The Québec Spring and the Ambiguous Role of Québec’s Union Movement

The strength and determination of Québec’s student movement against tuition fee hikes can only be accounted for by a number of factors that have contributed to radicalizing the protest and politicizing the conflict. The movement has taken on the scope and scale it has due to a deep feeling of discontent that has been building for some time within Québec society.

The neoliberal offensive

In 1999, the Parti Québécois government led by Lucien Bouchard introduced a zero-deficit policy which dealt a terrible blow to Québec’s health and education system. In the same year, the current PQ leader, Pauline Marois, who was then serving as Minister of Health in Bouchard’s government, introduced Bill 72 — a bludgeon bill aimed at the province’s nurses.

Coupled with the brutal $2.2 billion decrease in federal transfer payments, the budget cuts engendered by the obsession with deficit-reduction left deep scars in areas like health, education and income security. Seven months after its election on April 14, 2003, Jean Charest’s Liberal government set about stepping up the offensive launched by the PQ.

The aborted student struggle of 2005

It was in this context that the 2005 student strike evolved, beginning officially on February 21 with the strike of the anthropology students’ association at the Université de Montréal. The movement persisted at a number of educational institutions until April 14, 2005. In 2004, the government announced a reform of student financial assistance, including a $103 million cut to bursaries and the transfer of a substantial part of the management of the loans and bursary program to the banks. The 2005 student strike forced the government to back down to some extent by restoring some of the bursary money but the other elements of the reform were maintained.

The unions failed to respond to the students’ rallying cry and so missed an initial opportunity to take part in a vital movement against the austerity policies of the Charest government. They could have attempted to reverse the setbacks stemming from the retrograde laws passed in 2003 by helping to shift the power dynamic so as to prevent the government from passing the kind of repressive laws it had imposed with the special law in December 2005.

The 2010 social struggle: another missed opportunity for the unions

The March 2010 Bachand budget set out a plan to reduce taxes on business while increasing user fees for individual citizens. The government raised its revenues by increasing fees for health services, education and electricity and by hiking consumption taxes. The government refused to increase revenues through taxes on the pretext that tax increases would hurt the economy. According to Jean Charest, obliging users to pay fees for services was the only possible option.

As for tuition fees, they had already been unfrozen in 2007 and were subject to an increase of $50 per year. This is something worth recalling especially in light of recent polls asking if people would be in favour of indexation, when the annual increase already exceeds the indexation level. The Bachand budget introduced an additional increase. As of the fall 2012 semester, tuition fees are to increase by $325 per year for five years until 2016–2017. The total bill including mandatory institutional fees will rise from $2,890 to $4,700 per year. The tuition fee hikes represent the state’s retreat from university funding. In 1988, before the first thaw on tuition fees, the government accounted for 87 percent of university funding; in 2015, it will be responsible for no more than 63.5 percent of the total bill.

The labour negotiations of the Common Front (representing all public-sector and para-public-sector unions), which take place simultaneously, were held behind closed doors. This resulted in isolating the more radical elements of the coalition against user fees and privatization of public services.

Using the student movement to gain political capital

In an interview with the Canadian Press published in Le Devoir on June 26, Minister Bachamp stated that the budget was not negotiable and that citizens would have to make a choice come autumn. He thus confirmed what had been apparent from the start: the student movement was to be used as a smokescreen during the election campaign to divert attention from the collusion and corruption scandals that have already come to light but which will bear greater scrutiny when the Charbonneau Commission resumes its work in September. Recall that only a few months ago Charest was embroiled in a construction industry corruption scandal. That’s the reason that the window of opportunity for the election narrowed and it had to be held prior to the resumption of the Commission.

The role of the unions

In spite of the student movement’s strength and the extent to which it has resonated with a large part of Québec society, it has not been able to forge the real common front it had hoped to build with the union movement. This, despite its support from other social movements and the emergence of a new democratic citizens’ movement, the “casserole” movement. Such a united front could have taken the struggle to another level by leading to a genuine social strike.

On the other hand, Profs contre la hausse (Professors Against the Hike) displayed real solidarity with the student movement. They questioned the role of the union federations. But their organization was based on a shared political and social analysis rather than mere union affiliation.

From the start, the union leadership hoped to settle the issue of the funding of post-secondary education behind closed doors. This approach minimizes the need for popular political mobilization. It also failed to challenge either the government’s budget framework or the plan to proceed with the elimination of capital taxes for business. And it sidesteps the issue of collusion, as in the case of the government’s financing of Rio Tinto Alcan by purchasing the surplus electricity generated while the company’s employees were locked out (to the tune of $81 million since January 2012).

The upshot of this limited vision is to keep the various struggles isolated from one another and prevent the emergence of a cohesive common front which is essential to a successful fight against neoliberalism. Consequently, mobilization becomes an accessory to negotiation and the only outcome can be concessions. It is an approach based on a longstanding policy of conciliation in which the trade union federations serve as partners in the business of social management.

Since that missed opportunity in 2010, the student movement has found itself alone in waging a struggle that ultimately gained momentum, bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets.

The student movement has been hobbled by the dim prospects for a united front with the union federations as well as the unions’ refusal to help create a broad social movement leading to a social strike against neoliberal policies.

This refusal on the part of the unions to join the battle may have much more far-reaching consequences than the failed social struggle of 2010. The struggle against the tuition fee increase came head to head with the Charest government’s determination to impose the user-pay principle. Charest’s strategy of denigrating the student movement has nothing to do with the government’s inability to pay; it is part of a deliberate plan to crush the student movement and wipe out any possibility of a fight-back on the part of other social movements, including the unions, which will be subjected to the same neoliberal assaults. The only chance of a successful response is a united opposition.

Support from the Canadian union movement

Many unions in the rest of Canada declared their solidarity with the Québec student movement and backed it up with financial contributions. But an exchange of letters at the end of May between FTQ (Québec Federation of Labour) President Michel Arsenault and the President of the Canadian Labour Congress, that made the rounds in the social media, wrought confusion. Written on the eve of negotiations between the student associations and Québec Education Minister Michelle Courschene, Arsenault’s letter was intended, as the FTQ leadership saw it, to avert any impediments to the negotiations. It appealed to unions in the rest of Canada to defer to Québec strategies for supporting the student movement.

Although his response to the affiliated unions contained a copy of Michel Arsenault’s letter, Ken Georgetti simply cited the FTQ’s request that Canadian unions honour the CLC–FTQ agreement regarding the FTQ’s jurisdiction in Québec. It didn’t explain the motives for the FTQ’s request or mention its concern with scuttling the impending negotiations. It’s hard not to see this as a deliberate decision by Georgetti. And some Canadian unions understood it to mean that expressions of solidarity and financial support were not welcome.

Arsenault’s letter clearly had a demobilizing effect. His position was based on an overweening emphasis on negotiations and a desire to resolve the conflict as quickly as possible rather than any interest in mobilizing support with a view to shifting power relations in a way that would render a real settlement possible. Even if, as the FTQ maintained, the CLC mistakenly interpreted the communication as a request to put an end to any official support for the student movement, such support is quite useless if it cannot be expressed in the streets.

Moreover, this is the student movement’s battle and it should be up to the students to decide what kind of support they need; they are the ones negotiating, not the unions, and they clearly wanted that support. If the gestures of solidarity throughout the world help to alter the power relations in favour of the students, that’s all the more reason that support from unions in the rest of Canada could play a major role.

The Canadian union movement should be called upon to mobilize its members and join forces with us at the outset of the fall term. We ought to make of Labour Day, which is widely celebrated by unions in the ROC, a day of solidarity with the struggle in Québec!