Unions prepare for struggle
On 7 April 2014, the Québec Liberal Party (PLQ) won a majority government in elections, with 70 MPs elected (41.2 % of votes), despite corruption allegations. The Parti Québécois (PQ), who had declared elections from their minority government, won 30 seats (25.38 % of votes, losing 24 seats or 6.37 % of votes). The exiting premier, Pauline Marois, lost in her own riding [election constituency] and shortly after announced her departure from politics, in much the same manner as Jean Charest (PLQ) in 2012. The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the right-wing populist party, despite losing 6 % of their votes, won 3 additional MPs for a total of 22 by campaigning as the alternative to the two leading parties. Québec Solidaire (QS), left-leaning social-democratic party that attracts many anti-capitalist activists, gained an MP for a total of 3. QS gained 7,63% of votes (323,000 votes), a steady increase in its support, with 100,000 more people voting for the party that in the 2012 last election.
After the Maple Spring, 18 months of PQ government
On 4 September 2012, the Parti Québécois (PQ) was elected with a ‘left-wing’ programme, essentially ending the social unrest that remained in the wake of the Maple Spring, the largest student strike movement in the history of Québec. For months, students took to the streets, protesting against the PLQ’s tuition hike. The PQ promised to abolish the hike, abrogate Law 78 (a law limiting the right to protest proposed by the PLQ that incensed general sentiment against the hike) and repeal the PLQ’s “health tax”.
After the PQ’s election, with Pauline Marois occupying the role of Québec’s first female prime minister, the party kept their important promises regarding the tuition hike and Law 78. Ever since their election, however, the PQ has been veering to the right and showing their true colours. Rather than raise tuition, they drastically cut funding to universities, and restricted vulnerable populations’ access to welfare. The most recent Marceau budget included hikes in day-care fees (from C$ 7-9 over two years), and increased Hydro-Québec tariffs (4.3 % starting April 2014).
Furthermore, the PQ has continued the PLQ’s project of selling off Québec’s natural resources. The North Plan, which gives large mining companies discount prices for the natural resources in Québec’s North, was a pet project of the Liberals and carried on after the change in government. They also approved Enbridge’s project of reversing the flow of their pipelines across Québec, despite serious safety concerns from environmental specialists. Nothing was done by the government following the derailment in Lac Mégantic of a train carrying crude oil, leading to the death of dozens of people. Marois’ government actually authorised the beginning of oil exploitation on the island of Anticosti, to the despair of the local community.
All of these issues have been eclipsed by the PQ’s ‘Charter of Québec Values’ project, which has occupied a large space in the media for the past year. This proposed charter would, in the PQ’s terms, protect some fundamental Québécois values, such as secularism and equality between men and women. The most controversial aspect of the project is the banning of ostentatious religious symbols for all state employees (including teachers and day care workers). The banned symbols include the Jewish kippah/yarmulke and the hijab. As a result of the charter, many workers would be faced with the choice of removing their religious symbols, or losing their jobs.
To add insult to injury, the charter project includes the preservation of a crucifix in the National Assembly, as in the opinion of the PQ it is part of Québec’s history. The charter project reveals the PQ’s true nature, a bourgeois, nationalist party, more concerned with protecting an exclusionary Québécois identity and exacerbating a fear of immigrants than protecting the jobs of their own employees.
The left has failed to react cohesively against the charter project. There is no unity amongst the opposition. The ultra-lefts limit themselves to denouncing the project as racist. Québec Solidaire proposed a revised charter, which would limit the ban to employees who represent the authority of the state, namely judges and police officers, but their proposal was made late and hardly made waves.
Another purpose of the Charter was to increase approval of right-wing voters and to steal votes from the CAQ. The PQ further appealed to the right by selecting Pierre-Karl Péladeau as a candidate. He is a media mogul well known for his anti-union stance and provoking a record 14 lock-outs. Québec’s largest union, the FTQ, in a press release, called Péladeau the “champion of work conflicts” and “one of the worst employers in Québec history”. This plan backfired, as voters flocked instead to the PLQ who campaigned on their supposed economic management abilities.
With Marois out of the way, the race for PQ leadership began the night of the elections. Pierre-Karl Péladeau, representing the economic right-wing, will probably be opposed.
These provincial elections were a devastating blow to the PQ, even leading a few to predict its eventual dissolution.
Despite minimal media coverage, QS still managed to make gains, including winning an additional MP. To move forward, QS need to find support outside of Montreal and gain the support of workers. Though the Montreal CSN (Conseil Central de Montréal) gave QS their support, stating it is the party best positioned to defend the interests of the working class, and QS campaigns for better conditions for workers, the working class does not see itself represented by the party. Immigrants tend to vote Liberal rather than QS.
The election of a majority PLQ government was a blow to students active in the struggle against the tuition hike in 2012. The most radical student union, ASSÉ, campaigned against austerity during the PQ government and organised a large-scale protest on 3 April 2014, demanding that “the rich pay their fair share”. The protest was declared illegal from the beginning, but thousands of people still participated. Sixty thousand students went on strike to attend the protest, and unions and community organisations openly showed their support (teachers’ union, women’s and housing campaigns etc). This shows the power of the student movement, allied to the workers’ movement, in opposing the capitalist political class.
The union movement is also wary of a Liberal government, which has already announced its intention to considerably “reduce the weight of the state”, especially by freezing salaries for public services employees. Union federations are preparing for struggle. With collective negotiations of public sector workers coming up in 2015, 500, 000 workers have grouped in a common front to negotiate together rather than individually.
There is potential in this struggle to unite all opposition to austerity, with public sector workers, students and even private sector workers banding together. This depends on the unions fighting for more than wage increases and linking all the opposition movements to austerity. This is why Socialist Alternative (CWI Quebec) played a crucial role in the formation of a shop stewards network on 5 February, to coordinate rank-and-file union activists and call for a national day of disruptions against all hikes. The network already has official support from the biggest local union in Quebec, with 4,500 members, the SECHUM-CSN.