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Quebec: the spark and the flame

Chantal Sundaram

May 7, 2015

Another "Rage Against the System: Marxism 2015" panel on “Quebec and Austerity” took the discussion further about the relationship between the student movement and the labour movement in Quebec.

Marc-Édouard Joubert, with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Montreal local, and Vice-president of the Montreal Labour Council (FTQ), and two militants from the CEGEP de l’Outaouais, Laurence Lauzon and Valerie Villmaire.

Marc-Edouard believes that the formation of the Front Commun with every major public sector union in Quebec does present a very real prospect for a climax of struggle when many reach legal strike positions in September and October. He talked about the union-led demonstration against austerity last November 29 as an important sign of the ability to mobilize civil society against the provincial budget (even though some students felt that demonstration was too staged and didn’t appear to be raising the stakes in the movement) and then about the student-led April 2 demonstration as an escalation that was able to mobilize unions and social movements.

He recalled that unions that engage in illegal strike actions face heavy fines, so it’s hard to get past the limitations of legal negotiations. But he said there are a number of other current labour struggles that show increasing pressure from the base of unions on their leadership, and that the CEGEP teachers who voted to engage in a “greve sociale” or “social strike” against austerity as a whole without the official support of their leadership have shown another option for resistance. He said the student strike of 2012 had an impact on what many trade unionists feel willing to do, and that despite a single large demonstration May Day will see several local “economic disruptions” that are not being publicized ahead of time.

Valerie began her remarks by saying that it’s not clear to many of her generation whether the students actually won in 2012. The victory against the hike and getting ride of the Liberals was short-lived, and many are now not sure whether they’re just starting from scratch again, no further ahead. At her school, in the sparsely-populated Outaouais region, the strike vote was lost even though there were two options: the first, for a one-week strike with option to extend, lost by a significant margin; the second, for a one-day strike on May Day, lost narrowly at 53 per cent. Of the 28 CEGEPS where teachers voted to engage in strike action on May 1, only 9 will be struck by students.

At the CEGEP de l’Outaouais, a scholl of 5,000, 78 per cent of the student population voted, but it was only by refendum vote, in sharp contrast to the method of mass student assemblies that was the strength of 2012. Valerie and Laurence felt the vote was too rushed and did not provide the time for debate and one-on-one conversations that took place in 2012 and at some other schools this time. The university in the region, UQO, which has a number of faculties on strike, has been holding meetings and teach-in’s every day in public spaces on campus. All told, 66 campuses voted in favour of “reconduction” (reaffirming initial strike votes and extending the strike.” 

Laurence, also at the CEGEP de l’Outaouais, said the debate is not about austerity but about the tactic of the strike. The student union there is firmly anti-austerity, and not trying to stifle debate, but there is a sense that this is not leading to a real social strike as opposed to trying to connect with a labour movement that could be largely focussed on narrow union demands. Students are being asked to put their faith that it will lead to a broader fight against austerity, as they themselves take action against this very broad agenda without immediate demands of their own.

Also, for the more radicalized end of the student movement, who see that austerity is a symptom of neo-liberalism or even capitalism, the strike tactic seems reactive and short-term (and it must be remembered that student strikes are not uncommon events in Quebec). How can the movement deepen long-term consciousness? And how do you defend the public sector without defending a state that runs it with inefficiencies, an inability to deliver services to those who need it most, and ultimately repression against those who want to restructure it?

Laurence and Valerie posed a question that many students are probably asking: how do we stop repeating the past and go forward? When are the victories just band-aid solutions that seem to go nowhere and when are they ones that push us through the wound? The fact that the next steps for the movement as a whole in Quebec will not answer these questions is less important than the fact that many Quebec students and workers are asking them.

Marc-Edouard, Laurence and Valerie are all committed to finding ways to engage that discussion in their communities in a broad and patient way. It may require creative strategies, like a picnic against austerity in the Gatineau-Outaouais region that engages both students and regional unionists and community activists who have organized many recent local protests against austerity in recent months with record numbers in a small community. In 2012, neighbourhood organizations in Montreal did similar things to keep momentum going during the summer months and to engage the community beyond students.

In workplaces and unions throughout Quebec there may or may not be informal networks to make that same discussion happen towards the fall. But that will be the challenge in making the Front Commun real for rank and file workers catching up with the questions students are asking. The answers can only be collective, through the experience of the months ahead, which is not predictable.

What is predictable is that the ferment against austerity in Quebec will not dissipate any time soon, and the important thing is to find ways to follow it and be engaged with it, within Quebec or from afar. Did the students win in 2012? They won much more than a victory against a particular tuition hike or a particular government: they won the right to ask the right questions.

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