The Popular Roots of the Quebec Student Strike
By Peter Marin
Early on the student strike in Quebec adopted the slogan “it is a student strike, and a popular struggle” (in French, “la grève est étudiante, la lutte est populaire"). Over the course of this unprecedented strike, the slogan has become a reality, as people from all sectors of society have joined the students in opposition to the neoliberal government of Jean Charest and his Liberal party.
As this is written, neighbourhood committees are forming in Montreal and daily protests, including the now famous casseroles (pots and pans) protests, are occurring across Quebec – including in small towns and regions not known for their militancy. The legitimacy of the government and its police force is being called into question as tens of thousands defy its “special law 78”, which criminalizes spontaneous protests among other measures. The student strike has indeed become a popular struggle. While no one could have predicted that the student strike would spill across society, this development is not entirely without a foundation in recent struggles. And this foundation is best exemplified by the Coalition Opposée a la Tarification et Privatisation des Services Publics (in English, the Coalition Against User Fees and the Privatization of Public Services).
Founded in the spring of 2010 in response to the austerity budget of the Charest government, the Coalition consists of 137 member-groups, including community organizations (e.g. anti-poverty, health, housing), student unions, feminist groups and various union locals and district labour councils. The community groups are one of the two driving forces of the Coalition. These groups, whose members are most sharply affected by austerity, have a history of militancy unlike anywhere else in Canada. Nicolas Phebus, who works for the Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU), a housing group and member of the Coalition, described it as “Quebec having dozens of OCAPs”.
The student unions, led by the syndicalist Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante or ASSÉ (the leading student federation of the strike movement), has been the second main driving force of the Coalition. With the major Quebec union federations opting not to join the Coalition – because of their inability to effectively lead it – and the member union locals playing largely a secondary role, it has fallen on ASSÉ and the student movement to mobilize large numbers behind the Coalition’s actions. And according to Phebus, ASSÉ “has done the heavy lifting of the Coalition”, bringing thousands of students into the streets and adding a force to the Coalition's actions that the community groups alone could not muster.
After the Coalition realized that the union movement was not serious about organizing for a social strike modeled on the Ontario Days of Action - “it became clear this was a pipe dream” says Phebus - the Coalition decided on a strategy of escalating disruptive direct actions, including numerous aggressive occupations of MPPs offices. The painted red handprint emerged as the symbol of the Coalition after members began dipping their hands in red paint and leaving hand prints on the walls of MPPs offices.
The Coalition has also turned to blockading government offices, such as the Hydro Quebec headquarters, and most recently they shut down the Montreal Stock Exchange (as the student strike was underway). The now infamous Victoriaville protests outside the Liberal party's convention, where police nearly killed protesters using plastic bullets, was also organized by the Coalition. This strategy of escalating economic disruption was later adopted by ASSÉ, and has been effectively employed during the current strike.
According to Phebus, the Coalition's members – especially the community and feminist groups and some rank-and-file public sector workers – have undergone a real radicalization over the past two years in the course of these actions, and this has continued during the course of the student strike. “We are seeing in Quebec a reinvention of social action'' says Phebus. “Direct action has gone from a catchphrase to a mass practice of economic disruption. It is on the agenda in a real way and there is a feeling that it can be done. We have moved from having social organizations or institutions to where we now have a true social movement.”
This new-found militancy can also be seen in the demands raised by the Coalition, which has moved from making defensive demands (e.g. stop the cuts) to discussing bold ideas such as free education, new social housing, and the abolition of welfare – and its replacement with a guaranteed income. “What were once seen as radical demands now appear as a matter of political choice'' says Phebus.
Having never been corporatist (focused only on the interests of its own members), ASSÉ and by extension the student movement as a whole, is now on the receiving end of solidarity from other social sectors. That the Quebec government “has not been able to isolate ASSÉ, is in good part because of its work [in the Coalition]”. And, according to Phebus, it is likely that even after the student strike, the social uprising sparked by the student movement will continue – with the Coalition on the frontlines. “The government's next attack will come in the form of a raise in hydro rates directly targeting the Coalition's community base.”