Philippe Couillard and the Quebec Liberal Party were elected just six months ago, but in that time, they have already trashed all of the promises that they made to Quebeckers. From an election that was won on the theme of “the economy, jobs, healthcare, and eduction,” the Liberals have instead pulled out the hatchet and gone to work hacking away at pensions, healthcare, daycare, public sector jobs, and education funding. All of this is being done to tackle the $3.2-billion deficit in order to achieve “deficit-zero” by 2015-16. Anger in Quebec society is rapidly increasing as new cuts are announced, touching every aspect of life. In just a few weeks, the province has already been rocked by the two largest demonstrations since the “Quebec Spring” of 2012, with upwards of 50,000 workers and students participating in each. With the unions in the crosshairs this time around, union leaders in the province are talking about massive mobilizations and a “New Quebecois Spring” for 2015. What does this movement need to do to win?
Under the guise of “eliminating bureaucracy” and “improving service to the client”, the government is proposing a series of massive changes to the networks governing many different social services in the province. These propositions would eliminate most of the local health and school boards and place them under direct control of the ministers. Under this plan, the ministers would now be able to determine budgets, staffing, and would directly appoint all local boards and managers, effectively eliminating any local control that previously existed. Under the current structure, the administrative councils of the administrative bodies in the healthcare sector generally contain elected representatives from the workers (doctors, nurses, dentists, and maintenance workers), as well as elected representatives from the community including midwives and other stakeholders. These councils, much like the elected school boards, are generally closer to the workers and the community and therefore are more prone to resist cuts.
The resistance from local boards has already been a thorn in the side of the government. The Commission scolaire de Montréal (Montreal’s French-language school board) has refused to cut its budget by a further $8.6-million as demanded by the education minister, and instead will run a $29.3-million deficit for the year. The Montreal English school board has refused to cut $4-million from their $275-million budget this year and instead has chosen to run a local deficit of $5.2-million. These cuts are already on top of the $800-million in cuts that was forced on the school boards over the past five years.
We must ask ourselves, are the intentions of the Liberal government actually to improve the system, or are they more concerned with finding the necessary funds within the system to balance the budget? Daniel Boyer of the FTQ openly critiqued the new process to centralize the appointments of new boards in the hands of the premier, stating that it would “open the door to cronyism, favouritism, and friends of the Liberal Party.” In a province that has been mired in corruption scandals, with the Liberal Party being in the middle of many sketchy situations, can we trust the government’s intentions here?
It seems that no domain is free from the axe of the Liberal party. There have been calls from the Liberals for youth centres to trim their budgets by $20-million. This is in spite of the fact that over the past five years, the number of teenagers being helped by youth protection workers has increased by 17.3%. These proposed attacks are in addition to cuts that have already occurred. Sylvie Theoret, president of the Youth Centre Employees Union, states, “Between 2010 and 2013 there was already around $11-million in cuts alone in the Montreal youth centres.”
Even public funding for the arts are coming under the hatchet. Minister of Culture, Hélène David, has stated that the network of music and drama conservatories in the province is under review. A report from the director of the conservatories in Quebec released in early October suggests closing five of the regional conservatories to deal with the $14-million deficit in their budget. The conservatories have been serving their respective regions since the 1940s and have produced some of Quebec’s most well-known musicians. The outrage from the communities is starting to manifest itself with small protests in some of the regions, and one in downtown Montreal led by renowned Quebecois musician Jean François Rivest.
When we add up all of the cuts already announced, we don’t get anywhere near the $3.2-billion required to reach the balanced budget desired by the government. Jeff Begley, the president of the union of health and service workers in Quebec (which represents 130,000 workers), is correctly suspicious of the government’s intentions when he says, “We no longer believe the minister when he says that he won’t touch services.” Where will they get the rest of the money?
The labour movement promises a “New Quebecois Spring”
The frustration and anger among workers in Quebec has become increasingly noticeable. Sporadic and disconnected small strikes and demonstrations have erupted all over Quebec, led by local leaderships upset at job losses and cuts to services. The most notable example of this anger was seen when Montreal firefighters stormed Montreal City Hall to protest the cuts to municipal workers’ pensions. In the last two months, the streets of Montreal have been flooded with tens of thousands of workers and students on two separate occasions. The 50,000 workers and their families who turned out for the big demonstration organized by the trade union federation on 20th September already shows that pressure is building and workers are looking for a way to fight back against the Liberal government. More recently,50,000 workers and students turned out for a demonstration in the middle of the working day on 31st October.
Responding to this pressure, labour leaders are talking tough about major confrontations in the year to come. At the big demonstration on Sep. 20, CSN president Jacques Létourneau stated,“This is a marathon not a sprint.” FTQ leader Daniel Boyer promised, “It will resemble the spring of 2012,”with many people mobilized in the streets to fight against these attacks. “We will organize demonstrations. It will be a battle for public opinion. I don’t know if it will be at the level of the spring of 2012, but it is going to be a hot spring and autumn of 2015,”Boyer continued.
On top of this, the student movement, which gained international attention for the “Quebec Spring” in 2012, seems to have new life breathed into it. Many students, who were somewhat depressed and disillusioned after the election of the PQ government and the subsequent indexation of tuition fees, are now regaining confidence and starting to fight once again. The aforementioned protest on Oct. 31 was, in part, organized by the ASSÉ student union to demonstrate against the “horror of austerity”. In addition to the demonstration, 82,000 students also voted for strike action against the government’s austerity measures. It seems as though the movement of the workers is revitalizing the students and giving them strength and confidence in the fact that they are not alone in their fight.
On top of the cuts already announced, the province’s 550,000 public sector workers will see their contracts expire in March 2015, opening up negotiations with a government hell-bent on balancing the budget before all else. Thus, the government could be facing a larger social movement than even the historic 2012 protests — the key difference being that they would not be facing just the students alone. The involvement of the workers could be pivotal; unlike students, workers hold the power to bring the entire economy to a halt.
Bourgeois legality pushed to its limits
From the most radicalized sector of the movement, the municipal workers, there is talk of potential illegal strike action. Marc Ranger, the spokesperson for the Coalition for Free Negotiations (the coalition of 65,000 municipal workers), did not exclude this when he was explicitly pressed by reporters. He clearly said, “I would call it a huge 24 hours of mobilizations. It doesn’t have the word ‘strike’ there, but the results will be the same.”
On top of this, at the end of October, the blue collar workers in Quebec City voted for illegal strike action to fight back against cuts to their pensions. This union, which represents 1,200 workers, has a contract which does not expire until 2018, meaning that technically they do not have the right to go on strike. When pushed by reporters to clarify about the legality of this potential strike, union leader Daniel Simard stated, “Of course it is illegal. But what the government is doing is also illegal.” This sort of thinking is very dangerous for the ruling class in Quebec which needs conformity to their laws, especially if they expect to push through this austerity.
But will the union leaders be prepared to go the distance? Over the past few years, the right to collective bargaining has been under continuous attack. Various levels of governments across the entire country have been systematically legislating workers back to work, sometimes even before they go on strike! Last year, this was the method that the Parti Quebecois government used to end the construction workers’ strike which cost the Quebec bosses $15-million per day. On top of this, a good portion of the public sector workers have already been declared to be “essential services”, de facto making it illegal for them to go out on strike.
The cost of the outcome of this movement is too high, both on the side of the bosses and on the side of the workers. A social confrontation of massive proportions is being prepared, something that seems to be understood by everyone. Even the police are expressing their unease with the situation. Police Brotherhood president, Yves Francouer, stated, “What worries me is that I see chaos coming to Quebec.” In an interview on Oct. 30, when pressed about how the police would deal with the fact that the demonstration on the following day had not conformed to the anti-protest laws, Francouer stated,“Only with difficulty can we blame people for not submitting themselves to the rules when we see the government tearing up agreements. In the current context, with this government, it is difficult to say to people to respect the rules and laws.”Responding to this declaration, ASSE spokespoersonCamille Godbout stated, “This proves that the austerity message touches everyone. In doing what it wants and not listening to anybody, the government will reap the wrath of the population. We are in solidarity with the workers affected by Bill 3. They are a concrete example of austerity.”
Furthermore, even the police directors have voiced the problems they see latent in the situation. Recently, the ADPQ (the association of police directors) stated that they are not sure that they will be able to count on the reliability of their rank-and-file officers when another movement arises: “The experience of the 2012 maple spring is still fresh in our memories. As leaders, we have been able to count on the professionalism of our troops. But what will it be in this case? How far will things go?” The ADPQ also complained that the infamous Bill 3, which proposes cuts to 65,000 municipal workers’ pensions, could create “an inevitable phenomenon of absenteeism”amongst their rank-and-file officers. And this is even before the movement has erupted! This uneasy situation shows how the balance of power is very much in favour of the working class, the vast majority of the population of the province.
This is not a normal period of negotiations between the government and the workers. In years past, the labour movement could expect to gain some concessions from government. But with the Liberals focused on fixing the financial crisis facing Quebec, the possibility of gaining concessions via the old methods is virtually nil. The government has already shown that it is willing to even use undemocratic methods, including back-to-work legislation and a wholesale attack on civil liberties, to get their measures passed. In order to win, the workers and their leaders will need to be prepared to defy the undemocratic laws imposed on them. What other option is there? It is either defy the law, or accept having your livelihood driven into the ground. These disputes have gone beyond just economic conflicts — they are fundamentally political. It is about who calls the shots in Quebec and the bosses cannot afford to lose. The result of the mass movement of 2012 was not satisfactory for the ruling class. Workers and youth still look back fondly to a moment when they forced their will on the capitalist class. But the ruling class cannot afford another humiliation; it must win.
For years, the Quebec ruling class has been pushing for a “lucid” Quebec, free from the hefty costs of funding the welfare state and costly social programs. The Liberals have made it painstakingly clear that they will do whatever it takes to find the $3.2-billion necessary to balance the budget. How many public sector jobs will be cut? How many services will be axed? But the importance of this struggle is not just to defend against immediate attacks. A victory for the Liberals will only embolden the bosses and their representatives to go further, cutting more and steamrolling any democratic rights that get in their way. But these attacks won’t go away until we do away with the rotten economic system that has led to this austerity. This is why it is more important that all sectors of Quebec society that will suffer under the government’s austerity — workers, students, youth, the poor — unite to form a workers’ party, one that will fight for socialist policies and fight to take the power away from the bosses and their representatives.