Wednesday, May 23, 2012, 3:43 pm
The Quebec Student Strike Celebrates 100th Day
Yesterday, students in Quebec marked their 100th day of an unlimited general strike, the culmination of North America’s largest student movement in years.
Students have been organizing against tuition hikes for nearly one and a half years, when the Quebec government first proposed to raise tuition fees by 75% over five years (amended to 82% over seven years by the government at the end of April). Before the general strike began in February, protests, demos, trainings, letter writing campaigns and attempts to negotiate in good faith with the government were consistently met with obstinate silence from the Charest administration. For the students there has been a growing sense of urgency and a shared recognition that increased tuition means a heavier student debt burden, hundreds of more hours a year spent working instead of studying, less access for working class students, and a shift in university culture toward the market, the commodification of education, the financialization of student life, and the privatization of the university.
Even if fees increase, Quebec students would be paying less than other provinces in Canada, a gap the provincial government has been aiming to close. But so far every time the administration has proposed to do so, students have gone on strike. Deep in the Quebec struggle is a culture of solidarity and security, a social fabric, a sense of community that endures and mobilizes a powerful defense of their commonwealth.
It is precisely this that Margaret Thatcher declared war on when she said the project of neoliberalism is to change the heart and soul of a “collectivist” spirit. Indeed, the Finance Minister of a Quebec Liberal government not shy about their plan to reorganize Quebecois life through fiscal discipline, recently called austerity policies “a cultural revolution.” The Modèle québécois of social collectivism is the target of these policies, specifically through education and health, hence the Charest government’s attempts to break the strike and destroy the student unions.
Student unionism is particularly strong in Quebec for a reason: Quebec's student unions are inherently political, engaging, and participatory, using principles of direct democracy in weekly general assemblies. A dispersal of power, where students have a direct role in shaping the culture of university life through the policies and activities of the unions has been the backbone of the growing movement against tuition hikes, and the secret to why it has been able to mobilize such a broad and popular base. Yet, while a rejection of political parties and emphasis on direct democracy and militancy infuse the movement, Quebec's unions were not created equally. They range from the combative wing of the movement, such as the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ),which demands free education, to more corporatist and mainstream student unions that integrate with mainstream political parties.
Austerity has impacted more than students in the province. Attacks have been launched broadly on the middle class and lower income families, their sense of social cohesion, and the social entitlement and equality of access to public services amid rising cost of living. The strikes register across these domains of everyday life, in the university, in the family home, the workplace, and the hospital, where increasingly the same growing resentment of the imposition of austerity measures in Quebec emerge, as the tuition increases coincide with the first ever “health tax,” alongside a 20% increase in hydro rates, the raising of the federal retirement age to 67, as well as mass layoffs.
A chronology of the last weeks of the movement
On November 10, over 200,000 students went on a one-day strike, and 30,000 took to the streets. 20,000 of which marched directly to Charest’s Montreal office to demonstrate against rising fees. Hundreds, including the Quebec Women's Federation, shut down the Montreal Stock Exchange in mid-February.
By February 23rd, forty thousand post-secondary students across the province joined the unlimited general strike. Thousands of students occupied the Jacques Cartier Bridge. If the tactical approaches of the movement had been ignored by university administrations and the provincial government in its first weeks, by March 22nd, student unions such as CLASSE (The Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarite Syndaicale Etudiante), whose 80,000 members have been leading the strike, couldn’t be missed. Since then, they have shifted focus toward targeting governmental offices, ministries, and crown corporations, placing strategic emphasis on economic disruption.
On March 22, as over 300,000 students had been on strike, a massive march in the streets inaugurated the Maple Spring ("Printemps Érable," a play on words in French), with university after university, and college after college, going on strike. Two months later, on Tuesday, May 22, the Quebec students’ unlimited strike celebrated its 100th day, already one of the largest student mobilizations in recent history. During 100 days of strike, students have mobilized against steep tuition increases, austerity and debt, and the criminalization of the right to education.
On Friday, a friend Lilian Radovac, who has been active in the student mobilizations in Montreal, described a cultural shift expanding in the cracks of everyday austerity:
For years, May '68 was a dry, dusty thing other people theorized about in poor translations, but these last months, something like it has been happening in the crevices of our vie quotidienne. How strange that it is just there, between bus rides and doctor's appointments and trips to the grocery store, a thing that is so extraordinary and so bizarrely normal at the same time. The metro has been shut down by smoke bombs? Oh well, I feel like a walk anyway.
Did it feel like this when OWS started? It must have.
Each week, in local general assemblies of student associations, students have voted to sustain the “renewable general strike.” With over 180 different unions representing some 170,000 students, university departments and the government can no longer hope the movement will dwindle on its own, and are increasingly forced to repress the movement actively. Indeed, days after the Education Minister Line Beauchamp resigned on May 14th over failed negotiations with student leaders, the Quebec Government enacted a special emergency law.
Bill 78 specifically targets the massive student assemblies and mobilizations in order to break the growing strike and destroy the power of the student union. One member of the Quebec political opposition used the term “Loi Fuck” to refer to the blunt and draconian tool that outlaws public assembly, imposes harsh fines for strike activity (even tacit support), and effectively makes organizing an arrestable offense. The bill also gives more power to the police in enforcing student protest. Indeed, during the last many weeks of escalating street demos, police have repeatedly preempted demonstrations with CS gas, sound grenades, “blast disperser” grenades, and rubber bullets. Nevertheless, it is not clear how this law will be used in the coming days and weeks, or whether it will be successful in intimidating students.
An emergency law announced on the previous Wednesday “suspended” the semester for many CEGEP (academic and vocational college) and university students, with provisions for classes to be postponed until August. Provisions of Bill 78 that followed include:
Fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 for anyone who prevents someone from entering an educational institution.
Steep penalties of $7,000 and $35,000 for anyone deemed a “student leader” and between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student associations. Fines double after the first offense.
Plans for public demonstrations involving more than 50 people (originally 8) must be submitted to the police eight hours in advance, and must detail itinerary, duration and time at which they are being held.
Offering encouragement, tacitly supporting, or promoting protest at a school, either is subject to punishment.
In Montreal, specifically, a new municipal anti-mask law accompanies Bill 78, and another has been proposed at the federal level. With Charest's attempts to legislate the end of the student movement, the struggle has deepened and is now at a turning point. Yet on its 100th day of an unlimited general strike, the movement does not show any signs of slowing down or veering from its direct action orientation and culture of horizontal democracy.
The return of the red square and our right to assembly
Students in Quebec have popularized the symbol of the “red square” to signify being financially “squarely in the red” amid tuition hikes, cuts in social entitlements, and the specter of spiraling student and consumer debt. As their movement has powerfully reminded us, we are all “in the red” as long as the 1% imposes upon us austerity, debt, and repression.
The politics of austerity and the increased policing of everyday life reveal themselves in these instances to be inseparably linked. We can see the direct link between tuition hikes and the criminalization of assembly in Quebec, just as we can see Bloomberg’s management through “free speech zones” of political protest, the silencing of media, and the increased police aggression in suppressing the Occupy Wall Street movement.
For American activists, solidarity with Quebec students is important work in defense of our right to demonstrate. When times of crisis provoke ramped up police power and allow desperate politicians to pass “emergency laws” that target unquiet sectors of the population, we are certain that the class balance of present society is threatened. But it is a cautious joy we should preach, along with the sober insight that without powerful international solidarity and coordination, as James Baldwin once wrote to Angela Davis, "if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night."
The police backlash—through intimidation, repression, and wanton brutality—we have faced in New York City for trying to assemble is enormous. On May 2, students at Brooklyn College were met with police hostility as they demonstrated against policies that restrict access to education for lower-income students.
The message is clear: the fight against austerity is global and Quebec is a major front in the battle.
Malav Kanuga is a doctoral student in Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, NY and editor of the publishing imprint Common Notions.