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May Day in Quebec: dress rehearsal for the fight against austerity?

By: 
Deborah Murray and Chantal Sundaram

May 5, 2015

Unlike English Canada, Quebec never lost the tradition of May 1 as the international day for workers’ rights (instead of Labour Day, designated as a replacement to break the tie between unions and the radical left).
 
Since May 1972, when Quebec saw the largest general strike in the history of North America, May 1 saw a resurgence as the “Fete des travailleurs” (the “Workers’ Holiday”), a day for both the official trade union movement and others beyond it to march in the streets.
 
This year, the entire day in Quebec had a general anti-austerity theme, from the labour movement’s “Refuse Austerity” slogan (“Refusons l’austérité”) to the many diverse actions by different groups that targeted various sources and symbols of the entire austerity agenda.
 
The target was clearly both the Liberal Couillard government and that broader agenda of which they’re a part: the destruction and privatization of public services and social programs, the cuts to schools and day cares, hospitals and Cegeps, job losses, regressive tax increases and broken promises.
 
The May Day actions called for the withdrawal of austerity measures, the redistribution of wealth, fiscal measures that better distribute wealth in future, better financing and recognition of autonomy of community groups that offer special services, e.g., assistance with homework in the schools, adapting housing for the handicapped, access to housing, etc, and for a vision of social justice, equity and equality for all.
 
Local level
This year marked another change: since 1972, there has always been a national (Quebec-wide) mass rally in Montreal. This year, the call was for local rallies and activities. Many saw this as an abdication by the union leadership of their responsibility to show the largest possible and most visible solidarity with students in their attempts to renew the student strike movement, which has been strongest and faced the worst repression in Montreal. But whatever the motivations of the union leadership, the actions across Quebec turned out to be an unprecedented show of solidarity in a multitude of diverse activities at the local level in many neighbourhoods and communities.
 
Community groups, private and public sector workers and students organized in their unions, women’s groups, anti-poverty groups, families, and campuses. Many voted to participate in a one-day “social strike” (“grève sociale”), including faculty at 28 CEGEPs, some of whom engaged in strike-related activity despite a decision by the Quebec Labour Relations Board (the Commission des relations de travail) the day before which declared the strike illegal and subject to fines and jail time. Some chose to obey the order by teaching outside the classroom, while others spoke out against the repression of the strike with students declaring solidarity with their professors at several CEGEPS. Some CEGEP administrations decided to just cancel class in honour of the “Workers’ Holiday.”
 
Over 100 actions were planned, but many more actually occurred as local groups put their own stamp on the day. There were picket lines and local actions at workplaces in all sectors, and in communities; caravans headed from one place to another for designated actions; parents, teachers and students formed human chains around elementary schools; there were blockades of streets, highways, bridges, entrances to work sites, government buildings and other symbols of economic and financial power; there were public information campaigns, flyer distribution and postering; BBQs, such as the BBQ to celebrate May Day with the employees of the French CBC (Radio-Canada), members of CUPE whose jobs are threatened by the cuts to CBC (which also threatens an important French-language service).
 
At noon in Montreal there was a “Militant Picnic” in front of the chic private Club 357C – a playground for Montreal’s 1% frequented by select artistes and the upper echelons in business, the civil service, hospital directors, university presidents, business people, high-placed civil servants, entrepreneurs and heads of engineering and construction firms, invitation-only politicians. In fact, witnesses called to testify before the Charbonneau Commission pointed to Club 357C as the heart of corruption in Quebec.
 
Not just Montreal
Actions took place in more than 35 municipalities across Quebec, in Chaudière-Appalaches, Sherbrooke, Alma, Chicoutimi, Joliette, Lanaudiere, Gaspé, Saguenay / Lac-Saint-Jean, Abitibi-Témiscamingue­–Nord-du-Québec, Bas–Saint-Laurent, Cœur-du-Québec, Côte-Nord, Estrie, Gaspésie–Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Lanaudière, Laurentides, Montérégie, and Gatineau/Outaouais – a sparsely-populated and very Liberal region near Ottawa which saw a historically large march of 2,000 people. Some of these communities formed their own “strike committees” for the day of social strike.
 
In Joliette, there was a satirical demonstration called “la manif de riches” (demonstration of the rich): dressed as rich people, in suit and tie or jewels, the marchers who had been assembled by the Strike Committee of Lanaudière used ironic slogans to reach out to the public while demanding a more equitable distribution of wealth: “NO daycares, women in the home! Long live tax havens! Long live the bosses! Celebrate the dismantling of the social safety net!”
 
Later in the day, the Réseau Vigilance Lanaudière brought together a festive procession with trumpets greeted by car horns which marched from the offices of the CSN through the steets of Joliette, stopping at the Joliette Cégep to pick up striking faculty on the way, ending with a show by Christian Vanasse of music group the Zapartistes.
 
The forces involved across Quebec were:  la Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatisation des services publics (Coalition Main rouge)/ Coalition opposed to user fees and privitization of public services; minimum wage workers; Steelworkers (les Métallos) from across Quebec; CUPE (SCFP) at Radio-Canada (CBC); FTQ local 2002 of Unifor in Montréal; parents, students and teachers at elementary schools; post-secondary profs and students, including the main student federations, ASSÉ and FEUQ, and many student clubs. It was a common front of community groups, union members from every sector, women’s groups, families, students, and those affected by poverty and disabilities: over 860 social and community organizations, a number unequaled in the history of Quebec, responded to the call for a social strike on May Day. Politicians of the left were very visible on the day: Françoise David, Manon Massé, Amir Khadir, and Alexandre Leduc, of Quebec solidaire, and Alexandre Boulerice and Hélène Laverdière from the NDP.
 
Montreal
Of course, Montreal was a hub of activity, which began very early, and continued non-stop throughout the day and into the night.
 
At 6 am there was an occupation of the International Centre of Commerce/Centre de commerce international de Montréal : a demonstration blocked the entrance at the construction site of the CHUM, one of two new super hospitals, from there demonstrators rallied in front of and occupied the International Centre of Commerce while others occupied the Palais des congrès and the National Bank Tower and demonstrated in front of Québecor, owned by Pierre Karl Peladeau currently running to become leader of the PQ.
 
At 7 am, hundreds of parents, students and teachers formed human chains at elementary schools. At 9:30am, protesters gathered at Phillips Square; at 11am there was a demonstration in Petite-Patrie, and numerous family marches, community demonstrations, local rallies in Villeray, Parc-Extension, the Plateau, Mercier, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Verdun, Pointe-Saint-Charles, etc. In Côte-des-Neiges  there was a rally with speakers and a soup kitchen followed by a march and flyer distribution. The “Citizen’s Movement for Public Healthcare” held an action called: “Prevention is better than healing, that’s what public healthcare means!”
 
At noon there was the “Militant Picnic” at Club 357C, but also solidarity picnics in many other neighbourhoods throughout the city. There was a demonstration in front of Verdun Hospital, and a solidarity picket with workers at the CLSC (health clinic) in St-Henri. And as the day went on, there were numerous public meetings about austerity, more BBQs, kiosks, popular éducation, austerity workshops, banner-making, etc. At 4pm there was a rally for all striking CEGEP faculty at Cégep Ahuntsic.
 
At 6:30 pm people gathered in communities to march down St. Denis and join the demo at Phillips Square, a night-time anti-capitalist demo called by Convergence des luttes anticapitalistes (CLAC). Montreal police declared the march illegal 20 minutes after it started, and 84 people were arrested (57 were arrested under municipal by-law P6; which allows demonstrations to be declared illegal; the police charged the rest with criminal offenses). Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and one family with 3 small children was affected by the gas. The SQ riot squad appeared, and police were in force in the area of the Bell Centre where the first game in the Stanley Cup series was taking place between the Canadiens and Tampa Bay.
 
Common Front Strategy
The scale of coordination across Quebec this May Day should not be underestimated. While there was no single mass demo of tens of thousands, the focus on organizing across all the regions of Quebec was phenomenal. The size of the protests in many of the regions outside Montreal shows how productive a decentralized approach was in this particular context, where the sentiment against austerity is so fertile everywhere and just needs to be given the opportunity to express itself. Many more people participated in the regions than if they had to board buses to Montreal to do so; it’s probably also true that the decentralized approach reached more diverse people in individual neighbourhoods within Montreal than a single mass rally could have. The event built grassroots capacity in many of these communities, which bodes well for the future of the movement.  
 
Was this a dress rehearsal for the fall, when thousands of public sector workers will be in a legal strike position and students may restart their strike movement? Will the focus then turn back to narrow economic demands within the union framework of collective bargaining, or will it remain an economic, political and social battle against austerity? We can’t know yet, but May Day demonstrated what is possible to achieve with a massive common front strategy and a focus on solidarity and outreach to all those affected by austerity and who have the power to resist it.   

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