the CSN.
For their part the students are outreaching to labour. A week after the mass mobilization, the CLASSE held a media conference calling for mass congress or meeting of students, labour and other people's movements - a popular assembly to discuss and develop a common way forward. The students have announced that they are re‑defining the struggle: no longer is it just a question of access to education, but a social movement aimed at confronting the austerity measures of the Charest Liberal government on the streets.
This echoes and idea now widely debated in progressive circles (and which the Communist Party of Quebec was an early advocate of), "to convene an Estates General of organized labour, popular movements, and students who could help develop a plan of mobilization and joint action to roll back government attack."
Positively, the CLASSE will bring their next congress far up north, hours beyond Quebec City into the northern town of Alma. This is where the workers at the transnational corporation, RioTinto Alcan have been locked‑out since New Years' Day because they refused an attack on their jobs and the use of subcontractors.
Other good news for the students is that as far as the public debate goes, they appear to have won. Opinion polls now not only show strong support of their cause, but also a shift in the discussion.
Before, the Charest Liberals had claimed that an increase in fees is necessary because of a revenue shortfall. But the consistent work of the students around the question of corporate profits and the need for progressive taxation has pushed the government onto the defensive.
In reality the fee hike represents 4.7% of the total budget devoted to universities in 2016‑2017. Now the Charest Liberals are emphasizing the need to raise fees to maintain the quality of Quebec's education and, for example, the recruitment of star academics in the international arena.
Scandals contradicting the government's claims keep leaking out. For example, part of the ongoing crisis within the administration at Concordia University has seen several presidents resign. The latest hire for the president's chair demanded the school purchase his ritzy West Island mansion, because it would not sell on the depressed housing market.
The government is being supported by a group of students calling for a so‑called "rational" approach to fees based on the logic of the market and big business. From McGill, these students have dubious ties including to the Quebec Liberal Party, the self‑proclaimed racist off‑shoot of the US Tea Party movement, a right‑wing think tank, and a openly pro‑Harper, pro‑war McGill student newspaper.
Likewise, Francois Legault, leader of the fledgling ultra‑right Coalition Avenir Québec, has called for even higher tuition increases and, on the secondary level, the abolition of school boards. While these forces are the darlings of the media, the student mobilizations are hurting their popularity.
Significantly, Claude Castonguay, a Quebec businessman and prominent Liberal, has come out with the demand that Charest sit down and negotiate with the students. While not supporting the demand of reduced fees and instead calling for higher bursaries, Castonguay's call is more proof of cracks on the government side.
On the other hand, the Parti Quebecois has made similar statements advocating for a major meeting with students, and a smaller step‑by‑step increase (which is more or less what the government is doing now, only slower), while Quebec Solidaire has called for the abolition of tuition fees. QS MNA Amir Khadir has also called for greater unity with the labour movement and supported the idea of a general meeting of people's forces.
The way forward
The Young Communist League of Québec and the Communist Party of Québec are both active in the struggles of the students as well. "We were more than two hundred thousand [people] yelling at the top of our lungs against the increase in tuition fees. The students must not back up, and do what it takes to build unity and stop Charest," Nicolas Welsh, chair of the YCL‑Q told People's Voice.
The LJC‑Q and PCQ are both calling for the students to maintain their actions, and to expand their unity and build with labour and all people's forces towards a general political strike to defeat the government.
The Communists are also demanding a living stipend for students, grants not loans, and the elimination of fees, protected this and other rights of youth with a Charter of Rights for youth and students.
The sense of optimism, confidence and energy necessary for such a fight seemed evident at the March 22 rally. People walked out onto their balconies and waved red pillow cases and tea towels in solidarity with the marchers. A solid line of people was still exiting the main congregation square when the front of the rally reached its terminus, eight kilometres away, and the speeches began.
This is history in the making and we can not go back. More demonstrations are planned in the coming weeks.