Quebec: Students take “indefinite” strike action

Tens of thousands in battle against tuition fees rise

A powerful students’ struggle is sweeping over Quebec. Over 65,000 university and "CEGEPS" (public post-secondary education colleges) students are currently engaged in an indefinite general strike all over the province. At the core of the dispute is the biggest neo-liberal attack on education since 1990, with a dramatic increase in student fees of 1625$, scheduled over five years. This represents a rise of around 75% of student costs to access to post-secondary education.

University costs in Quebec are already above the average of the OECD countries. Currently, 65% of students in Quebec finish their studies with an average debt of $14,000. The new measures, if passed, will hit young people from working class and middle class families even harder. It will force many of them away from access to post-secondary education and leave many others with the ‘choice’ of getting massively indebted and working during their studies.

The right wing provincial government of Jean Charest says that even after the increases, Quebec university students will still be paying less than the Canadian average for a higher education. This is a cynical attempt at ‘divide-and-rule’ policies aimed at pitching Canadians against the struggle of Quebec students.

What the Establishment politicians do not explain by using this comparison, is the fast-developing social segregation taking place in the Canadian education system. This is to such an extent that, according to official figures, the number of Canadian students contracting a debt of up to $50,000 has risen by an incredible 1,475% in the last four years! According to CBCNews, “Thirty years ago, tuition fees accounted for less than a seventh of university operating revenue. Now, it’s more than a third, as governments increasingly download the cost to the students and their parents”. This is the ‘model’ they want to import in Quebec.

Furthermore, comparatively low tuition fees in Quebec are a direct result of important student strikes (in 1996 and 2005) that have partially succeeding in cutting across the attempts of the successive governments of rolling back the idea of an accessible education, for all. This clearly highlights the decisive character of mass struggle to impose retreats on neo-liberal attacks, in the education field, as elsewhere. And this is the kind of mass, prolonged fight that tens of thousands of Quebec students are currently engaged in. They understand, very well, that their battle is part of the general struggle for their future, which is increasingly undermined by the ‘logic’ of the market economic system.

No money to finance education?

To justify the increase in tuition fees, the government of Jean Charest and its supporters keep repeating that there is not enough money to finance education. The students should pay their “fair share” to balance the budget as a whole, the government argues. Yet the same government says nothing about university rectors earning wages above $300,000 a year, does nothing about the $2.5 billion annually lost in tax evasion by the rich and big corporations, gives record amounts of public subsidies to vulture private companies making enormous profits and sells off, at a discount, Quebec’s mineral resources.

There clearly is no lack of money in Quebec. The main problem is that capitalist politicians have decided to impoverish students and the workers, instead of hitting the pockets and bank accounts of the super-rich elite, who do not pay their “fair share” and enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of society.

Escalating movement

Two weeks after the start of the ‘hostilities’, following a call by the ‘Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante’ (CLASSE), an umbrella organisation, gathering several student associations, the strike continues to spread, involving mass street protests, sit-ins, occupations and picketing across the province. This sometimes includes innovative actions, such as ‘underground’ protests or the blockade by hundreds of the Montreal Stock Exchange, for several hours, on 16 February.

After a first wave of students voted for the strike in mid-February, new layers have joined in. Several other student associations and unions are about to vote in favour of taking strike action in the coming days and weeks, meaning that tens of thousands more could add to, even double, the ranks of strikers in the near future.

This is already one of the biggest students’ strikes in Quebec’s recent history. A victorious outcome to such a movement would not fail to leave a profound mark, not only on every student who participates in the movement, but on the Quebec working population, which suffers cuts and a bosses’ offensive on wages, jobs and conditions.

Indeed, the students are not the only ones affected by the neo-liberal policies of the Charest government. In addition to the rising tuition costs, the introduction of a healthcare tax, the increases of electricity rates and other measures are part of this cuts-spending and tax-increase programme. The students are not the only ones to fight back. Important industrial battles have taken place in recent months, such as at the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminum factory and the ArcelorMitall metal plant near Montreal. For the student movement to be successful, the struggle needs to be spread, especially to the organised working class.

In the context of the austerity policies being carried out, the students’ movement forcing the government to retreat could serve as a spark for broader layers to move into action, not only in Quebec but across Canada.

Some initiatives have been undertaken to link up the student strike with other community and working class campaigns. This is among the proposals that Alternative Socialiste, the CWI section in Quebec, is advocating in the student’s movement. Alternative Socialiste calls for the students’ struggle to appeal for active support beyond the students, to build a united mass movement against the rise of tuition fees and all cuts and in opposition to the unpopular reforms of the Charest and Harper federal government.

Union leaders fall short

However, at this stage, these sorts of initiatives are not advocated by the leaders of the trade union bureaucracies whose support for the student movement has remained at the level of pure rhetoric. The Fédération provinciale du travail du Québec, the biggest union federation in the province, which organises over 600,000 workers and 44% of the unionised workforce in Quebec, expressed its solidarity with the students but, at the same time, its leaders argue for a rapid way out of the disputes. They argue that the students’ strike needs to be resolved “on the negotiating table with dialogue between all parties”. The union leaders have refused, so far, to engage in anything concrete to help build overwhelming support for the students’ struggle.

When it comes to the main students’ unions leaders, they fall short in providing a programme of action for success for the strike. In part, this is because they fear losing control over their own membership and aim to keep the strike within ‘safe channels’, limiting it to a single issue. This is only laying the basis for a poor negotiated deal with the government. This is what happened in 2005, which saw the last generalised student movement in Quebec, when student union leaders’ encouraged students to accept concessions instead of using the strength of the movement and an appeal to the organised working class for solidarity action, to go further and to achieve a complete victory.

There can be no ‘deal’ in the current dispute which sees anything less than a complete withdrawal of the tuition fees increase. A negotiated attack on students’ rights is still an attack on students’ rights. The Education Minister has made clear that he is determined, at all costs, to pass the measure and states it is part of the budget decision that cannot be modified. A similar determination to win should be the general stance on the students’ side.

Polls already indicate that the support and sympathy for the student strike is mounting, despite the propaganda of the mass media, the attempts at criminalising the movement, and the police repression against students, using baton, pepper spray and making mass arrests.

These polls indicate the potential for a broader movement in opposition to fees and cuts, which needs to be urgently built. For example, a call should be done by student and workers unions alike, as well as by all community campaigns, to join the students in their national demonstration taking place on the 22 March, in Montreal and to hold strike actions on the same day, to build a united show of strength against the austerity policies of the government.

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March 2012