A Maple Fall in Quebec?

With protests in Quebec picking up, the 2012 student strikes might have been just the beginning of the anti-austerity struggle.

Students in Quebec protest educational cuts in 2012. Charlotte Ratel / Flickr

Last Saturday in Montreal, in front of throngs of cheering demonstrators, Daniel Boyer, president of the Fédération des Travailleurs du Québec (FTQ) declared, “I’m not going to say that this will be the last peaceful demonstration, but we’re moving toward more muscular tactics.”

Boyer’s remarks were just another sign of growing unrest in Quebec.

Saturday’s march brought 150,000 people — trade unionists, their families, and supporters — into the streets to protest Premier Philippe Couillard’s attack on public-sector workers and government services.

Earlier in the week, on Wednesday, 34,0000 teachers affiliated with the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (FAE) went on a one-day strike that shut down French schools throughout Quebec. And on World Teachers’ Day last Monday, educators across the province staged protests outside of their schools to denounce Couillard’s education cuts.

Parents have joined in as well. Organized by Je protégé mon école publique, 20,000 parents formed human chains in front of their children’s schools on September 1 and October 1. They are planning an even larger wave of school defenses on November 2.

In these demonstrations there are real echoes of the mass student strikes in Quebec in 2012. But this time, the struggle is extending into the Quebec working class to a far greater extent — raising the stakes even higher for the government.

Victories and Setbacks

Dubbed Maple Spring, the 2012 student protests set in motion the resistance to austerity. Led by Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ) and its larger student union coalition, CLASSE, students shut down their post-secondary schools and universities. The goal was to stop then-Premier Jean Charest from imposing a tuition hike and win free public higher education.

Charest responded by demonizing the students and passing a special law to limit their right to strike, assemble, and protest. His crackdown backfired, triggering a dramatic escalation of struggle.

Students defied government restrictions. They staged unpermitted marches in Montreal that reached into the hundreds of thousands. Their teachers formed their own coalition, Profs contre la hausse, and joined the protest.

The broader working class rallied to the students as well. In their neighborhoods in Montreal, workers organized unpermitted evening marches they called casseroles. Protesters demonstrated in the streets, banging pots and pans. And everyone donned the symbol of the strike, the red square, which represented a life trapped in debt.

The wave of protest forced Charest and the Liberal Party to back down and call an election, which it lost to the Parti Quebecois (PQ). Charest himself lost his seat, and the Liberals suffered one of their worst electoral defeats in their history.

But after the PQ betrayed their promises to students, the Liberals capitalized on the demoralization and managed to return to power in 2014. Since then, they have declared war on Quebec’s public services, their unionized workers, and their clients. They are trying to balance the budget on the backs of the province’s workers, poor, and oppressed.

The driving motives of this attack are both economic and ideological. Quebec capitalism, although not in recession like the rest of the Canadian state, is mired in sluggish growth and low private-sector investment, and is therefore experiencing a drop in tax revenues for the provincial budget. Quebec’s economy is projected to grow at only 1.3 percent this year.

To escape this slump and balance their provincial budget, Couillard’s Liberal Party government hopes to impose wage freezes on state workers and cut social services. Benoit Renaud, a teacher and activist in the left-wing party Quebec Solidaire, explains it this way:

We are not facing a tired and weak government like Charest’s. Couillard’s government got elected with a strong majority and doesn’t have to call a new election until 2018. They aim to crush the union movement. They are trying to impose a neoliberal wish list on us all for the benefit of the 1 percent.

In an abortive attempt to spark the struggle against Couillard’s austerity agenda, the student union ASSÉ went on strike this past spring. Students hoped their strike would encourage public-sector workers to go out as well. But the militants hadn’t laid enough groundwork among students, and the unions, despite the expiration of contracts on March 31, were not yet legally able to strike.

As a result, the government and school administrators were able to isolate the students and repress some of their most militant activists, especially at one of their key bases, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

But while the attempt to trigger a broader struggle didn’t succeed, the anti-austerity mood was by no means squelched. May Day this year had some of the largest and broadest actions in years, with some teachers, inspired by the students’ militancy, shutting down their schools with unpermitted strikes.

Over the summer, the unions declared an impasse in negotiations. Couillard had refused to budge an inch at the bargaining table, both with five public-sector unions organized in the Common Front and in separate talks with the teachers in FAE and the nurses’ union FIQ. These unions represent over half a million government workers, and more than 75 percent are women.

Couillard wants to impose wage freezes on each union in the first two years of a five-year contract, followed by a 1 percent increase in the final three. He also wants to raise the retirement age to sixty-two and slash pensions. According to Benoit Renaud,

Anger about Couillard, his demands, and just the general working conditions in the public sector is intense. People are threatening to quit their jobs because of the increasing workload. People say they’re already losing their minds as a result of previous concessions. They are very worried and angry about the possibility that it will only get worse if Couillard gets his way.

In education, Couillard wants to enlarge class sizes; count children with special needs as one child, instead of three, as has been the norm; and increase the workweek from thirty-two to forty hours.

In healthcare, the government wants to raise the number of patients for each nurse, increase forced overtime, and prevent larger bonuses for working night shifts. Conditions are so bad that 47 percent of active nurses over 50 years of age are considering retirement.

The union wants the polar opposite: a 13.5 percent jump in pay over the life of the contract, more investment in public services, and better working conditions.

Once they declared that there was a stalemate, union leaders went to their members to seek strike authorization. The result was overwhelming — on average, over 80 percent of members voted in favor of job actions. The strikes, protests and organizing will now unfold and intensify over the next month.

The teachers’ unions in the FAE, which already shut down their schools on September 30, are planning two more days of strike action on October 14 and 30. If the government doesn’t relent, they are threatening another strike date. The nurses in FIQ have yet to announce their plans.

The rest of the unions, all in the Common Front, say they will follow through on their promise of militancy made at the demonstration in Montreal. They have called for six days of rotating regional strikes, timed to start after the October 19 federal elections.

In the meantime, unions are staging all sorts of actions. And during their strikes, unions in the Common Front are authorizing picketers to stage direct actions against the corporations and political parties that are behind the drive to austerity.

The student unions are preparing to join the fray with their own set of demands and proposals, a reaction to the government’s plan to trim $70 million in education funding for 2015–16. Their November 5 student strike and mass march in Montreal will coincide with one of the strike days called by the Common Front.

ASSÉ member Myriam Leduc says, “We are demanding that the government stop attacking education and public services. We are demanding that they do the opposite. We must force them to tax the rich and use the money to invest in the public sector.”

ASSÉ has also reached out to union activists throughout Quebec, organizing local meetings between student activists and trade unionists in the hope of spreading their method of democratic and militant unionism.

In addition, the students have played a key role in the Red Hand Coalition, which brings together students, labor unions, and community organizations in a united front against austerity. Recently, the coalition vowed to call for a social strike if the government approved a special law restricting the right of unions to strike and demonstrate.

Community organizations are also ready to fight austerity. Dependent on government funding for an array of services like tenants’ rights, women’s rights and popular education, they too are planning occupations and shutdowns in solidarity with the union and student strikes.

A Militant Muscle

The opposition to austerity launched during the Maple Spring has thus spread to large swaths of Quebec society. Many students have since graduated and directly spread this anti-austerity fervor, becoming teachers, nurses, and public-sector workers and bringing their experience of militancy into their unions.

The government’s relentless austerity agenda risks provoking a new wave of resistance — this time a Maple Fall, with workers at the center of the struggle.

The government is trying to isolate militant forces by claiming that Quebec’s welfare state is an unaffordable luxury that keeps taxes high on working-class people and must be cut. And they have cultivated a base of support. Nearly 50 percent of Quebecers think that unions have too much power.

The struggle thus stands at a crossroads. While union leaders gave militant speeches at last Saturday’s march, they have a history of using such threats to improve their bargaining position, only to agree to slightly less concessionary deals that they then try to sell to their membership.

The big question is whether workers are prepared to push their leaders to fight. At this point, a majority of the rank-and-file is very angry about the attacks on them and the services they provide, but they are neither organized, nor do they have the experience of militant strikes in recent years. As Philippe de Grosbois, a teacher and member of his local union executive, explains:

Our unions have not struck in quite a while, and when we have the struck in the past, they have been short and symbolic. The kind of struggle we must organize now is on a whole different level. We are not used to that. So we have muscles that we have not used in a while that are frankly a bit atrophied.

Recognizing these shortcomings, militants inside the unions have formed a network called Lutte Commune. The network’s open letter, signed by nearly four hundred union members, urges union locals to convene local strike committees to organize discussions and actions. These committees, they argue, should reach out to the broader working class by making the case that their unions are fighting for everyone’s services and living standards.

The network is also organizing public meetings in Montreal, Gatineau, and Quebec City with an eye toward strengthening the democratic self-organization of local unions, improving local unions’ capacity to fight, and pushing union leadership to escalate the struggle. But these activists admit they are still in the embryonic stage.

Given all these factors, the trajectory of the struggle is unpredictable. Much will turn on the actions of Couillard. Will he stand firm in his demand for extreme concessions? Will he impose a special law against the right to strike? Or will he back off his most draconian demands and get the union leadership to accept a milder but no less concessionary deal and call off the strikes? And would an angry but disorganized base accept such a deal?

At this point, it’s very difficult to predict. As de Grosbois says, “If Couillard does impose a special law, it may detonate and widen a larger social struggle. People may then say, ‘Ya basta! That’s enough!’ just like we did when they imposed the special law on the students. Then we erupted in struggle and brought down the government.”

This brewing struggle is putting Quebec’s political parties to the test. The Liberals are the naked face of the ruling class in Quebec. The nationalist party, the PQ, which so betrayed the hopes of the Maple Spring, is no alternative, despite its historic relationship with the union movement. It is now led by multimillionaire media executive Pierre Karl Péladeau. The only political party unequivocally on the side of the resistance to austerity is the left, independist party Québec Solidaire.

All of this ferment shows that the student fight was just the beginning. That fight has now expanded into a wider struggle of public-sector workers to defend their livelihoods and the services they provide. While they face significant opposition, a new generation of students and workers are pushing for a more just social and political order in Quebec.