Solidarité on the streets of Quebec

December 14, 2015

Ashley Smith reports from Montreal on the show of power by public-sector workers during a one-day general strike that rocked the Liberal Party provincial government.

THE PUBLIC-sector workers of Quebec staged a general strike on December 9 that shut down almost all government services and sent a loud-and-clear message to the provincial government: Enough cuts and austerity.

Workers picketed schools, hospitals and state offices from one end of the province to the other, and all the way up north in the Inuit town of Quaqtaq in Nunavik.

A coalition of public-sector unions organized in the Common Front called their 400,000 members out for a one-day work stoppage on Wednesday, while 34,000 teachers organized in the Fédération autonome de l'enseignement (FAE) went out from last Wednesday through Friday. Jacques Létorneau, president of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) declared, "It is the biggest national strike since 1972 in the public sector. There were 210,000 people on strike at the same time in 1972. Today, it's more than 400,000."

Since last spring when their contracts expired, the Common Front and FAE have been locked in a battle with the Liberal Party government of Premier Philippe Couillard. The third major union force in the struggle, the 65,000-strong nurses union Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la Santé du Québec (FIQ), managed to win a tentative deal on working conditions and job security that looks like a victory, though its implementation is dependent on further negotiations on wages and more.

Public-sector workers rally during the general strike in Quebec
Public-sector workers rally during the general strike in Quebec

THROUGHOUT THE fall, Couillard has been determined to impose a zero deficit budget on the province and has been demanding massive concessions from public-sector unions, community organizations and students. The sheer scale of the attacks, combined with the arrogance of the premier and that of his chief negotiator, Quebec Treasury Board Chair Martin Coiteux, have driven Quebec's working class and social organizations into the largest struggle against austerity in North America.

The Common Front kicked off the wave of actions with a rally if 150,000 in Montreal on October 3, Since then, the Common Front and FAE staged three rounds of rotating regional strikes, paralyzing business as usual throughout Quebec.

But the general strike last week was by far the largest so far. In a show of force, the unions gathered all their strikers in large demonstrations in each regional center, from Quebec City to Montreal to Gatineau. In Quebec City, the Common Front's teachers union Centrale des syndicats du Québec rallied more than 20,000 workers.

In Montreal, the Common Front and FAE staged separate rallies that fused into a joint march of over 40,000 workers. The FAE's slogan emblazoned on their banner proclaimed, "The government has abandoned public education"--while the Common Front's declared, "It's up to us to defend public services." Workers wore yellow shirts declaring themselves "the indispensables" and waved flags that encapsulated the common sentiment of the entire struggle: "Reject Austerity!"

A union-sponsored plane circled above the protest, pulling a giant banner that read "Coiteux, We Deserve Better." Down below, the festive crowd of workers blew vuvuzelas (plastic horns) at a deafening volume. Clearly, they wanted the government to hear their anger.

Over the din, the CSN's representative for the Montreal area, Dominique Daigneault, declared: "We want to send a strong message of unity to the government and to tell them that the public supports us and that people are sick of the cuts. We are not just numbers on a balance sheet. We provide important public services and deserve respect."

A delegation of union activists representing the Vermont AFL-CIO addressed the crowd, professing their solidarity to the strikers in their best, if broken, French. When Traven Leyshon, the representative of the delegation, ended his speech with the words: "Vive la grève générale"--or "Long live the general strike"--the crowd erupted in a raucous cheer.

After the separate rallies, the common march wove through the city. Along the way, marchers raised their fists in solidarity with striking health care workers at hospitals and clinics. These unionists were restricted from joining the march by laws that restrict their right to strike to just 45 minutes. But the workers staged spirited pickets all day long.

THIS ONE-day demonstration of workers power was the exclamation point in a week of labor militancy in Montreal, the epicenter of the struggle. The 34,000 teachers in the FAE continued their strike through Friday.

Many turned to direct action to put further pressure on the government. Over 100 teachers temporarily occupied the Treasury Board. Another dozen set up an encampment opposite the Education Minister's Montreal office until the authorities closed it down on Friday. The FAE's Alain Moris declared their eviction an "example of how teachers are treated in Quebec."

Earlier in the week, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees walked off the job when their union called a meeting to open a campaign to win a new contract in December 2017. Union members are preparing a militant effort to increase their wages and stop the outsourcing of their work to private contractors.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre called the meeting an illegal strike. "You have a collective agreement," he ranted. "Go work." He is fining each worker $100 and the union as a whole $50,000 for the action. This battle is just beginning.

Also last week, 3,000 teaching and research assistants at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) went out on strike right before finals. Graduate student employees organized in the union SÉTUE have been working without a contract since 2013. They are demanding a $3 an hour raise.

The grad employees are refusing to proctor or grade exams, and they had been blocking the entrances to buildings, demanding that students, teachers and other workers respect their picket lines. UQAM responded to the job action by winning a court injunction prohibiting union members from blocking access to buildings.

COUILLARD'S PROGRAM of austerity triggered this wave of struggle. Driven by neoliberal ideology as well as the province's sluggish economy, the Liberal Party government aims to slash public services and cut public-sector workers' wages and benefits--and divert the cost savings into the hands of Quebec capital to invest in the private sector.

Couillard justifies this assault by claiming that Quebec is broke. But he's proven himself a hypocrite before the eyes of workers. For example, when the province's aerospace firm Bombardier recently faced financial troubles, Couillard managed to come up with $1 billion to bail it out. Clearly the state has the money for capital, not for workers, public services and community organizations.

Couillard's austerity drive has forged unprecedented solidarity between unions and students, community organizations and parents. In fact, the student movement against austerity played the pivotal role in awakening the union movement.

In 2012, students rose up against then-Liberal Party Premier Jean Charest's threat to raise tuition. The student union, Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ) led the charge. They shut down campuses, staged illegal demonstrations in defiance of a special law, galvanized the population behind them, and stopped the government in its tracks.

The student strikes opened a new era of struggle in Quebec--they proved that if you fight, you can win.

After an abortive attempt to spur the unions into action last spring, ASSÉ returned to the struggle this fall in solidarity with the unions, marching in all the workers' demonstrations and staging their own strikes and rallies. The student union is demanding that the government tax the rich, restore funding for education, invest in the public sector and guarantee good-paying jobs that provide services to the broader working class and students.

This fall, community organizations have also entered the struggle, staging unprecedented actions. On November 2-3, 1,300 community organizations went on strike. 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 10,000.

Parents have also joined the protests against Couillard. They organized a group called Je protège mon école publique, with over 20,000 members. Most have never been involved in activism before, but they are creative and militant. On the first school day of each of the last four months, they formed human chains in front of schools to symbolically defend them against Couillard's budget cuts.

Key to the burgeoning anti-austerity movement has been the Red Hand Coalition. It brings together the most militant unions like the CSN, community organizations and ASSÉ.

On November 27, the coalition led a march of over 10,000 people--largely made up of members of community organizations--from Montreal's poorest, immigrant neighborhoods to the richest, exposing that there are, in fact, two Montreals: one for workers and the poor and another for the rich.

As the coalition's key organizer Véronique Laflamme explained, "Austerity is not inevitable. We have to stop the government from robbing the poorest people of their services and attacking unions. We must force them to tax the rich, provide good public sector jobs, and fund services to all, not fill the fill pockets of the 1 Percent."

THE COMBINED struggle of the unions, students and community organizations has decisively shifted public opinion against Couillard's government. According to polls, 54 percent of people now oppose his austerity program. In the public-sector labor negotiations, 51 percent support the unions' position, while only 28 percent back the government. The Liberal Party government's approval rating has collapsed to a mere 33 percent.

With his political capital severely undermined, Couillard has backed off his most extreme demands and granted small concessions, in the hopes demobilizing some sectors of the struggle.

In the wake of the community organization's strike, he promised to restore some support to them. In the hopes of placating students, he promised to invest $80 million in education. But these amounts pale in comparison to the cuts that he and previous governments have imposed, especially in education, which has lost $1 billion in funds over the last six years.

After initially treating the unions with utter contempt, Couillard has also begun to move at the bargaining table. He has struck 30 tentative agreements in sectoral negotiations with individual unions on issues other than wages, pensions and retirement. For example, the FIQ seems to have won the nurses a good contract. They won a higher ratio of workers to patients, bonuses for critical care shifts, and a higher number of full-time positions.

But in negotiations with the two other main public-sector union bodies, the government isn't meeting labor's demands. The FAE walked away from the bargaining table on November 3 and has not returned since.

In the two most important set of negotiations, over wages, pensions and retirement, the unions and the government remain far apart. Without an agreement at these two "tables," as they are known, none of the dozens of sectoral agreements will be finalized with individual unions.

At one table, the Common Front remains deadlocked with the government. It reduced its original demand for a 13.5 percent wage increase over a three-year contract to 6.9 percent. But the government didn't move from its last offer of 3 percent over a five-year contract, with pay scale reviews that would provide 95 percent of the workforce with an additional 2.3 percent wage increase. In the other central table negotiations involving the FAE and FIQ, there is also little progress.

So the struggle still hangs in the balance. Common Front members voted to authorize six days of strikes by all unions--there are still two strike days left.

Clearly, the unions have wind in their sails, with public support strong behind them. But the union leadership wants to settle on an agreement, and they have shown a willingness to concede. By contrast, the rank and file are in motion for a determined opposition to austerity, but they have relatively low expectations.

For example, at the December 9 demonstration, one CEGEP teacher, David Schwinghamer, said, "I would be satisfied with a wage increase that matches the rate of inflation. If we win that, I would consider the struggle a victory. It would be something to build on."

The more militant workers are just beginning to form a rank-and-file network to agitate for higher expectations, self-organization and struggle. A loose network called Lutte Commune, consisting of several hundred union activists, has been created to start the process. But it is not yet a force to agitate in the hundreds of local union assemblies that will debate strategy and tactics, as well as any agreement with the government.

GIVEN ALL the variables, it's difficult to predict where the struggle will head going into the holidays. Will the government concede enough for union officials and the rank and file to accept a deal? Will the government hold the line, drag out talks and impose back-to-work legislation? If that happens will union leaders, workers and the rest of the anti-austerity movement detonate a broader social revolt, as the students did in the Maple Spring of 2012?

Many people expect a deal to be struck soon, but the struggle could extend into the new year. Philippe de Grosbois, a CEGEP teacher and leader in his union local, said, "There are two possibilities. We could have a deal in the next few days that we would most likely vote on in January. The other possibility is that there is no deal. In that case, we will have to have an honest discussion in all the locals about how to take the struggle to a higher level."

What is absolutely clear, though, is that the fight against neoliberal austerity in Quebec kicked off by students in 2012 has spread throughout the working class, its unions and community organizations.

How far this battle can go will be shaped the emerging radical left, grouped around organizations and networks such as Lutte Commune, Red Hand Coalition, ASSÉ and socialist groups like Front d'Action Socialiste. They will be tested by how effectively they can expand, deepen and radicalize the struggle against capital's program of austerity.

That new left will also have to struggle to cultivate an electoral expression through the new left-wing party Québec Solidaire. Its union members are agitating for the party to position itself as the representative of class and social movements, in order to challenge the Liberal Party and supplant Parti Québécois (PQ), which has traditionally captured the union vote, despite its record as a neoliberal party.

With the world economy mired in a long-term slump and stagnation, the pressure will only intensify on Quebec's rulers to attack workers, public services, the education system and community organizations.
This will stoke the fires of resistance in Quebec and give emerging radical forces the chance to lead a fight for a deeper transformation. Luckily, this radical class and social struggle may finally break out of its isolation from the rest of the world when it hosts the next World Social Forum in August 2016.

Quebec is entering a new epoch of struggle, and the rest of the left has much to learn from it.

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