The momentum and élan that was built up amongst students and organized workers for a showdown with the Liberal government heading into the spring of 2015 in Quebec has dissipated. Workers and youth who were excited with the possibility of fighting back will have to wait until the fall. A feeling of disappointment hangs in the air as everyone is asking “what happened to the Quebecois spring?”
The announcement of the austerity budget by the Liberal government caused deep discontent to spread among the population of Quebec. In response to this, trade union leaders announced that they would be mobilizing towards a movement that would “resemble the spring of 2012," in the words of FTQ president Daniel Boyer. Municipal workers in particular became increasingly radicalized due to the government legislating away part of their negotiated pensions, a de facto breaking of their collective bargaining agreement. This led to firefighters storming Montreal City Hall, tearing up their agreement, throwing it all over the place and chasing the mayor from room to room. The discontent even spread to the police forces who made many declarations against the government, and even refused to protect the mayor and city council as the firefighters ransacked City Hall. In addition to this, the blue collar workers of Quebec City voted for an illegal strike mandate.
The fall of 2014 saw three massive demonstrations in Montreal, the biggest of which brought out 125,000 on November 29th, as workers answered the call of the union leaders to show their discontent. In December, the provincial government made public their offer to the 541,000 public sector workers whose collective agreements were expiring at the end of March 2015. The offer from the government amounts to just a 3% wage increase over five years, as well as increasing the retirement age from 60 to 62 and increasing the penalties for early retirement. This is opposed to the unions' demand for a 13.5% increase in wages over three years. This response only further increased the anger and radicalization of the public sector workers. Slogans like “GouverneMENT” (“MENT” is from the French verb mentir which means “to lie”) are now commonplace as people feel lied to by this provincial government. This Liberal government did not get elected on the program that they are now carrying out!
In February 2015, public divisions emerged among trade union leaders about the way forward for the movement. CSN president Jacques Létoureau was quoted in Le Devoir in early February stating that “The labour movement excludes the possibility of holding a general strike.” He said this without consulting the union membership. Contradicting this, in mid-February, Marc Ranger, the president of the municipal workers’ coalition representing 65,000 workers was quoted as saying, “We need to shake things up like never before. On May 1st, we've already brought out 100,000 people, therefore this time it must be historic. I've already begun speaking about the idea, and our people have taken it on, especially the concept of a 24-hour general strike. It captures the imagination.” Adding to this, Marjolaine Aubé (the president of the CSN health workers of Laval) said “We will give them a real statutory holiday, we will shut down the province, we will shut down the bridges.” Meanwhile, Gilles Tremblay (the president of the FTQ health and social service workers) commented that “Legal strike votes will be happening in April, the collective agreements will be over and we will be able to launch the strike against austerity.” These comments created a lot of enthusiasm among workers and students who were looking forward to a big movement against the provincial government.
Quebec students, well known for initiating the massive “Quebecois Spring” of 2012, became reinvigorated by the mobilization of the working class. There was the general feeling that this time, the students would not be isolated but would be part of a united movement, hand in hand with the workers. Mobilization committees sprung up on campuses, with the aim of mobilizing towards the movement in the spring of 2015. A two-week long student strike was launched beginning on March 23rd 2015. The purpose of the student strike was to be the spark to help ignite a strike of the public sector workers, whose collective agreements were expiring at the end of March.
Unfortunately, in mid-March the main leaders of the central trade union federations tried to slow things down, and poured water on any idea of strike action. Louise Chabot, president of the CSQ (Centrale des syndicats du Québec or the “Quebec House of Labour”) stated “The big union centrals are not at the stage of the general strike.” She went on to explain that this was definitely excluded for the spring because it would be illegal and therefore would lead to heavy fines. Daniel Boyer of the FTQ echoed this sentiment by stating “It is not simple to get strike mandates as we represent 400,000 workers. Anyway, the objective of the day is not to strike but to negotiate in good faith.” In spite of these declarations, a series of illegal strike votes started to roll in. These votes mostly came in from CEGEP teachers and by May 1st, approximately 30 union locals (most of them affiliated to the CSN) had voted for a 1-day illegal strike on May 1st.
In direct response to this, the CSN published a statement written by president Jacques Letourneau, explaining that “For a few months, some people have launched the idea of a general strike on May 1st, and they wish for the CSN to follow suit. Some of our affiliated unions are sensitive to this call and have voted in favour of this course of action.” He then went on to explain why they were not ready for this as “We are still far from the spring 2012 where the student struggle against the tuition increase provoked the social revolt of the ‘Casseroles’.” Feeling the pressure as well, FTQ president Daniel Boyer also came out leading up to the expiration of the public sector collective agreements and added that “It is all very well to say that the collective agreements end today, but it is not true that we can start a strike tomorrow morning.”
With the trade union leaders seeking to bring the movement to a halt, confusion spread among the striking students. What was to be done? The main debate centred on whether or not to continue the strike. The executive of ASSE (main union federation representing striking students) came forward with a proposition for a “strategic retreat” until the fall when the trade unions were more likely to go on strike. This provoked a huge fight within ASSE, which resulted in the executive being impeached and the union taking the position of continuing the strike.
Following the turmoil in ASSE, failed strike votes started to roll in and the students eventually returned to class.Opposition to the strike developed at every school, as students were not anxious to embark on a long and isolated strike without assurances that they would not be going it alone. As the student strike petered out, appeals to “continue the struggle” fell on deaf ears. Already, a visible backlash was taking place among the student population against the radicals who desired to push the struggle forward, regardless of the objective conditions and without any real plan. The Association of Political Science and Law students (AFESPED) at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM), normally a centre of the student strike movement, was dissolved following such a backlash. The CEGEP of Matane, a founding member of ASSE voted to disaffiliate. The strike became mostly relegated to UQAM, where a local struggle against political expulsions resulted in a 1-day mass occupation which was brutally repressed by the police. An impatient ultra-left mood spread among student activists who became frustrated with the situation. This is quite clearly captured in the slogan, Fuck tout! (“Fuck everything!”), which has become commonplace in the student movement. The more the mass of students exited the struggle, the more the leading student radicals adopted adventurist tactics, which further isolated them from the rank and file. This impatient urge to force the movement forward, combined with a disdain for any consideration for the correct ideas needed in order to do this, undoubtedly has played a negative role.
But does this mean that there was nothing more that students could have done? As we’ve explained before, in this context, students cannot defeat the cuts on their own. The working class of Quebec, due to the role it plays in the economy and its sheer size, is the only force capable of beating back the agenda of the capitalists. In this struggle, the main focus for the energies and time of the students should be to engage workers, especially those organized in unions as they actually have the organized collective power to fight back. The question of “whether to continue the strike or not,” missed this whole central point. The resulting collapse of support for the strike shows concretely that the rank-and-file students doubted the efficacy of continuing the strike all alone.
But does this mean that the consciousness of Quebec students is lower than it has been in the past? Not at all! In fact, this marks a seriousness and maturity not appreciated by most radical activists. This development in the consciousness and understanding of the situation by the rank-and-file students shows that the lessons of 2012 are being absorbed by the broader movement. The youth in particular desperately want to fight against austerity but they want to see their energies and time directed in a productive direction. It is a yearning for the proper strategy and tactics that can lead to victory. This is our job as Marxists - to provide the ideas that can aid workers and youth in the struggle.
In the months leading up to May 1st, the mood of workers was developing in a very radical direction and they were looking for a chance to fight back. This was obvious in the various number of resolutions passed by locals in favour of illegal strike action and the 1-day illegal strike of close to 30 CEGEP teachers’ unions on May 1st. The fact that the CSN was forced to publish a declaration on their website explaining why they were not organizing a general strike shows that the pressure for such an action was building. Faced with the growing militancy and pressure of the rank-and-file, the union leadership needed a way to let the workers blow off steam.
In this context, the trade union leaders suddenly became proponents of decentralized actions, borrowing from the anarchist playbook. Their campaign for “disruptive actions in the four corners of Quebec,” far from some honest desire to give control to the local workers, was an attempt to absolve themselves of the responsibility of organizing anything. May 1st, which not uncommonly sees mass demonstrations of tens of thousands of workers in Quebec, should have been a massive show of force against the government with hundreds of thousands in the streets. Instead, the union leadership, afraid of a showdown with the government, intentionally did not organize a central union demonstration and encouraged workers to blow off steam in small regional actions.
But what was to be done?
The central contradiction in the movement is the increasing radicalization of the rank and file workers, combined with the conservative nature of the trade union bureaucracy. The students of Quebec have a big role to play in this process. They can provide the forces that can aid the workers in overcoming this contradiction. Unfortunately, this spring, many of the errors of 2012 were made once again as student energies were dissipated in purely student actions and the trade union leaders were able to hold things back. So what can students do?
Go to the workers!
Many activists in the student movement are not at ease with organized labour. The stated aim of the influential student activist group Printemps2015 was to “organize outside of the traditional structures” to promote a “social strike.” But this strategy has been a complete failure and, far from undermining the trade union leaders, actually reinforced their dominance over their members, which stifled any chances for a strike movement this spring or summer. How can links be built with workers if students boycott their organizations?
Unfortunately, it has not been uncommon for students to expend all of their time and energy in endless night demonstrations, occupations of campus lawns or this or that purely student action. La Riposte has been consistently arguing that student leaders need to direct the energies of students towards bringing the workers into the struggle.
Big efforts should be placed on building student-worker solidarity committees on each campus. Delegations of students could be sent to each union local and each work place in the area to forge links with the workers. Through this medium, allies could be found in local presidents or shop stewards. Plans could be made to visit every workplace in the neighbourhood. The energy and enthusiasm of the youth would find a productive outlet and in turn would be a huge boon to the workers.
Already, striking students have seen direct solidarity from teachers, professors and other workers on their campuses. These alliances could be used to legitimize the student delegations in the eyes of unionized workers in the labour movement. We wholeheartedly believe that this course of action should be on the order of the day leading into the mobilizations for the fall. Through patient work, students can help to bring the workers into the struggle and bring this government to its knees!
The straight-jacket of bourgeois legality
Over the summer, union leaders will be negotiating with the government. Treasury Board president Martin Coiteux has said that the demands of the public sector unions for a wage increase of 4.5% each year would cost the state an additional $10.8 billion over 3 years, whereas the government’s offer would only cost the state an additional $1.2 billion. Due to the crisis of capitalism, the government has very little room to manoeuvre. In the words of Lucie Martineau, the president of the Union of Public Service Employees of Quebec, “I am normally very optimistic, but this time, all that we are seeing is setbacks. There are no positive points. The gulf is still pretty big... there is no agreement on any point.” Jacques Letourneau added that, “Basically, the premier told us that he will not change his mind.”
With the negotiations at a standstill, things don't look good for the union leaders hoping for a sweetheart deal, something they seek because in reality they are terrified at the prospect of mobilizing the workers. Because of this fear the labour bureaucracy would much rather work everything out at the table and put a lid on the movement. The government is more determined than ever to force their agenda on the unions and set an example. With talks not going anywhere, we may see a strike this fall under the pressure of the rank-and-file. Illusions in the negotiating process are being shattered as strike action becomes the only reasonable action left. The anger and discontent of the workers will not be easily quelled this time around and the government does not have much room to buy class peace.
The main reason, according to the union leadership, for scuttling the momentum built up over the winter and spring was that it was not 'legal' to strike during the spring. But with the provincial Liberals’ track record of legislating workers back to work, there is little chance that this strike will not face the same fate. In fact, it can be pretty much guaranteed that any major strike action would result in back-to-work legislation. Confronted with this, union leaders are clinging to legality for dear life. Francine Lévesque of the CSN has even said, “We must explain to all of our members what it takes to be able to exercise the right to a legal strike. We are not launching the atomic bomb (an illegal strike): we are talking about a legal strike.”
This bowing down before bourgeois legality is dangerous for the movement and must be overcome. Unions would not exist today if it weren’t for defying unjust laws made to hold the workers down. The government has already essentially broken agreements previously made with the 65,000 municipal workers in the province by legislating away a portion of their pensions. On top of this, the government has a long record of legislating workers back to work if they choose to strike. The union leadership is only concerned about ‘legality’ when it comes to the question of when workers can strike, when the law is being used against the labour movement on multiple fronts. The law and legislation are most powerful tools in the hands of the ruling class, and the government is using the law to break collective agreements before term and by means of back-to-work legislation, in an attempt to break the resistance of the unions to the policies of austerity. Therefore, any appeal to ‘legality’ at this point is a declaration of defeat, on the field of battle of the government’s choosing, before the struggle has even begun.
The energy and momentum that was built over the last period has been forestalled on the promise of a mobilization in the fall. Workers are looking with anticipation for the opportunity to fight back and therefore great expectations are placed on the union leadership. Students can play a vital role in the movement, this of course being contingent on the factthat they understand that their role must be to patiently engage the workers and bring them into the struggle. If we learn from the mistakes made in the past period, the government will tremble before a united movement of workers and students!