On Oct. 1, Quebec voters head to the polls. With the right-wing CAQ polling in first place, things are not looking good for the working class. Legault’s “change” will mark an acceleration of the program of gutting social services, attacking unions, and the dismantling of the “Quebec model” established during the Quiet Revolution. Meanwhile, there has been a resurgence of the class struggle this year with big strike votes and several key strikes. This begs the question: Where is the voice of the workers in this election?

Candidates for Quebec general election 2018

The working class of Quebec has rich traditions of militant class struggle. In the past period, these traditions have been making a comeback. All of the major manifestations of discontent (student strikes, mass demonstrations, general strikes, etc.) have been based around class demands. In particular, the period of 2011-15 saw a big upsurge in youth and worker radicalization, fighting against the attacks from the government with the mass student strike in 2012 and the public sector general strike in 2015.

More recently, we have seen an uptick in the class struggle this year. This has created a fantastic opportunity to make these strikes and working class demands central to the election in October. This would clearly unmask the CAQ who are trying to paint themselves as the party of the people and the party of change.

Seething class anger must be channeled to the left

Beneath the surface of society, there is a developing class anger. This expresses itself in many ways. One common expression of this discontent is the hatred for the parties of the establishment, who get punished in the polls. Over the last couple of decades, support for the establishment parties in Quebec has plummeted. Going from a combined vote of over 80-90 per cent in the 1990s, the combined vote for the Liberals and the Parti Quebecois has fallen to under 50 per cent, sitting at 43 per cent at the time of writing. The main loser in this situation is the floundering PQ which could easily be reduced to just a handful of seats.

But why is the right-wing CAQ the principal benefactor of this discontent? After all, isn’t CAQ leader François Legault the biggest champion of austerity?

Quebec solidaire was formed in 2006 as the first serious left-wing party in Quebec since the 1960s. However, QS has so far been somehow unable to capitalize on the growing discontent in society. When 2012 student strike leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (GND) joined the party in 2017 and denounced “the political class that has betrayed Quebec” for 30 years, the party gained some life, rising in the polls with thousands joining the party. In the ensuing months, GND and the party leadership spent most of their time focusing on the question of Quebec independence and merging with the small nationalist party, Option nationale. Now the party has dropped back down to its traditional polling numbers of around 10 per cent and the CAQ has risen to first.

During this most recent resurgence of class struggle, the leadership of Quebec solidaire have quite clearly and obviously not made class issues a priority. If you peruse the party’s website, you wouldn’t get the impression that there was much going on. Other than a few small declarations from local candidates, the central leadership has done virtually nothing about the strikes at Elopak, CAE, Manoir Sherbrooke, the SAQ, the Résidences Soleil, Loto-Québec, BAnQ, the IOC layoffs, etc. There was no declaration about the wildcat crane operators’ strike. There was no denunciation by the leadership when they were forced back to work. The party leadership also hasn’t said anything about the strike votes at the STM, TVA and others.

Generally speaking, the working class does not see QS as their party, and this is because the leaders of the party are seemingly aloof and disconnected from the lives of the workers. A good example of this was on August 22nd, when the SAQ workers were on strike and held big rallies in a few cities, the national office of Quebec solidaire said nothing about this but instead released a statement about how they want to legalize amateur martial arts tournaments. By placing the focus on a completely secondary issue while thousands of workers are on strike, the party leadership seems to be disconnected from the struggle of the working class. This goes a long way to explain why the party has not been able to canalize the growing discontent.

At best, a candidate will make a Facebook post or there will be a random picket visit to striking workers, but this is not enough. The working class of Quebec needs a party, and to that end the leadership of QS should organize the entire electoral campaign around working-class issues so that there can be absolutely no doubt which party is on the side of the working class. Solidarity rallies with striking workers and denunciations of the bourgeois parties who have attacked striking workers should be on the order of the day. This includes both the Liberals and the PQ who have systematically attacked the workers when in power, as well as the CAQ which is always the most ardent advocate for harsher measures against the unions. This would force the three capitalist parties to respond or to attack QS for supporting the workers and this would shift the debate to class issues, drawing a clear line in the sand.

The question of Quebec independence

While the party leadership has done very little about the recent wave of strikes, they have made many announcements on the question of independence. They organized an “independence university” and released a nostalgic video for St-Jean Baptiste which included pictures of René Lévesque and the big nationalist rallies during the last two referendums. This was followed by the launch of the party’s campaign in Quebec City which again put the emphasis on independence and the launching of the second edition of Option nationale leader Sol Zanetti’s book Le livre qui fait dire oui (The book that makes you say yes). Far from making the party stand out as a “change” and something different than the other parties, this sort of thing makes it seem like QS is stuck in the past and is not all that different than the PQ.

While QS has been talking about independence, the CAQ has been promising “no referendums.” Both anglophone and francophone workers are tired of this constant back and forth between the sovereigntists and the federalists and the CAQ is appealing to people across this historic divide. This seems to be having a bit of an effect as recent polls show that the CAQ is making inroads into both traditionally sovereigntist and federalist ridings as they may even defeat the current premier Philippe Couillard in his own riding as well as PQ leader Jean-François Lisée in the riding of Rosemont.

The strategy of Legault is clear and effective and is tapping into a strong mood in the population:

“This will be the first election in the last 50 years where the ballot question won’t be about the sovereignty of Quebec. It will be about who has the best proposals on the economy, education and healthcare. It’s about time we put all Quebecers together — anglophones, francophones — and work to be richer. And stop talking about the constitutional issues.”

The fact of the matter is that for most people, the question of independence is seen as outdated and more people are looking to class-based solutions to their problems. A left-wing party should have no problem connecting with this. The leadership of QS needs to meet the CAQ’s challenge and clearly put forward a bold socialist program and expose the bourgeois parties.

Only the working class can defeat Legault

One way or another, working-class anger will determine the outcome of this election. If this leads to a CAQ victory, this would be a rude awakening for the working class in Quebec. Borrowing from Doug Ford’s play book, François Legault has not been upfront about what his actual plans are. This is because he is not stupid and knows that the workers are not too supportive of privatizations and attacks on unions. But make no mistake, this is his real program. The CAQ will not govern in the interests of the workers, but will represent more clearly the wing of the bourgeoisie that wants to boldly roll back the gains the workers have made in the past in order to make Quebec more profitable for capitalist investment.

Conversely, Quebec solidaire is the only sizable left-wing party in the province, the election of which would represent a push back against the bosses’ agenda. The party’s program contains many progressive reforms such as free education, free public transportation, protections for unionized workers, and even some nationalizations and the commitment to “go beyond” capitalism.

These are the types of things that can enthuse the workers and youth if placed front and centre in the campaign. The party has unveiled their election signs and the demands for free education and free dental insurance are showcased prominently. This is a good start but we must go further in this direction and place the working class at the heart of the party’s agitation. Only with a bold left turn can the party distinguish itself from the PQ which, in a desperate move, has unveiled a left-wing electoral platform, titled “A strong state, in the service of the people”, that also promises free education. Of course, we have seen this type of empty posturing from the PQ many times in the past. The leadership of QS needs to actively distinguish the party from the PQ with a bold socialist program and a clear denunciation of the hypocrisy of the PQ who always campaign from the left and govern from the right, implementing austerity and legislating an end to strikes.

Quebec is known to be a place where voters can change their minds quickly and at the last minute. This could easily be the case if the leadership of QS puts the working class at the heart of its campaign. This is actually the only thing that can effectively undermine the support for the CAQ. This would also create huge pressure on the union bureaucracy to break from their support for the PQ and mobilize a mass working class campaign behind QS. A QS victory, on the backs of a mass campaign of working class mobilization would be a blow to the bosses’ agenda and would open up a new stage of struggle in Quebec.

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