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Quebec student strike reprise at a crossroads

Chantal Sundaram

April 9, 2015

We are now witnessing the third strike by Quebec university and college students within 10 years. This is not a new tradition: Quebec tuition fees were frozen at the lowest levels in Canada as a result of successive student strikes across Quebec for decades.
But in the span of a generation, and during an era that has marked the move from neoliberal “globalization” into austerity, these strikes have posed an increasingly urgent question: how can a student strike spark something bigger, a strike that mobilizes the entire community and that has labour unions at the heart of it?
At the start of April 2015, 135,000 Quebec students were on strike after very little lead-up time compared to the last student strike in 2012 – which lasted months but also took much longer to build up to. But in that build-up there was a lot of time to prepare students to make a concrete connection between their immediate demand – repeal of a tuition hike – and the bigger picture of the commercialization of education.
Three years later, week two of the strike saw 75,000 people converge in the streets of Montreal under the general banner of anti-austerity, called by a student organization but with visible support by unions and community organizations and with nothing but glowing reports in the media about the level of popular support from all walks of life. Today, how could you not aim higher than before?
Measure of success
In 2005, students succeeded in winning the repeal of a law transforming grants into loans. At the same time, there was a massive community and labour mobilization against Jean Charest, then Liberal premier of Quebec, including a series of one-day illegal general strikes, which included non-unionized workers, and a series of local union votes in favour of an unlimited general strike that was never realized. So although the students succeeded in their goal, the votes to end the strike only narrowly succeeded on many campuses because the context seemed to offer a bigger fight against Charest.
Again, in 2012, there was tremendous success in defeating the tuition hike that was the focus of the strike, the repressive legislation that was put in place to quell the movement, and the rejection of the Liberal government immediately responsible. Community  and neighbourhood organizations were formed beyond student ranks, with broader demands, and popular tactics like the banging of “casseroles” (pots and pans) on street corners at the same time every night. Waiting in the wings, however, were the equally treacherous Parti quebecois, who indexed tuition to inflation and introduced an austerity budget of their own. They in turn were replaced by the current Liberal austerity premier, Couillard, and again the question was: what next.
Since then, the context in Quebec has been one of increasing labour unrest, from massive mobilizations over employment insurance cuts, to work to rule against attacks on municipal pensions, to a brewing fight between the government and the entire provincial public sector that may come to a head in the fall. And the word “austerity” is being used by unions, community groups, students and the environmental movement to try to unite behind a common banner. In particular, an official “Common Front” has come together to try to create a political front for the half a million public sector workers who may be in strike position in the fall.
There should be every reason why the student movement should want, this time above all, to coordinate its strategy with labour. But just at this time there is increasing fragmentation within the student movement over this very issue.
Over the Easter long weekend, the Executive of ASSE, which had been the core leadership of the 2012 strike, simultaneously resigned and was removed by the membership as a result of their position that the movement should consider a tactical retreat, or a pause, in the strike movement.
The reasons were: to wait for the fall, when all major public sector unions might be in a potential strike position with government over the eviscerating of their agreements; the approaching end of the school term; and the growing divide between the radicalism of the movement in Montreal as opposed to the regions outside.
All good reasons to reflect on strategy, but the timing was problematic. There had been a campaign for a spring strike for months, but without clear leadership other than a broad coalition called the “Spring 2015 Committee,” unelected and unaccountable to any of the student federations and proclaiming to be a committee of students, workers, and the unemployed. It struck a chord: there was an appetite for a spring strike. But it wasn’t even across campuses, and wasn’t tested through months of preparation as in 2012.  
Meanwhile, the FEUQ, the other major player in the 2012 strike, is facing disaffiliation from core members like the Universite de Montreal over the lack of “direct democracy” through general assemblies as opposed to the “representative democracy” offered by FEUQ. They are not looking to join ASSE, but to found a new student formation.
As in the past, this strike was decided by democratic votes at the local level in student general assemblies: both in a first, limited mandate, and in a second round of “reaffirmation” votes to extend the strike by either another limited period or for unlimited strike.
Positive strike votes and reaffirmation votes were not completely confined to Montreal or to other urban centres, or to campuses or programs of study considered to be more “radical.” But there is a real divide between the more advanced sections of the movement in parts of Montreal and others. Some strike “reaffirmation” votes have failed due to lack of information about what is going on in the movement as a whole, the approaching summer and option of a fall restart, and some because of a lack of a clear immediate goal apart from defeat of the government’s entire austerity agenda.
The Couillard government is of course trying to exploit these divisions by appealing to the “silent majority” to attend the local student assemblies and vote down the strike.
Despite this inevitable strategic debate within the movement, there was nothing but unity shown on the April 2 march of 75,000. In defiance of a Montreal municipal ordinance, the march did not declare its itinerary to authorities. Signs on the march read: this government did not give us their itinerary, why should we give them one?
But the movement needs an itinerary, and that’s what’s not clear. The tactical question of pushing for the spring or waiting for the fall is only the first of many big questions before it.
What will be the measure of success?  The demands of the strike are not ones that can be achieved by students alone this time: the reversal of Quebec’s entire austerity (and energy) agenda will require a much larger social force. But how does the movement set benchmarks for success along the way?
One of the benchmarks may be the process of building unity itself: both within the student movement and between students and labour. But that’s not an easy basis to win strike votes.
There are plans for illegal strikes by some faculty in the CEGEPs (colleges), under the anti-austerity banner, and these might be an important sign of what’s possible. But there is still no sign that the big union leadership is in any way willing to throw in its lot with the students for a “social strike” against austerity. The fall confrontation, if there is one, may fall far short of student expectations.
What’s next?
Over the coming months there will be an attempt to keep the strike momentum going from the spring into the fall.
While the union leadership may not have the same appetite to follow the students right now, the base of union members may see things differently, not to mention those who identified with the student movement in their neighbourhoods in 2012. In fact, the student movement may help to pry open the differences within the labour movement about how to challenge austerity.  
In the meantime, there must be unconditional support for those students facing expulsion and other discipline by campus administrations for picketing, for those facing worse as a result of defying legal injunctions, and those who have been brutalized by police in the last few weeks. Both the student and labour movement must stand united on this, as they did against attempts in 2012 to terrorize dissent, whether by legislation or police brutality. There must be absolute unity on this question, regardless of any disagreement on others: it is key to the future of dissent, and can unit the movement on that basis.
One of the slogans of the massive general strike of 1968 in France was: “students are the spark, workers are the flame.”
It may take longer than expected by the changing cohort of the student movement in Quebec to see this spark turn into a longer-lasting flame, but in many ways it already has, and continues to burn.
If you like this article, register for Rage Against the System, a weekend conference of ideas to change the world, April 24-26 in Toronto. Sessions include "Quebec against austerity," "Radical left parties: Syriza, Podemos, Quebec solidaire," and "Precarity and the fight against austerity."

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