Spartacist Canada No. 173
Student Strike Shakes Quebec
Mobilize the Power of the Working Class!
JUNE 1—Following the Quebec Liberal government’s adoption of its repressive Law 78—popularly known as the “loi des matraques” (law of the nightsticks)—the militant, months-long student strike has escalated into a major social crisis. Enacted on the evening of May 18, the emergency law bans any protests in or outside the schools, severely restricts all other protests and threatens huge fines against groups or individuals who defy these edicts. Even advertising such protests is now illegal, as is supporting any kind of strike at a university or college.
At least 10,000 students and their supporters took to the streets of Montreal on the evening of May 18, and as protests continued over the following nights the police declared them “illegal” and staged mass round-ups. Altogether, more than 2,500 people have now been arrested during the student strike. This far exceeds even the arrests under the War Measures Act in October 1970, when Ottawa suspended civil liberties and imprisoned hundreds of leftists, nationalists and union leaders as part of a move to suppress widespread social protest in Quebec.
The Quebec government clearly hoped that the threat of stepped-up repression and huge fines would quell the student protests and smash the strike. But the opposite has happened. On the afternoon of May 22, at least 300,000 people joined a mass demonstration in Montreal. This included thousands of trade unionists marching behind union banners as well as large numbers of teachers, parents and high school students. The immense size of the protest, as well as the substantial union presence, made it impossible for the cops to unleash repression, even though the CLASSE student federation had refused to announce the route of the march, making it “illegal” under Law 78.
CLASSE had called on other organizations opposed to the emergency law to join it in active defiance. The union bureaucracy, other striking student groups and leaders of the petty-bourgeois nationalist Québec Solidaire responded by saying they could only support “peaceful and legal” protests. Nonetheless, a significant majority of protesters went with CLASSE when the demonstration split about ten minutes into the march.
Despite a daily media barrage demonizing “violent” students, polls show that a majority of francophone Québécois oppose the emergency law. People all over Montreal are wearing red squares, the symbol of support for the students. As the May 22 demo passed a major downtown hospital, elderly wheelchair-bound patients hooked up to IVs sat on the sidewalk with red squares pinned to their hospital gowns, cheering and raising their fists. The protesters responded with massive cheers.
Nightly “pots and pans” marches against Law 78 have broken out in districts of Montreal and in other cities, emulating protests during the recent student strikes in Chile. But despite the broad anger among working people against the Liberal government, the potentially powerful trade unions of Quebec have not been mobilized for anything more than an occasional contingent on a demonstration. Unleashing the social power of organized labour is key to beating back the attacks of the capitalist ruling class on students, workers, minorities and the poor.
Negotiations between the government and student groups collapsed on May 31 after the students rejected a gratuitously insulting “offer” to decrease the overall tuition hike by $1. Liberal premier Jean Charest has followed this up with a threat of further repression, slandering CLASSE as “people who are threatening the Québécois” (La Presse, 1 June). We print below the translation of a French-language supplement to SC issued on May 17, thousands of which have been distributed on protests in Montreal.
The 2012 student strike has been the longest in Quebec history. After more than three months, about 160,000 students remain on strike, boycotting classes and shutting down universities and Cégeps with mass pickets, often in defiance of court injunctions. There have been well over 1,000 arrests and protesters have faced brutal, near-daily assaults by the police.
The student struggle has intersected and heightened a growing social crisis in Quebec. The governing Liberal Party of Jean Charest is deeply unpopular and mired in scandals. The 200,000-strong Montreal rally in support of striking students on March 22 was one of the largest demonstrations in Canadian history. One month later, the Earth Day demo, usually little more than a charity parade, drew a quarter million people, many of whom raised slogans against both the Quebec Liberals and the ruling federal Conservatives.
The strike has shown the depth of anger and defiance among Québécois youth, who have kept this massive struggle going despite vicious state repression and bourgeois media slander. With staggering levels of youth unemployment and poverty in Quebec, there is reason for anger. At the same time, this months-long battle has illustrated in a fundamental way the limitations of a struggle that has not been connected to the social power of the working class.
The capitalist rulers around the world aim to make workers and the oppressed pay for the financial crisis that is a direct product of the bourgeois profit system. Harper’s Conservatives have attacked the unions at Canada Post, Air Canada and elsewhere, while bringing down austerity measures against public sector workers. Workers in Quebec have had to taste the strikebreaking medicine of Quebecor, Aveos, Rio-Tinto and more. The student strike, precipitated by the Charest government’s plan to impose a 75 percent tuition increase, has marked something of a break in the mostly one-sided war that the bosses are waging on workers and the oppressed.
The bourgeoisie and its media mouthpieces inveigh against the students’ “violence” and “irresponsibility.” Yet for the last several years the utter venality of the ruling class has been on full display in Quebec. There has been a never-ending string of corruption revelations involving mayors and Liberal cabinet ministers, including Education Minister Line Beauchamp, who quit under the pressure of the student strike. This, together with daily revelations of construction and engineering firms’ illegal kickbacks, provides a sharp contrast to the courage and vibrancy of the student activists. The infamous “five percent”—the unspoken public construction “tax” that ends up in the pockets of various agents of the mafia and the Hells Angels, helping in turn to finance “friendly” politicians—is a practice as old as the hills in Quebec. The federalist Liberal Party is particularly shameless, but such dealings happened under Parti Québécois administrations as well. And the notoriously brutal cops of the Montreal SPVM and provincial Sûreté du Québec, whose mutual enmity is legendary, have never been as united as when bashing students’ heads.
From the opposition benches, the bourgeois-nationalist PQ has given lip service to supporting the students as an electoral move against Charest. This is a cynical ploy by a party that only recently attacked the Liberals for being too “timid” in their drive to slash spending and balance the budget. The PQ itself tried to jack up tuition fees when it was in government in the 1990s, part of its sweeping attacks on workers and social programs under the program of “Déficit Zéro.” In any case, PQ leader Pauline Marois promises only a temporary tuition freeze if she becomes premier.
Students: Ally with the Working Class!
When Quebec shook off the yoke of the Westmount Anglo capitalists and their allies in the Catholic church in the 1960s, education was a key battleground. Trade-union struggles had long sought to make higher education attainable for francophone working-class youth. As Patrick Lagacé noted in a 4 May Globe and Mail article in support of the students: “50 years ago, Quebec was closer to a third-world country than a developed nation in terms of education markers.” Of those aged 25 in 1962, 54 percent had not completed Grade 6, and only 7 percent had attended university. A key aspect of the “Quiet Revolution,” the expansion and secularization of education was part of a drive by a modernizing francophone elite to cohere a distinct Québécois bourgeoisie and professional/technocratic stratum in order to be “masters in their own house.”
Today, despite Quebec’s continued national subordination within the Anglo-chauvinist Canadian state, Québécois companies like Bombardier, SNC-Lavalin and Quebecor are able to compete on a world scale with American and European multinationals. In the interest of greater profits, Liberal and PQ governments alike have waged ceaseless attacks on the working class and oppressed, including cuts to health care, education and other social programs.
The capitalists seek to invest in public education only what they can realize back in profit. Such profits are the product of labour, the surplus value that the bourgeoisie wrests from the workers through grinding exploitation. Thanks to its central role in social production, the working class has the unique social power to withhold its labour and bring the capitalist system to its knees. Students, a petty-bourgeois layer with no direct relation to production, lack such power. Student struggle can certainly spark broader social battles, as the current strike shows. But ultimately the only way forward is to ally with the working class.
In turn, it is in the interest of workers to actively support the combative students. This includes taking up the call for free, quality education for all and a living stipend for students. Against mounting debt servitude to the banks, we call to abolish the student debt. The cops now occupying a number of universities and colleges must be driven out. We call to abolish the administrations, the enforcers of capitalist rule on the campuses. For student/teacher/worker control of the Cégeps and universities!
The multisided attacks on workers and the poor can be stopped for good only through a broader political struggle centred on the social power of the working class. This must be infused with the understanding that the entire capitalist system must be swept away and replaced with an egalitarian socialist society geared to human needs, not private profit. Only workers revolution can rip the means of production from the hands of the bourgeois criminals who exploit the working class and its youth component. Victory in this struggle requires the forging of revolutionary vanguard parties of the working class—Trotskyist parties—throughout the world.
Students, Labour and the Union Bureaucracy
Support for the student strike and hatred for the Charest government have been palpable throughout the conflict. To their credit, the bulk of unionized teachers and professors affected by the strike have refused to cross the students’ picket lines, despite court injunctions pressing them to do so. Yet the nationalist union bureaucracy, while claiming to support the students, has not lifted a finger to mobilize the workers in strike action against the attacks of the Charest government. Instead, the labour tops have worked to restore “social peace.” The abortive May 5 deal to end the student strike was brokered by former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe and the leaders of the three main union federations, only to be rejected by students all over Quebec.
The union bureaucracy shackles Québécois workers to the capitalist system through their support to the bourgeois-nationalist PQ and Bloc. This is also true of the leaders of the Fédération Étudiante Universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) and Fédération Étudiante Collegiale du Québec (FECQ), who are allied with the labour tops in the Alliance Sociale. The majority of striking students are part of CLASSE (Coalition Large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante), the more left-wing, anarchist-influenced student union. In a late April call titled “Toward a Social Strike,” CLASSE noted:
“The striking students are aware of their inability by themselves to force the government to retreat from these various measures. Hence the necessity for the student movement to be joined by all social forces in our fight against Finance Minister Bachand’s cultural revolution. We are not appealing here for some superficial support, with a few union full-timers writing a news release repeating for the umpteenth time their support for the student struggle.... It is therefore a call for a social strike that we are issuing to the population as a whole!”
Uniting students in struggle with the social power of the working class is an absolute necessity. But CLASSE’s appeals for solidarity are not linked to a broader perspective of working-class struggle against capitalism. Like the FEUQ and FECQ, they end up looking for ways to refurbish the education system within the confines of the capitalist system. Thus the short-lived deal signed by all the student federations on May 5 sought to balance out the increase in tuition fees by finding “efficiencies” within individual universities and colleges. This amounts to agreeing to yet more austerity within the education system, and could very well turn against university and Cégep employees in the form of wage cuts and layoffs.
The solution lies outside the “regular” realm of student and trade-union politics, which are strictly confined to what is “practical” under capitalism. Against the sellout labour tops, it is necessary to fight for a class-struggle opposition in the unions dedicated to unleashing labour’s vast potential power on behalf of all the victims of the bourgeoisie’s profit system. Among other things, that means defending the rights of immigrants and ethnic/religious minorities—notably Muslims, who face a concerted racist offensive from nationalist and federalist politicians alike.
Québec Solidaire: Fifth Wheel of the PQ
The student struggle has illuminated, again, the reality of the national divide between English Canada and Quebec. For the first month or so, the English Canadian bourgeois media simply blacked out any news of the protests. Then as the cop violence against the students escalated, the media denounced the student strikers with not a small dose of sneering Anglo chauvinism. The Harper Conservatives, whose origins are in Western Canada, have essentially written off Quebec in their electoral calculations, and are implementing reactionary policies on crime, the military, the monarchy and the environment that appear to most Québécois to be coming from Mars. The various Anglo editorialists and commentators who had declared the Quebec national question (once again) “dead” are now eating their words.
Quebec is a distinct and increasingly separate society from that of the rest of Canada. Anglo chauvinism and the Québécois nationalism that it fosters have long served to divide the working class along national lines, reinforcing the illusion that workers have common interests with their “own” respective bosses. As proletarian internationalists, we Marxists advocate Quebec independence. This is the way to cut the Gordian knot and remove the national question from the political agenda; it would help make clear to the workers in both nations that they have no allies among their own capitalists, thus removing a major obstacle to united working-class struggle against the capitalist system.
The PQ’s goal is to build an independent capitalist Quebec in the interest of the Québécois bourgeoisie. Its many austerity attacks while in power have alienated a layer of workers and radical youth who seek an alternative. One product of this has been the petty-bourgeois populist Québec Solidaire (QS). While claiming solidarity with the student strike’s demands, when the struggles were peaking in late April QS leader Amir Khadir issued an “appeal for calm.” The same QS statement coupled criticism of police violence with an attack on so-called “vandalism” by “rioters” among the student protesters (see quebecsolidaire.net, 26 April).
QS’s program offers nothing beyond cosmetic reforms of the capitalist system to make it more “social,” not unlike the PQ’s original “project of society” of the late 1960s and the 1970s. As if to make this clear, QS leaders have recently sought electoral non-aggression alliances with the capitalist PQ. None of this has stopped the bulk of the pseudo-Marxist left in Quebec from supporting QS, into which they have by and large liquidated. Both wings of the Communist Party, Gauche Socialiste, La Riposte, Alternative Socialiste (AS) and more—these reformists all fraudulently present QS as some kind of step toward socialism.
This is laid out with particular clarity in a leaflet distributed at this year’s May Day marches by AS, a group affiliated with Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers International. After cynically noting that “QS is neither a class party nor a socialist party,” AS claims: “Nonetheless, QS has opened a breach in the dominant discourse and contributes to making more and more people realize that the source of our problems is capitalism.” Taking parliamentary cretinism to new heights, they conclude:
“The possible outcomes of the current general strike of the student movement show that it needs a political intermediary in parliament to implement its projects and keep alive the flame of protest after it peters out on the street. Free education won’t be implemented on René-Lévesque Boulevard. In the next elections, striking students won’t have 36 different solutions. Only Québec Solidaire will defend their positions.”
—“Pour un parti de masse des travailleur-euse-s!”
The idea that “the flame of protest” will burn in the National Assembly’s Blue Chamber is laughable. But behind AS’s unintended humour is the reformist political program shared by all the left groups buried in QS. To wit: Quebec is “our state” and said state can serve the interests of workers, youth and the oppressed, if only the right “social” policies are implemented. This is a lie.
A number of the groups who champion QS also saluted the NDP “orange wave” that swept Quebec in last year’s federal election. A case in point is La Riposte, which declared that the NDP’s rise was a rejection of “the stale Federalist vs. Nationalist debate” and “a real opportunity for class politics to come to the fore and for the NDP to become the political conduit for the fight back against the Harper austerity” (marxist.ca, 3 May 2011).
So what was the NDP’s role in the student strike, the most significant social struggle in Quebec in many years? Thomas Mulcair’s NDP MPs have been told to keep quiet lest they “alienate” possible “centrist” voters. However, Mulcair—a former Charest cabinet minister, and before that a lawyer for the Anglo-chauvinist Alliance Quebec—did speak out...to denounce Quebec students’ “violence” (La Presse, 29 April)! Always a right-wing social-democratic party, the NDP is increasingly moving to cut its links to labour in English Canada. The New Democrats are deeply hostile to Quebec’s national rights and, when the national question again becomes a burning issue (which is only a matter of time), these contradictions will blow the party apart in Quebec. Marxists fight against any illusions that the NDP represents a “progressive” alternative for workers and youth.
The Repressive Apparatus of the Capitalist State
The staggering level of repression against student strikers points to a basic Marxist truth about the nature of the capitalist state. The cops have used massive amounts of tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets on students, usually after declaring protests “illegal.” At the May 4 Victoriaville protest against the Quebec Liberal Party convention, one student lost an eye and another suffered life-threatening head injuries following a particularly vicious cop assault. Police violence on the streets is supplemented by a CSIS secret police witchhunt targeting anarchist activists and various left groups including the Maoist Parti Communiste Révolutionnaire (PCR). A new federal bill making it a crime for demonstrators to wear masks carries possible prison terms of up to ten years.
Never a “neutral arbiter,” the core purpose of the capitalist state is to defend the rule of capital. The state is an organ of repression against the working class and the oppressed; under the executive power of the government, it consists of the cops, judges, prisons and army. As V.I. Lenin, leader of the only victorious workers revolution in history—the 1917 Russian Revolution—pointed out, it is “a machine for the oppression of one class by another” (The State, 1919). Under the Liberals and PQ, this is unambiguously the case, but it is equally so when the state is run by parties that fraudulently claim to have some sympathy with the working people. When in power, as in Ontario and British Columbia in the 1990s, the NDP always rules for the bosses. And so would QS if it ever got the opportunity.
La Riposte and Alternative Socialiste push the outrageous lie that cops are “workers in uniform,” i.e., potential allies of working-class struggle. The last three months of struggle and police repression should put to rest any such illusions. These deeply reformist outfits are both offshoots of the Labour Party-loyal Militant group in Britain (which issued layoff notices to some 30,000 city workers when it ran Liverpool city council in the 1980s!).
Against the violence-baiting of student protesters by the NDP and QS, we call to defend all the activists ensnared by the state’s dragnet and demand that all charges be dropped. The media has been particularly rabid about “vandalism” by protesters who have targeted offices of university administrators as well as symbols of corporate power. From the standpoint of the working class, such actions are not crimes—unlike the intense police brutality endured by the striking students and the still greater barbarism of the capitalist system as a whole. However, the “direct action” perspective pushed by various anarchists offers only a sideshow of ineffectual rage. Successful social struggle must seek to mobilize the power of the working class, and this is necessarily linked to the fight for proletarian revolutionary leadership.
Some anarchists and Maoists denounce the organized labour movement as “bought off” and reactionary. The Maoist PCR, for example, declares that the unions in Quebec “have become a tool in the hands of capitalists to control and subdue the working class,” adding: “It is not only a matter of changing the union’s orientation that would change its nature” (“Programme du Parti Communiste Révolutionnaire”). This eliminates any distinction between the working-class base of the unions and the pro-capitalist bureaucracy, a parasitic caste that rests atop the labour movement and receives some of the crumbs off the bosses’ table. Having renounced the unions, the basic defense organizations of the working class, the PCR lays out its own class-collaborationist perspective, claiming that “the path to revolution in Canada” lies through “protracted people’s war.” This is flatly counterposed to the proletarian core of Marxism (in addition to being ludicrous).
And then there are the political bandits of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and its World Socialist Web Site. An April 16 statement on the student strike by this outfit states, in bold characters no less: “It is necessary to reject an orientation to the trade unions.” It adds: “Here as elsewhere in the world, the role of the unions is to subjugate the workers to the profit system and the capitalist state.” An “edited version” of the same statement issued in English two days later is even more explicit, calling to assist the workers “in breaking free of the pro-capitalist trade unions.” While the SEP sometimes dons a fraudulent Trotskyist mask, its aim of seeing the unions destroyed converges with the interests of the capitalist bosses. So too does its position on the national question, where it echoes the chauvinist Anglo Canadian ruling class in opposing Quebec’s right to self-determination.
The destruction of the trade unions would inevitably mean lower wages, less benefits and more dangerous working conditions. They must be defended against the bosses’ attacks. At the same time, the pro-capitalist labour bureaucracy must be ousted by a class-struggle leadership fighting against the politics of bourgeois nationalism. Only then can the unions be transformed into organizations fighting for working-class emancipation.
The Quebec working class, allied with the vibrant student youth, has the power to be a key component of a revived North American workers movement, which has been battered by decades of austerity and strikebreaking. In May 1972, the spontaneous Quebec general strike against the jailing of union leaders gave a taste of this power. But in the upshot, the aspirations of the Québécois workers were channeled into the framework of bourgeois nationalism as represented by the PQ. Unchaining the power of the proletariat requires a political break with such nationalism, including today its “left” variant in Québec Solidaire.
The only road to socialism lies through a workers revolution that smashes the capitalist state and replaces it with a workers state, the dictatorship of the proletariat. That means replacing bourgeois democracy—a “democracy” for the rich—with workers democracy. Only then will the road be open for the construction of an egalitarian communist society where both poverty and a repressive state are relics of the past.
The Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste fights for the forging of a binational, multiethnic and internationalist workers party dedicated to the struggle for such revolutions across Canada, throughout North America and beyond. This is integral to our perspective of reforging the Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution. We urge those militant students who, coming out of the bitter struggles of the past several months, seek the road to a broader program for social liberation to examine the program of authentic Trotskyism.