April 12, 2015

Quebec Anti-Austerity Battle Heating Up

Johan Boyden

Reprinted from People's Voice Newspaper

Mobilizations to stop the austerity measures of Philippe Couillard’s Quebec Liberal government got a boost in late March, after a meeting of the Front Commun, the Common Front of Quebec public sector trade unions. Then the student movement brought over 70,000 protesters into the streets on April 2, its largest mobilization since the 2012 strike.

In late March, the Liberal budget presented by Couillard’s finance minister Carlos Leitao ended any illusions that negotiations could lead to a victory for public sector unions. Calling the budget “austerity at light speed,” and a gift to big business, the labour movement condemned the proposals including a two-year wage freeze. On March 31 the Front Commun concluded further negotiations would be a dead-end and began mobilizing for a strike.

Starting from April 1, Quebec labour law requires that the Front Commun unions undertake three months of negotiations in each sector and workplace before they can actually strike. During this time, core essential services will be defined through a series of complicated, intricate formulations. In parallel, the Minister of Labour will also have to formally appoint a mediator before there can be a strike.
Student action

At the same time, a series of student actions have taken place, with twice-daily mobilizations by thousands in the streets. A broad range of departments are in action, such as medical students. Some colleges have been on strike for two weeks.

The Liberals apparently demanded the police forces bring down a fist on these demonstrations, culminating in one young woman, Naomi Trudeau-Tremblay, being shot at point blank range in the face with a tear gas canister. In the wake of public outrage, police activity has been more cautious. The Universities are now bringing injunctions against the strike and expelling student activist leaders.

Nevertheless, on April 2, about 160,000 students declared a strike (including some English-language schools like Vanier College and McGill Law Students Association).

About 75,000 students flooded the streets of Montreal in another long march through the city.  Protestors were joined by labour, Quebec Solidaire, other social groups including the Parti Communiste and the Ligue de la jeunesse communiste du Québec.

Which way forward?

Many union leaders appear somewhat reluctant to adopt the strategy of a political strike, which could potentially lose control of their negotiations by politicizing them. “The more social democratic leadership of labour does not seem so upset that the students have been pushing ahead quickly to action - as it has accentuated the cleavages between the unions and students,” Pierre Fontaine told People’s Voice.

Fontaine, a long time trade unionist and the leader of the Parti Communiste du Quebec, noted that many sections of the students take the same view.

“They are, you could say, two sides of the same coin,” he said. “That is not to say the students have unjustified suspicions about uniting with labour,” he added, noting it appears that some anarchist voices within the students “desire to keep the leadership of the protest movement, irrespective of the political conditions and the workers current demands.”

In reality, however, Fontaine said, “the public sector union negotiations are the core part of the austerity fightback and the working class will not be able to defeat austerity without winning these negotiations.”

In this situation, the working conditions fixed by collective agreement are important tools of working people against austerity. “The Liberal government is seeking to wipe out these obstacles, and there is a clear link between these tools and the broader struggle,” Fontaine said.

In 2012, the common denominator of mass protest was tuition fees. This issue developed into a political struggle. In 2015, Fontaine said, the common denominator is wages. “The government is very afraid of a repeat of the Common Front of the 1970s,” he added, recalling that it was widely recognized at the time how the struggle of labour had become a political struggle.

Strategic differences

All this time the students had not resolved the more long-term strategic goal of their actions. One proposal came forward to make a “strategic retreat,” continuing street actions but going back to class to pick up the student strike actions in the fall with labour.

Opponents, including voices like Printemps 2015 who aim to recreate the spirit of 2012, condemned the “retreat” as over-generously trusting labour to put up a militant fight. Many supporters are in student unions from metropolitan Montreal, where most of the action is taking place.

Proponents of the “strategic retreat” include the 2014-2015 semester executive of the Association of Student Union Solidarity (ASSÉ), who argued that without labour the students will be acting in isolation and their momentum, as in 2012, could fall apart in the summer when the current school semester concludes.

By the end of the first week of April, the CSN Montreal had convened a general assembly, and ASSÉ concluded a weekend-long congress. Both meetings hammered out tactics and strategy, with sharp differences of opinion coming forward.

By the evening of April 6, the news came out that not only had ASSÉ’s entire executive resigned but the congress subsequently also “symbolically removed” them. Acting spokesperson Hind Fazazi, who will work in an interim leadership role until another congress at the end of April, announced continued pressure tactics and the strike. (Her acting press secretary will be Maxence Valade, who lost an eye from police brutality in 2012.)

While the student strategy is certainly consequential, it appears labour remains the decisive factor for this anti-austerity battle. More and more, the movement is talking about revenue sources such as more progressive taxation, reinstating capital tax for banks and financial companies, and increasing the corporate tax rate.

But when embarking in late March on a potential fall strike plan, the Front Commun objectively is calling for a political strike.

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