The Austerity Backlash

The Liberal government in Quebec's attempt to impose austerity has instead galvanized thousands against it.

A man wearing a likeness of Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard at a public-sector protest this year. Ligue pour l'Action socialiste

If there’s one place in North America where austerity has been met with mass mobilization, it’s Quebec. In 2012, mass student strikes involved a quarter million students at their peak, and wrenched tuition hikes off the government’s agenda.

Now, three years later, public-sector unions across the province have begun a wave of strikes against proposed cutbacks.

In the first round of rotating regional strikes from October 26–29, one section of the more than four hundred thousand unionists organized in the Common Front shut down schools, hospitals, and government offices in and around Montreal.

Independently, the Fédération autonome de l’eseignement (FAE) led its 34,000 French language teachers in three days of rotating strikes on October 26–28. A third union, the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), which represents 65,000 nurses and health care workers, has also staged a series of protests.

The Common Front called out another group of its members for a second round of strikes last week, and a third round this week on November 16–17. The latest strikes were back in the epicenter of militancy in Montreal and Laval. Teachers, hospital workers, and civil servants shut down most sectors of the area’s government. Teachers gathered some of their pickets into a march of over a thousand through Montreal.

The Common Front had been building toward a general strike of public-sector workers on December 1–3 across Quebec, but postponed it in the hopes of giving talks more time to reach a settlement. If they do eventually strike, and the FAE and FIQ join in, it would involve more than half a million workers — Quebec’s biggest labor action in decades.

The struggle led by the union federations has found increasing support from the broader working class — despite polls that show as many as 50 percent of people in Quebec think unions have too much power.

“The picket lines were amazing,” said one striking teacher in the FAE, Benoit Renaud. “Lots of people driving by honked their horns in solidarity. It shows that whatever Quebecers think about unions in the abstract, they like teachers, nurses, and workers in local government. And they are realizing that our fight is also their fight.”

The Liberal Party government of Philippe Couillard triggered this upsurge. Driven by Quebec’s anemic economy and an ideological commitment to neoliberalism, Couillard wants to balance the budget by cutting government workers’ wages and benefits and gutting the vital services they provide.

He has proposed no wage increase for the first two years of a five-year contract, to be followed by a mere 1 percent annual increase for the following three years. With inflation factored in, that would amount to a massive wage cut. In addition, he is attacking pensions and trying to increase the age of retirement for all public-sector workers.

In education, Couillard wants to increase 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 health care, the government wants to raise the number of patients taken care of by each nurse, increase forced overtime, and deny any increase in bonuses for working night shifts. Conditions are so bad that 47 percent of active nurses over fifty years of age are considering retirement.

The unions’ proposals are in direct opposition to Couillard’s. They want raises of 13.5 percent over the life of a five-year contract, increased investment in public services, and improvements in working conditions.

Perhaps overconfident that he rules Quebec with a large majority in the provincial National Assembly and faces no election for several years, Couillard attacked not only the unions but also many other sectors of society dependent on government funding.

But the scale of his assault seems to be backfiring. As Philippe de Grosbois, a teacher and elected member of his local union executive, stated:

The government attacked everyone, pitting us one against the other, in the hope that each would separately agree to a rotten deal. But the opposite is happening. Everyone is realizing that we are in the same boat, and that austerity is hurting us all. That’s why there is such solidarity among unions, students, community organizations, and parents.

The student union, Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), has played a pivotal role throughout the whole struggle. Indeed, ASSÉ catalyzed the fight against austerity with the famous Maple Spring protests of 2012.

It initiated a student union coalition called CLASSE and staged an unlimited student strike that shut down colleges and universities for months to stop tuition increases and demand free higher education as a social right.

The students even defied a special law restricting their right to strike and demonstrate, setting off an explosion of social resistance against then–Liberal Party Prime Minister Jean Charest.

ASSÉ succeeded in stopping Charest from increasing tuition and drove him to call elections, which he and his party lost in their worst defeat ever. But the Liberal Party’s successor, Parti Québécois (PQ), betrayed expectations of reform, continued neoliberal attacks, and soon lost support again to a revitalized Liberal Party under Couillard.

Once in power, Couillard turned to austerity to balance the budget. Some activists organized a group in spring 2015 to get ASSÉ to call a strike in the hopes of spurring workers, whose contracts were expiring, to launch an unlimited social strike. But the groundwork had not been laid among students for such a call, and unions were not yet legally able to strike.

As a result, Couillard and his allies in university administrations were able to isolate and repress the militants, especially at one of ASSÉ’s key bases, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). Despite this setback, ASSÉ and the broader movement have recovered. They built successful May Day demonstrations and laid out plans for actions this fall in solidarity with the union strike wave.

On November 5, ASSÉ staged a one-day student strike of 52,000 and led a march through Montreal of several thousand students. They rallied behind the slogan: “We Know We Are Not Alone: For a Massive Reinvestment in Public Services.”

They are fighting to stop $70 million in cuts to higher education and are instead demanding that the government tax the rich, invest in the public sector, and guarantee well-paying jobs that provide services to the broader working class and students. “Students are suffering both directly and indirectly from the government’s austerity agenda,” ASSÉ spokesperson Hind Fazzazi said. “We have to stand in solidarity with the unions in their fight because it is also our fight.”

Importantly, union leaders lent their solidarity to the protest. In his speech at the rally, FAE President Sylvain Mallette declared, “We support students because they are fighting the same battle we do as teachers, to protect public services and have more money for education.”

Parents have also joined the protests against Couillard, organizing a group called Je protège mon école publique, with over twenty thousand members. Most have never been involved in activism before. But they are creative and militant.

On the first day of September and October, they formed human chains in front of schools to symbolically defend them against Couillard’s budget cuts. This month, on November 2, they again formed chains at over 250 public schools and are promising more direct actions in December.

In perhaps the most unprecedented development, 1,300 community organizations went on strike on November 2–3. These organizations are not unions and don’t have a tradition of work stoppages.

But faced with facing drastic cuts in government support, they shut down their services for two days, culminating in a mass march in Montreal on November 3 numbering more than ten thousand. Couillard’s government was shocked enough by the protest to promise to restore some of the threatened funding to certain community organizations.

Despite this gesture, Couillard has largely dismissed the rising tide of strikes and protests, refusing to relent from his hardline stance in negotiations with the unions. He continues to maintain the fiction that there is simply no money to meet workers’ demands and expand funding for public education and services.

His actions, however, completely contradict this claim. Just last month, Couillard came up with $1 billion to bail out Quebec’s troubled plane manufacturer, Bombardier. Just like during the 2008 financial crisis, the state finds the money that capital needs, while it sells workers and social services down the river.

Nevertheless, he remains intransigent, and as a result, negotiations are at a standstill. The FAE recently walked out of the talks, announcing that the government’s “obsession with austerity” risks “sacrificing an entire generation of students.” At a press conference, FAE President Sylvain Mallette declared, “We hope to send a clear and strong message. We will not accept a deterioration of our working conditions.”

After the first round of strikes, Couillard claimed to present a new offer to the unions. But it was a public relations stunt. All he did was repackage his first offer, keeping two years of wage freezes and three years of 1 percent increases, but changing the sequence.

“It is essentially the same proposal,” Daniel Boyer, president of the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec (FTQ), told reporters. “We understand that a zero was moved, from the second to the fifth year, but for us, it is really not something that is significant — far from it.”

Couillard tried to bait the hook of his offer by promising to gear wage increases to workers’ education levels and introduce what is in essence a two-tier wage structure, with lower pay increases for new hires. He hoped to lure union leaders and higher-skilled, better-paid workers with seniority into selling out the rest of their brothers and sisters.

“What the government is saying is, ‘I’m not going to add money, I’m going to play in the salary scales, create new scales, and freshly hired nurses will be paid less,’” countered Régine Laurent, president of the FIQ. “The government is telling the older, more experienced nurses, ‘You are going to get more, but it will be financed by the younger nurses.’”

Leaders from the FAE and FIQ declared that the government’s most recent proposal was merely posturing before the government turned to hardball tactics. They suggested Couillard was pretending to bargain in good faith, while planning to impose a contract through the provincial parliament and pass a special law banning the unions’ right to strike.

The unions organized in the Common Front brought a new proposal to the table this week. “We want to work it out — we have said that since the beginning,” Boyer said. “We don’t want to strike. We want a collective agreement for our members.”

In their offer, they decreased the size of the raise they had been demanding in the hopes of reaching an agreement. They even went so far as to postpone the planned general public sector strike to give negotiations more time.

This is a risky strategy. Couillard has made it clear that he does not listen to reason and is unwilling to compromise. Predictably his spokespeople denounced the union offer as “completely unacceptable” and declared that the two sides were “light years” from an agreement. Without intensification of the struggle, Couillard is unlikely to budge.

Where the standoff will go from here is unclear.

Will Couillard continue to stonewall negotiations? Will the Common Front renew its call for a general strike? Will the government follow the precedent of state repression like Jean Charest did to the students in 2012?

Is he willing to risk the social explosion that toppled Charest’s government? Or will he make concessions in the hopes that the union leadership in the Common Front, FAE, and FIQ will agree to a less severe but still concessionary deal? What will the union membership do if union leaders agree to such a proposal?

These questions will be answered in the next few weeks. Everyone in Quebec’s union, student, and social movements are now engaged. Union militants organized in Lutte Commune are organizing in the rank-and-file to push the unions to stick to their promise to lead an unrelenting fight against austerity. They initiated a letter signed by over four hundred union militants calling for unions to form local strike committees to unite workers locally and plan actions democratically.

These militants have also organized panel discussions in Gatineau, Montreal, and Quebec City to discuss how unions should respond if Couillard imposes a special law. While they remain a minority current in the movement, they are agitating for union locals to follow the example of ASSÉ and, if Couillard imposes a special law, organize a broader social resistance.

If the union leaders accept a concessionary deal, they are also planning a campaign for a “no” vote to continue the struggle for a better contract. Their organizing is gathering some of the best union activists in the beginnings of a rank-and-file movement to develop combative, social-justice unionism in which unions fight not just for their sectoral interests, but for all workers.

The broader social forces in the movement are also planning further actions. The Red Hand Coalition, which brings together unions, community organizations, and ASSÉ, has called a march and rally against austerity on November 28 in Montreal.

If the government imposes a special law, the coalition has promised to turn this into a demonstration against it and in defense of the unions’ right to strike. ASSÉ has also announced a student strike and rally in Quebec City for December 2.

If Couillard tries to impose a contract defending it with a law banning the right to strike, it will put Quebec’s opposition parties to the test. The PQ certainly has proven that it is no ally of the struggle; it betrayed workers and students last time it was in power and is now led by billionaire media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau. Only the left-wing independence party Québec solidaire has come out in support of the unions.

The test will also come for the unions and popular organizations to call for a broader social struggle, as ASSÉ did in 2012. The leaderships of Common Front and its constituent unions, the FAE, and the FIQ may not risk the fines and other possible legal threats that would come with openly calling for defiance of a special law.

If so, that task will fall to other working-class formations.

Already, Lutte Commune, the Red Hand Coalition, and CSN’s Regional Council in Montreal have laid out plans for mass civil disobedience. They are organizing for building occupations, road blockades, and appeals to the broader working class to join a new pots and pans march — known as a casserole and pioneered by working-class communities in 2012 in solidarity with the students who defied a special law against their strike.

Quebec workers, students, and communities are fighting a heroic struggle. If they can force the government to retreat, they will be setting an example of how to fight austerity for the rest of the union and social movements in North America. Their fight is the leading edge of our collective movement against neoliberal austerity.

Despite the near-complete blackout of this movement in the corporate media outside Quebec, unions in the US and internationally have begun to reach out to their Quebec brothers and sisters and send solidarity resolutions to the unions in the Common Front, FAE, and FIQ. The Vermont AFL-CIO took the lead, issuing a resolution that has since been adopted by Vermont’s chapter of the National Education Association, as well as the Chicago Teachers Union, among others.

Clearly Quebec’s movement against austerity has not dissipated since the 2012 Maple Spring. It has spread through the length and breadth of the working class, creating new organizations, new politics, and a new willingness to resist — and to fight for a new political and economic order in Quebec.