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April 26, 2012

Quebec’s Spring: Support the Student Strike Movement

SS Editorial

Students strike against tuition fee increases in Quebec

Over 300,000 Quebecois students have voted to participate in limited strike actions against the Charest Liberal government’s proposal to increase post-secondary tuition by 75% - 170,00 are on an unlimited strike after 200,000 demonstrated in Montreal on March 22. After 10 weeks of escalating student actions, on Monday, April 23 the Liberals agreed to meet the student leadership to negotiate – while Montreal high schools have begun to strike as well.

Whether the current negotiations will halt the tuition increase, lessen it, or break down, this is the single biggest action against neo-liberal austerity politics in Canada.

Education and Quebec

One of the main features of Quebec national oppression was its low rate of formal education, especially higher education. In 1960, among the very few who went to university, the English to French ratio was four to one, in a province where 80% of the population is Francophone.

The ‘Quiet Revolution’ of the 1960s and the Parti Quebecois transition of the 1970s saw a dramatic shift in educational policy. The school system was secularized, moving out of the control of the Catholic Church, and the Parent Commission successfully argued for an expanded higher education system that saw the creation of CEGEPS, tuition free colleges for the first two years of undergraduate education and vocational education, and the creation of the University de Quebec federated system.

Tuition, after the first student strike in 1968, was frozen for a generation at $540 per year. In the early 1990s under the Bourassa Liberals, it was raised to $1668 and then frozen again after a series of student strikes until 2007 when the Charest Liberals raised it by $100 per year to $2168 in 2012. Charest now proposes to raise tuition by $325 per year until 2017 when tuition will be $3793. In theory, bursaries and increased student loans will offset this increase.

As the student organization La Classe has pointed out, 40% of Quebec students get no parental financial aid; two thirds of students live outside the family home; and 80% study and work full time. The average student income is $12,200 per year, while the official poverty line is $16,320. Bursaries, which are for the very poor, do not address the majority of working class students and the degree of student indebtedness has risen from 47% to 56% as a result of the 2007 hikes.

Instead what the student movement has demanded is no tuition, a living stipend, and no extra fees that post-secondary institutions have resorted to as a way around the tuition freezes.

These economic facts matter in addressing the historic oppression of French Canada. As a Statistics Canada study shows, Quebec has a higher rate of post-secondary participation as a result of the tuition free CEGEP system – but it still suffers from a male high school dropout rate that is double English Canada’s.

Pursuing a neo-liberal model of higher education is likely to reduce French student participation and undo the political gains of the Quiet Revolution. Quebecois self-determination requires a social contract that supports the family with $7 a day public daycare, tuition free college and low tuition university access.

The Struggle

Quebec students have struck eight times since 1968. Only in 1988 when the movement was split, did the Quebec Liberals impose a significant tuition increase. Militancy and unity have proven repeatedly to be the best guarantee of educational access.

But there is a growing problem for Quebec conservatives. In the last two decades, with the Bouchard PQ government and now the three term Charest Liberal government, there have been repeated austerity budgets to move the Quebec political consensus off its social welfare state consensus. This effort to impose an austerity politics has been largely stalemated by popular actions to result in a growing contradiction – between massive corporate tax cuts and subsidies and a growing debt burden to pay for social welfare policies that the neo-liberals are not committed to.

In shifting the burden of post-secondary costs onto the weakest element, student consumers, one more act is being played out in the class struggle between a newly empowered Quebecois bourgeoisie and a highly organized, and successfully combative, Quebecois working class.

In 2010 the Charest Liberals signaled they would raise tuition again, but the exact figures only came out in the 2011 budget. The three student organizations, federations for college and university students, plus the left wing ASSE (re-organized as La Classe as a united front with independent student associations) launched a mass petition and held a national demonstration in the fall of 2011 with some 30,000 students in Montreal.

The Charest Liberals dismissed these actions and refused discussion with the student groups, who have a history of deep divisions. However, this blunt refusal to dialogue did lead to student unity. The three groups formed a Common Front and declared they were prepared to call a student strike on March 22, 2012 if the 2012 budget went ahead with the tuition increases.

On February 13, social science university students at Laval (Quebec City) and UQAM (Montreal) came out, or ‘wildcatted’, ahead of the budget – which stuck with the proposed increases of 75%. These early actions led student unions, who vote in open assemblies at a departmental level, to join. Within a week, CEGEP students joined to expand the movement to 30,000, some 65,000 by the end of February, and 123,000 by early March.

After the budget on March 21, it is estimated some 200,000 students and supporters marched in Montreal. A majority of student unions then took second votes to move from limited to unlimited strike action. Some 170,000 are now out on a daily basis – and the movement threatens to pull out the high schools.

Raising Questions

The student strike movement has been enormously successful in mass mobilizing its constituency and has consistently worked to generalize its struggle to include the trade unions, the Quebec Federation of Labour (QFL) and the Confederation des Syndicaux National (CSN) (including solidarity actions with locked out Rio Tinto Alcan workers in Alma and laid off Aveos aircraft maintenance workers in Montreal) and the social movements, known as the Red Hand Coalition. Thus not only have the student unions called for educational improvements, but they have also called on the Liberals to drop their proposed $300 per year public health user fee, Quebec Hydro rate increases, and its Plan Nord which threatens aboriginal lands.

But there have been challenges: state violence and workplace solidarity.

At this point nearly 700 students have been arrested, a few seriously injured, and thousands have been attacked with stun grenades and tear gas – and by injunctions to force campuses to stay open and teachers on the job. The Montreal Police have even set up a ‘red squad’ to spy on activists. Hypocritically, Charest refused to meet with the student leaders until they condemned student physical resistance to this state violence. Now he has to meet with them as the strike threatens to get bigger.

Nor have the trade unions struck in solidarity, despite a CSN-QFL common front agreement recognizing the legitimacy of political job action and the fact that some unions are in a legal position to strike. The union bureaucracy has not even agreed to a Popular Assembly of the unions, social movements, and students. Yet many college and university instructors have bravely cancelled classes and risked disciplinary penalties to be in solidarity with their students.

Do Something in Support

Whatever the strains and tensions are in building the Quebec student fight against austerity politics, this is the single biggest struggle yet against neo-liberalism in Canada. Occupy Canada has found a resonance in a mass mobilization.

Every organized activist in English Canada should do whatever is possible, in their student union, union local, and community or movement organization, to express support and contribute in a practical manner to strengthen this struggle.