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Québec Fights Back Against Austerity

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We are supposed to accept austerity as being as natural as ocean tides. Or be demoralized by the power of the forces that continually press down on working people around the world. But there is an ongoing, organized fightback going on — in Québec.

A series of rolling strikes by public-sector employees and students throughout 2015 appear to be headed toward a provincial general strike in December. Haven’t heard of this? That is not because it is francophone workers and students are who are driving these actions but because there has been a near total blackout of this news in the North American corporate media.

It would be all too easy to assume that that the owners and managers of corporate-media outlets don’t wish you to know that such fightbacks are possible. That may be so in some cases; it is more likely that the activity of working people, as opposed to the proclamations of business elites, simply aren’t seen as “news.” Read through the business section of your local newspaper — you will find it chock full of hand-wringing on behalf of corporate interests, with neoliberal ideology presented as the only possible orientation.

There are other possibilities, and such alternatives are being loudly put forth in Québec. Although the outcome of the current struggles for a fair contract for public-sector workers and increased support for education are far from being settled — much less the larger social issues thrown up by the neoliberal project — victories have been won, going back to the Maple Spring of 2012.

The 2012 student strike was so successful that it caused the provincial government to fall. The Québec government, then controlled by the Liberal Party, intended to raise tuition by 75 percent over three years. Protests and strikes quickly blossomed, shutting down universities and leading to street battles as police repeatedly attacked near daily demonstrations that sometimes numbered more than 100,000 as students were joined in large numbers by older people. The Liberal government dug in its heels, not only refusing to negotiate seriously but passing a law making the demonstrations illegal.

After months of struggle, the government called an early election, which it lost, ushering in a Parti Québecois government that promptly rescinded the tuition increases, canceled the anti-demonstration laws and, in an environmental gesture, reversed the Liberal support for fracking. Unfortunately, this victory is also an exemplary lesson of how capitalist reforms are ephemeral: The Parti Québecois ultimately failed to live up to its promises, itself called an early election, and was handed a stinging defeat, bringing the Liberal Party back to power.

Back in office, back to attacking

Québec’s new Liberal Party government, now headed by Premier Philippe Couillard, resumed its neoliberal assault. (A lesson that ought be borne in mind by those celebrating last month’s national election by Justin Trudeau.) The Québec government seeks to impose a de facto wage cut (offering a three percent increase over five years, well below the rate of inflation), institute a two-tier wage scale, raise the retirement age and cut pensions. In education, Premier Couillard wants to add eight hours to the workweek, cut teacher staffing for special-education students by two-thirds and impose drastic cuts in funding. For health care, he wants to impose funding cuts, more forced overtime and greater number of patients per nurse.

The Québec government claims a lack of money is behind its austerity measures, yet it had no hesitation in handing Bombardier Inc., one of the province’s biggest corporations, a $1 billion subsidy this year. Bombardier did report a loss in 2014 and is in the red for this year, but only due to accounting tricks; it reported $2.8 billion in net income for the previous four years.

As always, there is plenty of money for corporate handouts. Ideology, then, is the real reason behind these attacks. This has not gone unnoticed, by either the students or the working people who are uniting to fight back. Camille Godbout, spokesperson for the student group Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), said:

“Often, we are asked why we, the students, are mobilizing ourselves against austerity measures. For us, the answer seems clear: the government is trying, through its repeated compressions, to place the entirety of our public services in permanent crisis. The final objective of this government is that we turn more towards the private sector and establish a ‘user-payer’ model in Québec. In rendering our services non-functional due to inadequate financing, the solution of Mr. Couillard and his minsters will be to raise individual fees.

We refuse this logic which reduces us simply to consumers who will need to pay for each use of our health, education, daycare and all other services necessary for the good functioning of a rich society.

As soon as we note that the six biggest banks in Canada had profits of over 34 billion in 2014 and that, despite everything, they are taxed less and less, we know that we have the means to do things differently. It would suffice to go find the money there where it can really be found rather than systematically making the population poorer. For example, the return of a 1% tax on capital gains for financial institutions would bring in more than 600 million for the state.”

Calls for unity

A November 8 communiqué issued by the Front Commun, an umbrella organization of 400,000 workers from three unions across Québec, also made clear its belief in unity:

“Our members will not agree to become impoverished to finance tax cuts for business and the rich. [The government] ignores the conditions that we asked, that no one should get poorer at the end of this restructuring and that the wage freeze was not acceptable. … 18,000 people would see their salary reduced overnight … and many young people would start their careers with lower salaries. We can not accept such parameters.”

More than 60,000 Québec students went on strike in March; dozens of May Day demonstrations were held; parents have formed human chains in front of their children’s schools to symbolize their intent to defend them against cuts on three separate autumn days; schools were shut down across Québec by teacher strikes on October 7; 150,000 demonstrated in Montréal on October 10; and a series of rolling two-day strikes in cities and regions across the province have taken place throughout November by health care workers, teachers, administrative officials and others.

This was to culminate in a three-day provincial general strike beginning December 1. But, for now, that general strike has been called off. The Front Commun announced on November 18 that because the government has finally made a counter-offer, although inadequate, it will continue to negotiate. It said that it “has no plans to cancel the strike days, or to suspend the movement” and said its postponement of the December strike will be “short-lived” in the absence of significant movement at the negotiating table.

Several organizations have been in the forefront of Québec’s fightback against austerity. In addition to the student union ASSÉ, which played a leading role in the 2012 Maple Spring, and the union federation Front Commun, parents have organized the Je protège mon école publique, more militant rank-and-file union members are organizing through Lutte Commune to maintain pressure on union leaderships, and the Red Hand Coalition brings together unions, community organizations and students.

Lutte Commune’s open letter urges union locals to reach out to the broader working class through convening local strike committees that would make the case that the unions are fighting for the services and living standards of everybody. The group also has vowed to campaign for a rejection if union leaders accept a concessionary deal.

Solidarity as the key to struggle

The Red Hand Coalition has called a November 28 demonstration in Montréal, demanding the provincial government obtain the money to meet worker and student demands by reinstating the tax on capital gains for banks; increasing the number of levels of taxation to ensure genuine progressive taxation and a greater contribution of the richest; and increasing taxes for large companies rather than decrease them again. The coalition, which is organizing a series of conferences in anticipation of united mobilizations, says:

“While millions of dollars in further cuts await us, how can we together stop the destruction of public services and social programs by the Couillard government? By solidarity!”

That is a lesson for all places. That there is a robust public sector to defend is a product of a united front in 1972 and a bitter strike that held because of solidarity. During the strike, the government passed draconian laws mandating workers return to work. Union leaders were slapped with year-long jail terms for not calling off the strike, but a province-wide general strike was victorious.

Three years ago, when the previous Liberal Party assault was pushed back by the Maple Spring, ideology and not finance were really what counted for the government. Students estimated that the provincial government spent C$200 million, citing police and related costs, the value of canceled classes, the costs of personnel maintaining empty buildings and the cost of making up a lost semester. Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, a student association with 125,000 members, said to The Montreal Gazette that those costs exceeded what would have been collected from the tuition increases:

“The tuition for seven years was supposed to bring in about $170 million. So you can see it’s not about economics, but about ideology. It just doesn’t make sense.”

In terms of common sense, it doesn’t. In terms of class warfare waged from above, alas, it makes much sense. Class warfare has been a one-sided affair since the dawn of capitalism. It is long past time we fought back.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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