Tuition fees, society in Quebec has been shaken to the core by four months of student strikes, which have garnered support from trade unions and been linked to far-reaching anti-austerity demands. At the movement’s peak, the demonstrations turned out an estimated 310,000 students: three out of every four students in Quebec.
CLASSE (the main radical student union) put out the call last autumn for strikes starting on February 13 of this year. The first major actions took place February 16, when students joined together with workers and activists to blockade the streets surrounding stock market buildings, demanding no increase in tuition fees, no increase in electricity charges, and no to all fees for health services.
In line with this strategy, the ruling Parti Libérale du Québec (PLQ) pushed through the repressive anti-protest Bill 78, targeting the political rights of the demonstrators. Far from curtailing protests or breaking up the movement, however, the law has stirred up even more outrage in broader layers of society; the protests in defiance of the law were the largest yet, with up to 500,000 marching in Montreal, the largest ever in Quebec Province.
Bill 78 failed to beat the movement back, so the PLQ called elections for September 4 – when one representative of the ruling class is unpopular, they offer the working class the opportunity to try a different one. The fact that the PLQ were forced to call an election demonstrates the huge power exerted by this struggle. However, only further mobilization can achieve a real victory.
The announcement of the election, along with a certain tiring of the movement during the summer “truce,” has diminished the energy of the movement. The August 22 demonstration was the smallest of the monthly mobilizations since the movement started. As of this writing, several schools have voted to return to classes, as the right wing of the movement sees the elections as a victory.
The Parti Quebecois (PQ), the traditional independence party, and traditionally connected to the trade union leaderships, is currently ahead in the polls. While the PLQ has led the charge for austerity and against the demonstrators, the PQ does not have any principled disagreement with them. The PQ promises only to “freeze” the tuition hikes temporarily. To oppose neo-liberal policies effectively, the workers and their unions must be able to politically act independently from all pro-capitalist parties, including the PQ.
Further complicating the elections is the massive corruption of the political parties in Quebec. It is estimated that as much as three quarters of the financing for the main traditional parties of Quebec is obtained illegally. This has created a new centrist party that will likely split the votes of both the PLQ and the PQ.
CLASSE does not support any party, correctly pointing out that change can only be won on the streets. Unfortunately, it has missed the opportunity to use this election to build the idea of a general strike and to broaden the struggle into a general fight against austerity, which could be done by appealing to the movement to support Québec Solidaire, the only party that is running on an anti-austerity program.
The decisive factor in this situation is the degree of rank-and-file organization, activism and political consciousness within the unions. The only way that the unions will be mobilized to enter the struggle in full force is by a relentless push from below. This type of development can be encouraged by bold calls to the unions from the student movement. Socialists, in particular, have an important role to play in popularizing the idea of a united anti-austerity fight-back among all sections of the movement.
This is the work that Alternative Socialiste (CWI in Quebec) is doing right now, concretely by calling for a 24-hour general strike as the next step to bring together workers and students against austerity, for free education at all levels, for decent jobs for all to combat youth unemployment, and to build Quebec Solidaire in this election as a tactic to achieve these demands.