After the election of the Liberal party to office in the Province of Quebec last April, austerity was expected but no one had predicted the violence of this government’s measures. Since 1996, every Quebec government has attacked the living conditions of the working class and parts of the welfare state with austerity measures. However, the current Liberal government has broadened their scope with the hope of creating, as stated by president of the Treasury Board, Martin Coiteux, the “State of the 21st Century”.
The new Liberal government is now attacking the backbone of the welfare state, having announced since September an avalanche of austerity measures: hikes in electricity charges, the end of the universal day-care system, wage freezes for public-sector workers, massive cuts and an open door to privatisation in the health and education systems, to name a few.
These measures hit the working class in an already difficult economic period. For the last 20 years, slow but steady inflation has affected the prices of fuel, basic necessities, rent, public transport, taxes, etc., while our salaries have not kept up and credit card bills have exploded. In Québec, unemployment is around 8% but this number does not take into account those in precarious part-time work in both the public and private sectors. A right-wing journalist in weekly journal Les Affaires declared in November 2014 that Québec is witnessing the “destruction of the full-time job”. The working class has not remained passive – all sectors have begun to organise and fight back.
The workers’ movement
The government is aware that in order to impose austerity measures on the population, they will first need to break the strongholds of the working-class movement. This explains the law passed against municipal employees (including bus drivers, policemen, firefighters, white and blue collar workers) which reduces the bosses’ contribution to retirement funds, bypassing the existing signed agreements between workers and local city councils.
Municipal workers have created a coalition of all the municipal workers’ unions called Coalition pour la libre négociation (Coalition for Free Negotiation). In September 2014, the unions organised a protest in Montreal attended by approximately 50,000 people, as well as many other protests across the province. One-day strikes were organised in both October and November. When the law was officially adopted, the spokesperson for the Coalition stated “If Minister [of Municipal Affairs Pierre] Moreau thought that he would break the movement by passing the law, just watch us. The movement will not slow down, and will keep on growing.”
In October, another draft law attacked public sector employees. Law 10 proposes to restructure the healthcare system, drastically reducing expenditure and cutting many jobs. A side effect of this law will be to create tension between the different unions in the public sector. Law 10 will force the merging of many hospitals as well as changes to union affiliations, which will lead to intensive campaigns to steal membership between the five different unions in this sector. This new law arrives just in time for the next public-sector collective bargaining beginning in March 2015.
The collective agreement for public sector employees expires at the end of March. One of the consequences of the law 10 is to force a change of union allegiance two months after the signing of the new collective agreement. There is therefore an important part of the right wing of the trade union leadership who is currently devoting more effort to organize campaigns of changes of affiliation rather than to fight against austerity. This means that there is a danger that the spinal cord of the labour movement in Quebec, the public system workers, might be pushed in squabbling among themselves up untill next fall, rather than to focus on fighting against the Liberal government. The latter might try to use these divisions to adopt further austerity measures.
In early 2015, the government presented their offer to public-sector employees: a two-year salary freeze and a 1% increase for the third year. Unions had demanded a 4.5% salary increase for the first three years. The government also increased the retirement age of public sector workers from 60 to 62, and introduced measures to disadvantage workers who choose to retire earlier.
Law 10 coupled with this government offer created real anger in the working class. Dozens of protests in the autumn and winter have been organised by local unions. Public-sector workers’ unions together represent 500,000 people and are where Alternative Socialiste members have been most active. The president of the SECHUM-CSN, the biggest hospital workers’ local union, declared on 29 November: “If we have to go ahead before the collective agreement has expired, we will go ahead, even if the strike is illegal. We are stuck with laws that stop us from doing what is necessary. At some point, we must go beyond these laws.” Some local unions are passing legal or illegal strike resolutions, and next Mayday is likely to be an important test to see the potential for a large-scale offensive general strike.
The student movement
At the moment, the student movement has not been clearly attacked by the government, which remembers the student strike of 2012 and wants to avoid a large-scale mobilisation. However, a de facto committee run by students and unofficially supported by student unions, Comité pour le Printemps 2015 [Committee for Spring 2015], has started a large scale mobilisation campaign with the aim of striking in solidarity with public-sector workers. The committee has good potential: it rallies the most radical students and is present in all protests. Its greatest weakness arises from its structure: its main purpose is to serve as a network for radical students. No decisions are made in Comité pour le Printemps 2015 assemblies. The voices of those participating are heard, but the direction of the movement is determined by active sub-committees. These are open to all but are not accountable to the assembly. The lack of a democratic structure damages this group’s potential as a large-scale movement. A small group with high political consciousness imposes its decisions on the student body, which leads to isolated action that are not supported generally. For example, the largest social science faculties at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) went on strike on 26 and 27 November 2014; but the majority of students did not follow the call for the strike and attended classes, while a small group of 50-60 people burned tyres on the street.
We advocate a more democratic approach to student mobilisation; our group Étudiant-es socialistes UQAM encourages members to attend their faculty and department general assemblies and push for political demands to accompany militant actions. The demands we put forward show that students and workers’ interests are both attacked by austerity, and to win we must strike back together.
Recently, a debate took place in the left local student union. Some said, like the Comité pour le Printemps 2015, that we need to start the all-out general strike now, like in 2012, and hope that the workers will follow. Another current thinks that we need to wait this autumn and meanwhile, build a campaign against austerity to gather more forces before engaging an all-out general strike. Alternative Socialiste is definitely in favour of the latter option. There is no point for the student movement to exhaust itself before the real struggle begins.
Two coalitions against austerity, same problem
The Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatisation des services publics [Coalition opposed to the pricing and privatisation of public services], a loose coalition of over 100 community organisations and local unions against hikes in public services, organised a protest against austerity on 31 October 2014 attended by over 10,000 people. This coalition argues that, with the right fiscal measures, C$10 billion can be taken from the banks and big corporations to protect public services. Left-wing party Québec Solidaire has many active members in the Coalition but does not use its influence to promote the necessity of a political alternative.
It is unclear why union officials have created a separate coalition against austerity, Refusons (Refuse), but it probably wants to break the influence of the Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatisation des services publics. On 29 November, Refusons organised two massive protests (over 100,000 people in Montreal and 25,000 in Québec City). The website of that coalition does a good job of explaining the impact of austerity measures but no clear demands are put forward, aside from the same fiscal measures proposed by the other coalition. They have no long-term perspective or action plan, aside from another large-scale protest in the spring. But the working class knows this alone will be insufficient. Refusons.org has no democratic structure, making it impossible to pass motions in order to organise from the bottom up. This lack of democracy is a real danger; the true organisers behind this group are anonymous union officials.
Both coalitions state that we must take money from those who have it but neither explains how we can achieve this, through political struggle. Neither coalition sees the necessity for a political vehicle, such as Québec Solidaire, to achieve our demands. The creation of an anti-austerity alliance on the “Irish model” can have a huge potential in Quebec, but all factions of the austerity opposition try to promote their specific demands, and are enable to push together two or three concrete demands and to fight on those.
On 13 February, Refusons held an assembly in Québec City. Its objective is to rally all sectors of civil society (unions, students, community organisations) against austerity. While this is a step in the right direction, it brings the leaders closer but does not bring their bases together. To counter this, we must call for the creation of a democratic mass movement against austerity, based on local community groups and unions, with representatives that are accountable. Such a movement can play a vital role in mobilising ordinary people and move the struggle forward.
It is important to highlight that Montreal saw two protests of over 20,000 people in November: the first a protest defending the universal day-care system, and the second to condemn the cuts at the public broadcasting company (CBC/Radio-Canada). There have also been many smaller-scale protests against pipeline projects.
Disrupt them like they disrupt us! Let’s build for a 24-hour general strike!
In September 2014, a member of Alternative Socialiste proposed to his union a national day of economic disruption against austerity; this demand has been put forward by Alternative Socialiste since April 2013. The proposal was accepted by the union council (comprised of about 60 delegates) and then through a referendum (523 for, 61 against, 5 abstentions). After that, the resolution went to the national federation, the FSSS-CSN, where it was adopted unanimously. This federation represents one third of the second largest union in Québec, 120,000 members. The demand spread, and was adopted by the FNEEQ (32,000 teachers) and by a grouping of local Montreal unions, the CCMM (92,000 workers). In total, around 200,000 CSN workers voted for the measure, which represents two thirds of the CSN. However, the demand is currently off the table for the CSN federal council. But on February 18, in a special general assembly, the CCMM reaffirmed the need for a day of disruption and made clear that this must happen before Mayday.
Why do we call for a day of disruption and not a 24-hour general strike? The failure of the call for a social strike in 2012 taught us that it is insufficient to call for a general strike and wait for a spontaneous uprising. We must build the strike, which requires a long-term plan. In Québec, workers can only strike following a process of collective bargaining and, therefore, in some unions strike motions cannot be passed outside of the negotiation processes. Thus, it is easier for the right-wing union executives to stifle strike discussions but much harder to do so with a proposal for a day of disruptive action that can be organised between workers. A significant portion of non-union workers are affected by austerity measures, and they must not be neglected in the organisation of a day of disruption, as they are when the focus is only on public-sector negotiation.
But this must be clear: the day of disruption is only relevant as a small step towards the general strike. On 10 February, the offices of 16 MPs were occupied by union activists. A union official declared : “Some of our unions have started strike votes, and we predict economic disruption.” The next day, the president of the Treasury Board stated that “unions can protest, but cannot disrupt the economy”. [“les syndicats pouvait protester, mais pas perturber l’économie.”]. In this spirit, the Coalition opposée à la tarification et à la privatisation des services publics has called for a week of disturbance this week. Financial symbols have been occupied, and a lot of small protests took place all around the province. In Gatineau, the Prime Minister didn’t want to show up in a meeting of his own party, as his security was threatened by protestors.
There are already several massive protests planned for March and April, and some public-sector and student unions have started voting in favour of strikes. As we said, the movement should be strongest around May Day 2015 but we must all strike together. As a rule, the union bureaucracy is wary of breaking the law but more and more workers are beginning to see the strength of illegal strikes as the only method of defence left. However, disorganised and isolated illegal strikes will lead nowhere; action must be coordinated to strike boldly together.
The next budget will be tabled in late March, but we already know that an additional billion dollars will be cut. We must build coordination and solidarity between unions, and learn to fight together! Now we must spread the word and convince other local unions, building a campaign for a real day of disruption this spring, discussing our demands with fellow workers and building solidarity between workers, students and community organisations in a vast movement of opposition to austerity.
For a government in the interests of working people, not big business!
This movement can play a leading role in building a political alternative to right-wing parties. In October 2015, federal elections will be held across Canada. Historically, unions in Québec have supported the Bloc Québécois at federal level and the Parti Québécois at provincial level. The Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (Quebec Federation of Labour – FTQ) has started breaking from this historical alliance. The Bloc’s collapse during the last election was partly due to its inability to defend the interests of workers while focusing strictly on the national question. The rupture is not yet complete but may be accentuated during the upcoming federal elections. The main union in Quebec has openly organised a campaign in some constituencies in favour of the NDP to block the Conservative party.
On the provincial level, the PQ is now holding a leadership race. The main candidate is Pierre Karl Péladeau (PKP), the boss of Quebecor, the second-biggest media group in Canada. The metalworkers’ federation (FTQ) has publicly endorsed Martine Ouellet, a left-wing candidate, and its leaders make many statements against PKP. If Martine Ouellet loses (and she probably will), the FTQ will cease to support the PQ, like they have begun to do with the Bloc Québécois. The Conseil central du Montréal Métropolitain – CSN (the Metropolitan Montreal council of the second largest union federation) in the last election passed a motion in favour of Quebec Solidaire. The election of PKP at the head of the PQ will see the traditional support of the CSN for the PQ drastically decrease.
We do not think that Quebec Solidaire can be the alternative alone. Workers do not see Quebec Solidaire as a workers’ party, and QS clearly does not want to play that role. However, it could play a leading role in bringing the movement against austerity onto the political plane. Alternative Socialiste believes that if the union movement openly endorses anti-austerity candidates at federal, provincial and municipal levels, with the help of Quebec Solidaire it will get a tremendous echo in the working class.
It is not an easy step to do but nobody wants to repeat the same mistake of the 2012 election and a growing layer of activists see more clearly now the necessity to create a political vehicle connected with the working class.
- No to cuts and to the privatisation of the public sector!
- For the indexation of salaries to the cost of living and a C$15 minimum wage now!
- For a decent pension and unemployment insurance for all!
- For free education and university co-management!
- For the nationalisation of natural resources and the financial sector under democratic control!
- For a 24-hour general strike and economic disruption action!
- For a mass democratic movement against austerity, based on local community groups and unions!
- For a government in the interest of working people, not big business!