The following article is based on a talk at the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group meeting of June 24, 2012, with a postscript dealing with subsequent events.
Welcome to the Detroit Workers' Voice Discussion Group. This is a meeting where friends and interested workers can come discuss the events of the day with the comrades who write and distribute Detroit Workers' Voice. Our aim is to encourage the creation of an independent workers' movement, that is, that workers should organize themselves independently of the capitalists and pro-capitalist parties. There is not a single issue today, from education to global warming to keeping body and soul together during the depression, that workers can leave to the bourgeoisie.
Today's discussion will be the strike of college students in Quebec. Even though over 150,000 students are on a strike that is now [late June] in its fifth month, it is barely mentioned in the ordinary media. The major issues which threaten to bring down the economy of entire regions, like Greek austerity, are covered. But when it's a question of the beginning of mass protest, then the bourgeoisie tries to pretend, when possible, that nothing is happening. Thus the news here has rarely mentioned either the Quebec strike, which began in February, or the miner's strike in Spain, where 8,000 miners have been defying the austerity measures of the Spanish government. So in holding this meeting, we aim not just to discuss the strike, but to manifest practical internationalist solidarity by spreading news of it.
The Canadian bourgeoisie is seeking to implement austerity, just as the American and other bourgeoisies are. As part of this, the Liberal government of Quebec has brought in an increase in college tuition.(1) It is to rise from $2,168 to $3,793 by 2017. This led to social science students at the University of Quebec in Montreal going on strike, followed by other students at that university and other colleges and CEGEP's (a type of pre-university and vocational college unique to Quebec). Perhaps 170,000 students left their classes and sought to shut the colleges down. It's hard for me to get a fully reliable figure about this, as some left sources habitually exaggerate numbers at demonstrations, but it seems that at least 150,000 students have been involved in the strike, and the numbers are definitely much higher if one adds on those students and supporters from the general population who come to demonstrations. It might be up to 300,000 or 400,000 people.
There is no question that this is a massive movement in Quebec; that it has swept from one school to another; and that it has gained the sympathy of many teachers and of many working people. It effectively shut down much of the college system, and demonstrations have taken place all over, from the Stock Exchange to the main streets of Montreal.
All three main college student federations in Quebec are involved. One of them is particularly notable: this is CLASSE, the Coalition large de l'ASS, which is an acronym for something which in English is the broad coalition of the association for a student union solidarity. Its core is ASS, the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiant. CLASSE has about 80,000 members and is apparently the most determined force among the various student federations. The other two federations are the Quebec Federation of University Students, FEUQ, and the Quebec Federation of CEGEQ students, FECQ.
There are many notable features of this struggle. One, which is often mentioned by bourgeois accounts to denigrate it, is that Quebec has the lowest student fees in Canada, and even with the increases it would still have pretty much the lowest fees. These fees are certainly lower than those we see here for four-year colleges and universities. But the question is, is it right that these fees should be there? If the bourgeoisie has succeeded in forcing Canadian and American college students to be loaded down with debt and oppression, if it has made college education unaffordable for working-class students, does this mean that the Quebec students are wrong to fight? On the contrary, it is an inspiring thing that the Quebec students are willing to fight unjust fees, even if somewhat lower than elsewhere, and it is something that is of help to students elsewhere. And it is notable that those who say, well, these fees are low, never ask if they are affordable for the Quebec students, never ask if it is right for them to have to pay them, never ask if the real issue is that students elsewhere should stand up and fight too. As a matter of fact, Canadian students outside Quebec are also fighting higher fees and austerity -- they just haven't yet reached the same level of struggle as Quebec students.
Meanwhile the Quebec government has taken the same hard line on students fees as the bourgeoisie elsewhere takes on austerity in general. Whether it is squeezing an entire country like Greece or individual sections of the population, the bourgeoisie is insisting that there should not be any weakness shown: the measures must be implemented in full. In Quebec, the government insisted that it would not back down, but would only see about giving some additional bursaries to students who had trouble. The Quebec students rejected this, and went on strike against the increases.
The Quebec government, as part of its hard-line stand, has met the demonstrations with repression and has arrested about 2,000 students, mostly using supposed traffic violations as the pretext. But seeing that the strike continued to grow and gain strength, it has sought to outlaw the strike and the right to demonstrate. On May 18 it passed Bill 78, an emergency law against the students and the general right to demonstrate. It's not, of course, an emergency for the bourgeoisie when people starve, or are thrown out of their homes, so long as profits continue. But it's an emergency when students stand up for their rights.
Bill 78 has been described as the worst bill in Quebec since the War Measures Act of 1970, during which the Canadian government dealt with the separatist threat with the iron fist. In the name of defending the right of students to attend class -- something which the worthy bourgeois legislators don't think is threatened by fees, arrests, austerity, and repression -- it denies the right to stage the student strike. It mandates draconic fees against students continuing strike activity; against teachers supporting the student strike, or any strike; against organizations supporting the strike; or against anyone taking part in a demonstration of 50 or more people anywhere in Quebec without giving 8 hours prior notice to the police and conceding to whatever changes the police want. If these measures aren't enough, the bill specifies that the Minister of Education, Recreation and Sports can change them at will.
The level of the fines is outrageous. They begin at $1,000-5,000 per day for students, $7,000-35,000 per day for leaders, and $25,000-125,000 per day for student or labor organizations. Moreover, the fines double on each successive violation, so they could quickly reach astronomical heights.
The Bill also has a bit of cunning. Seeing that the strike was effective, it suspends classes at 11 universities and 134 colleges where over 150,000 students were still on strike. It then mandates that classes start in August and the semester end in September. To do so, it sets aside the normal requirements for the length of instruction. The appareny intent is to take the wind out of the strike by simply shutting down the schools, and then in August force everyone to quit the strike by dint of outrageous penalties.
The immediate result of Bill 78 was a wave of protest across Quebec. Not just students, but working people in general were outraged. Demonstrations took place in defiance of Bill 78, while in Montreal and other cities people would begin banging pots at 8 pm. 150,000 people demonstrated in support of the strike and against Bill 78 on May 22, When Gerald Tremblay, mayor of Montreal, sought to get people to stop coming into the streets to bang pots, and whined that the noise was so loud that he could even hear it in his fancy home in Outremont, he only succeeded in getting 1,000 potbangers to show up outside his house and bang away.
On the other hand, the associations of businesspeople have backed the government and Bill 78. What we have is a class division, where the ordinary people tend to back the students, and the bourgeoisie not only has no qualms about emergency laws against protest, but it loves them.
Meanwhile the most recent action of the protest movement was the day before yesterday on June 22, when tens of thousands of people demonstrated again. Other actions are planned for July 22 and August 22.
The students haven't been cowed down, but the strike faces various questions of orientation. There's the issue of how to keep it going while the schools are official closed during the summer. There's the question of what to demand in the face of the government hard line. Some of the student associations are beginning to back down and talk about accepting some fee increases. And there is the question of whether to be diverted into backing this or that political alternative to the Liberal Government.
So let's see what the attitude of the different political forces are. The politics in Canada, both inside and outside Quebec, is a bit more diverse than here. The major parties are the Conservatives, the Liberal, the New Democratic Party, the Greens (who got a million votes in the last election), and the Bloc Quebecois, which is the federal version of the separatist Parti Quebecois.
The Liberal Party is, of course, the party that, under Premier Jean Charest, is squeezing the students in Quebec, so there's no question about its stand.
The federal government in Canada is led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party, despite its history of raucous electoral conflict with the Liberals, is united with the Liberals on this. It is the party spearheading austerity on the federal stage; it is a party that makes no qualms about being a business party; so of course it backs the provincial Quebec Liberals in squeezing the students. When a UN representative expressed concern about Bill 78 as a violation of democratic rights, the Harper government sought unsuccessfully to get a unanimous declaration in Parliament backing the Quebec government.
The New Democratic Party is a typical social-democratic party: it pretends to back the masses while being more concerned to stay on good terms with the bourgeoisie. So it has been in a quandary. Some NDP representatives from Quebec have claimed to support the strike, but the official stance of the party is that, as a national party, it doesn't intervene in such matters. The national NDP was even embarrassed when the Conservative Party accused it of sabotaging the unanimous consent needed to pass the federal resolution in support of the Quebec government's right to pass Bill 78. Imagine that, the NDP, the official opposition in the Canadian parliament, was embarrassed to be accused of having blocked a unanimous resolution in support of the most vile act of the Liberal government in Quebec.
The Greens say they are against Bill 78, but it's hard to find anything on their website that mentions the strike.
The Bloc Quebecois is the federal wing of the separatist movement. It would be embarrassing for the separatist Parti Quebecois to contest federal elections, so a separate organization, the Bloc Quebecois, does this. The Parti Quebecois posed as supporters of the student strike, and its leader Pauline Marois wore the red square emblem of the strikers. More recently, she has made a point of removing the red square, while claiming that it means nothing that she refuses to wear it anymore. It's also notable that the Parti Quebecois made several attempts to increase college and university tuition fees in the past.
None of these forces really support the students, but some of them wanted to utilize the discomfort of the Liberal government for their own electoral purposes. Especially the Parti Quebecois wants to do this. The NDP had recently elected many representatives in Quebec, which is a first for it, and some of them were very new and young people and may have sympathized with the strike. But it's clear that the provincial NDP was hesitant even to make use of the strike for ordinary politicking against the Liberal Government. And among the politicians, even if they said they opposed Bill 78, they also demanded that people obey it as long as it was law. This meant that, in practice, they were allied with the bourgeoisie in suppressing the movement. This is the same stand as taken by the top union officials. They claim to support the students and oppose Bill 78, but say it should be obeyed. This is the same way the class-collaborationist union bureaucrats suppress the rank-and-file of their own organizations, and lead union struggles to disaster.
So we see that, despite the surface differences between Canadian and American politics, some things are quite similar. The struggle against austerity is a class struggle, with the masses oppressed by it while all the bourgeois forces are backing austerity to this or that extent.
The establishment political trends claiming to speak for the masses are against the development of a militant movement of the students and the workers. They tell the masses to give up their struggle and obey bourgeois dictates. And they promote that electing their politicians is the only thing that can be done, even though they support austerity themselves to this or that extent.
But we also see that there is a lively history of mass struggle in Quebec, one that is worthy to be learned from. How far the students will succeed in this struggle we don't know. But we do know that the Quebec students have risen up repeatedly. In 2004-5, for example, they opposed the early plan of the Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest to freeze financial support for the universities, and 100,000 students went on strike in 2005, achieving a small part of their demands. And today, the movement has returned in even larger numbers. No matter the immediate outcome, the present movement will serve as one link in a chain.
The struggle in Quebec is our struggle, too. Solidarity with Quebec students!
The elections of September 4 brought in a minority government of the Parti Quebecois, with Pauline Marois to be the new Premier. She quickly announced that she would cancel the tuition increases through an order-in-council (thus avoiding an uncertain vote in the National Assembly) and that Bill 78 (called Law 12 after it was passed) would be repealed. These steps would be a major victory for the student strike.
The victory, however, is not the election of a Parti Quebecois (PQ)
administration, but that the
government has been forced to accept some student demands. At the same
time as she was
talking of cancelling the Liberal Party's tuition increases, Marois
also announced that she
supports her own version of tuition increases, but linked to the rate
of inflation. The new PQ
government intends, within 100 days of when it takes office, to have a
summit meeting to work
out this and other economic and political issues.(2)
So it can't be forgotten that PQ is a party of the bourgeoisie, and,
moreover, one with a
neo-liberal program, and has repeatedly sought tuition increases
itself. Indeed, when PQ's Lucien
Bouchard was premier in 1986 and sought to increase student fees, he
was backed by Pauline
Marois, who was then Education Minister, but a month of student protest
The elections also saw a jump in votes for Quebec Solidaire (QS), a coalition of various left-wing groups who, among other things, not only stood for the student demands but supported defying Law 12. By way of contrast, all the mainstream politicians and union leaders, even those who said they were against Law 12, counseled that it should be obeyed while it existed. Amir Khadir, a QS leader and a member of the Quebec National Assembly, was arrested on June 6th at a demonstration against the tuition hikes and Law 12. In the current elections, QS's vote went up from 3.8% of the vote in the last general election of 2008 to 6%, and it won two seats this time, instead of one. This shows the support for radical stands in Quebec.
However, although QS supports many admirable social, economic, and environmental goals, it isn't clear how it would accomplish these goals. It also has the problem that it doesn't just support the right to self-determination of Quebec, as it should, but is a separatist or sovereigntist party. Even if its vision of what an independent Quebec should be differs from PQ's, QS still, for example, supports various of the divisive language laws which PQ also champions.
Meanwhile, while the Liberal Party lost the election and former Liberal Premier Jean Charest, the leader of the war on the students, lost his seat in the National Assembly, the PQ and the Liberal Party remained the top two parties. Furthermore, a new neo-liberal party, the Coalition for Quebec's Future, emerged as the third largest party. It's clear that the bourgeoisie and its parties are still set on their neo-liberal course.
The new Premier Marois's announcement that the Liberal tuition
increases will be cancelled and
Law 12 repealed have resulted in ending strike activity for now. But
not everyone is convinced
that the struggle is over. CLASSE, for example, is wary of the PQ
government, and also wants
an amnesty for those arrested during the student strike. It has called
a demonstration for later in
(1) The provincial Liberal Party governed Quebec from 2003 on, with Jean Charest as Premier, until the elections of September 4th, which brought in Pauline Marois as Premier in a minority Parti Quebecois government. (Return to text)
(2) Benjamin Shingler, "Another battle on the horizon for Quebec students after election victory," Leader-Post, September 9, 2012. (http://www.leaderpost.com/news/Another+battle+horizon+Quebec+students+after+election+victory/7214685/story.html). (Text)
(3) Lucien Bouchard has continually campaigned for tuition increases and social cutbacks in Quebec. In February 2010 he joined with other bourgeois bigwigs in circulating an open letter demanding tuition increases. And in May this year he joined with other bigwigs in another open letter, again advocating fee increases and also calling for smashing the student strike. (Text) <>
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