The Internationalist  
  May 2012  

In the Face of the War Measures of the Liberal Government,
Mobilize the Heavy Battalions of the Working Class!

Quebec Student Strike:
Defeat the Capitalist Attack


Quebec provincial police (Sûreté du Québec) open fire at Victoriaville, May 4 against the “enemy,”
striking students and protesters against the policies of privatization and repression. To defeat the
attack, it is necessary to call on a more powerful force, that of the working class. 
(Photo: Le Soleil)

Against Privatization and Commodification of Public Education,
Fight for Socialist Revolution!

The following article is translated from a supplement to L’Internationaliste distributed in Montréal on May 22.

MAY 20 – For more than three months, Quebec students have been on strike against the plan of the provincial government of Liberal Party (PLQ) premier Jean Charest to impose a massive tuition increase. Mobilizing up to 300,000 strikers, the students have rocked the Quebec nation. This is the largest student mobilization in the history of Quebec and one of the fiercest social struggles in Canada in recent decades. It is of prime international importance, together with the eight-month-long Chilean student strike last year. These are among the main current struggles against the capitalist war on public education, and on working people in general. The strike deserves the active support of all defenders of the democratic right to education, and of the world working class. And now is the time to show this support with concrete actions.

The Quebec student movement has arisen in the context of mass struggles around the globe. The description of the struggle as the “Maple Spring” of 2012 makes the link to the “Arab Spring” of 2011. Shortly after, the movement of the Outraged in Portugal, Spain and Greece occupied squares in the city centers of Europe. In Quebec, the starting point of the struggle, the big mobilization of 10 November 2011, when 200,000 students struck and 30,000 took to the streets of Montreal, came on the heels of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, and as the Chilean student strike was still going strong. But while the unrest is global, with the exception of the student strike in Colombia – which forced the rightist government to withdraw its “education reform plan” that opened the door to privatization – it has to be said that none of these struggles has resulted in victory.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the dictators have been overthrown but the military-based dictatorships remain. In Europe, even though several governments that have presided over the effects of the international capitalist economic crisis have fallen (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and most recently France), the new governments nevertheless continue to impose austerity policies. In the U.S., the hundreds of Occupy camps were almost all removed by police action. In Quebec, the scope of the movement has enabled it to endure in the face of a government that seeks to carry out its tuition hike at any cost. But now the government has decided to impose its program with the mailed fist of the police and the bourgeois “justice” system. Harking back to the watchword of U.S. imperialism in Vietnam, Charest is prepared to shut down the universities in order to save them from the virus of student protest.

It is worth considering the reasons for the survival of these reactionary regimes and policies in the face of unheard-of popular opposition. This is not only due to repression, nor to the stubbornness of the rulers. The mafia-linked PLQ government of Quebec is hard-lining it because it is backed up by the power of imperialist capital, whose affairs it manages. And the forces that have risen up against Charest & Co. on a strictly democratic basis are seriously weakened due to their failure to attack the economic and social bases of the regime. To be sure, maintaining the tuition freeze or even abolishing tuition are simply an expression of the democratic right to education. But in this epoch of decaying capitalism, when all past gains are under attack, one cannot win or even defend such gains except through revolutionary struggle leading to a workers government.

From the “Padlock Law” of Duplessis to Charest’s “Riot Club Law”

Over 200,000 people demonstrated in Montréal on March 22. Despite numerous marches in support of
the striking students, among the largest mobilizations in the history of the country, the government
claims that the strikers have “lost the battle of public opinion.” Yet three-quarters of the population
says it is dissatisfied with the Charest administration. (Photo: Marco Campanozzi/La Presse)

At this point, after 14 weeks of resisting the slanders of the bosses’ press, the threats of the government and the ferocious repression of its police, having taken more than 1,600 arrests, there are still more than 150,000 students from 1,964 student associations on strike. From the start, the PLQ government has categorically refused any negotiation or even discussion of the tuition hike. The only “modification” it would admit was to spread it over seven years instead of five, while indexing it for inflation so that the total increased from $1,625 to $1,778 a year, an increase of a whopping 82%.  And when the student assemblies of all the universities and colleges[1] on strike flatly rejected his latest poisoned “offer,” the prime minister who would be Emperor John James of Quebec decreed a “hardening” of the government’s position.

Several cabinet ministers known as “hawks” had been urging for some time for the government to play the “authority card,” and now Charest has done so, with Law 78. The bill was introduced to the National Assembly (Quebec’s provincial parliament) at 8 p.m. on Thursday, May 17, and was voted into law less than 24 hours later in a fast-track procedure worthy of any authoritarian regime. Budget minister Raymond Bachand inveighed: “Enough! Enough already! There are radical groups who want to destabilize the economy of Montreal. Anti-capitalist and Marxist groups” (La Presse, 16 May). “The Boss” Charest is assiduously imitating the habits of Maurice Duplessis, the last Quebec prime minister to win three consecutive terms. Pervasive influence trafficking, a docile parliament, brutal repression against the unions, demonizing protesters as dangerous “reds,” and tough legislation to stifle all opposition.

Winter in August? Duplessis decreed his loi cadenas (“padlock law,” titled “Law Protecting the Province Against Communist Propaganda”). His epigone issued a “Law Permitting Students to Receive Education From the Post-Secondary Establishments They Are Attending.” With this law, Charest put off the winter session at struck universities and colleges until August, to be finished in September … so as not to “lower the quality of a diploma”! He says he wants to guarantee “the right to an education” and provide calm conditions for teaching. How does he propose to do that? By putting the campuses under lock and key for three months and sending police riot squads to arrest even more massively the students who violate the will of the autocrat. Meanwhile, his tuition hike guarantees the exclusion of thousands of youths from higher education.

So the response of the liberal chief to the student strike is a lockout plus a “riot club law” to ban picket lines. With this he hopes to make future strikes impossible. He says so himself, complaining that “we’ve run up against debate of this question in Quebec for dozens of years.” Alas for him, the students still have something to say on his attempt to mortgage their future, condemning them to years of debt servitude to the banks. And they are saying it very loudly.

From the outset, the prime minister who has governed Quebec for almost a decade has excluded any discussion of his plan to raise tuition, in the name of improving the “competitiveness” of Quebec universities. He pejoratively dismisses the leaders of the student associations as “enfants roi” (spoiled brats) who refuse to pay “their just part.” Displaying unlimited arrogance, he has refused to sit down with them, leaving the “dirty job” to his female ministers. As Jean Barbe noted in Le Monde (16 May), “He hoped to repeat his coup of 2005, the date of the last student strike, to sow discord among the student associations, excluding the most militant one, the Broad Coalition for Student Union Solidarity (CLASSE, Coalition large pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), and reaching an agreement with the other two.” But this time the maneuver didn’t work.

Why not? With his diktat, Charest wants to put an end to the debate over university tuition. Hence he has adopted a position which allows no compromise, which excludes any negotiation. With more than 75% of respondents in public opinion polls saying they are dissatisfied with his administration, he wants to project an image of toughness. A revealing fact: on the eve of the announcement of the special law, the leader of the most “moderate” group, Léo Bureau-Blouin of FECQ (Fédération étudiante collégiale du Quebec, the Quebec College Student Federation), proposed a “new scenario,” also backed by the FEUQ (Fédération étudiante unviersitaire du Québec, Quebec University Student Federation) and even by the minority of students who favor a tuition hike. This formula would have meant betraying the goal of the strike, but the government refused. The new education minister, Michelle Courchesne, declared that “there isn’t room for compromise anymore.” In short, the Liberals want to crush the strike.

A Non-Cordial  Non-Entente. We saw the same thing following the talks which the previous education minister, Line Beauchamp, and the new minister Chourchesne held with the student leaders on May 4-5. In a marathon session they wore down the resistance of the strike negotiators. Trade-union leaders, who had been brought in to do a “service for Quebec,” counseled the students to make concessions. At the same time, the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police, were bloodily repressing thousands of demonstrators outside a PLQ congress in Victoriaville. The ministers called on the student leaders to make a statement “against violence,” which they did. The media then broadcast this as a denunciation of the “violence” of the demonstrators who sought to defend themselves against the clouds of tear gas and hail of dozens of plastic bullets fired by the police.

At that point, what was called for was to denounce the police fusillade and to declare that it was impossible to discuss in such conditions of intimidation. But the student leaders stayed. Finally, after 22 hours locked up with their enemies and false friends (the union bureaucrats), they accepted a document submitted by the government. Unfortunately, the students hadn’t checked to make sure that the compromises they thought they had reached were included. Moreover, the government presented as an “entente,” or agreement, what for the students was only a government offer. In any case, this document amounted to a capitulation to the regime. It didn’t touch the tuition hike at all, it proposed to reduce accompanying student fees by questionable savings, and proposed a “provisional committee” with a clear majority appointed by the government and businessmen.

This was a disaster. There was a hullabaloo among the CLASSE leaders when they saw the text. Even the leaders of the FEUQ and FECQ couldn’t defend it. So what did the government do? It added fuel to the fire. Beauchamp wrote to Liberal deputies crowing that the tuition hike was intact and there wouldn’t be sufficient savings to appreciably lower the accompanying fees. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois of CLASSE complained, “they literally bragged about pulling a fast one on us” (La Presse, 8 May). Subsequently, student associations throughout the province voted by overwhelming majorities against the phony “agreement.” Yet what’s striking is that even this capitulation to the pressure of the government wouldn’t satisfy it. Charest is above all out to demoralize the students, to ensure that there won’t be another student strike for many years.

But why did the student leaders sign this abomination, or even agree to discuss it? In the case of the FEUQ, it had already proposed, last November, to form such a commission to look for savings in university operations. Marxists call for a tri-partite government of the universities by councils of students, teachers and workers. But the commission proposed by the FEUQ, including representatives of the administration and the government, amounted to class collaboration rather than a body to combat the capitalist hold on education. For CLASSE, on the other hand, discussing the commission proposed by the government was a capitulation on the goals for which they said they were fighting. It accepted the limits imposed by capital, which would have made them accomplices in the administration of the universities on behalf of the bourgeoisie.

A Struggle Against the International Capitalist Assault on Public Education

Contingents of secondary school students march for education in Santiago de Chile, 30 June 2011.
The struggle against privatization and commodification of education is international.
(Photo: EFE)

It is quite clear that the Charest government enjoys the support of almost the entire Quebec bourgeoisie to impose a tuition hike on the students. Among the few organizations to declare itself “delighted” with the government’s “riot club law” is the Quebec Federation of Chambers of Commerce. Earlier, an open letter supporting the government’s position was signed by the president of the Federation, the head of the Montreal Board of Trade, the head of the Quebec Council of Employers and, significantly, Lucien Bouchard, ex-prime minister of Quebec, of the Parti Québecois (The Gazette, 4 May). Even if PQ deputies wear red squares in the National Assembly, and [PQ leader] Pauline Marois has said she would repeal the tuition hike, she’s not in favor of a freeze either, calling to index tuition to inflation.

But the eagerness of the Quebec government to apply this “reform” reflects the pressure not only of Quebec employers but also that of international capital. Recall that in the 1960s, after the government seized control of the schools from the Catholic Church – which ran them until 1959 and which saw in free education “the spectre of neutral and secular schools” – the Parent Commission recommended setting up a system of Colleges of General and Professional Education (the CÉGEPs). Its declared aim was democratizing access to university education in order to satisfy “the requirements of the modern economy,” and also because “every person has the right to have access to the diverse realms of knowledge.” Canada at that time signed a United Nations convention which established as a goal moving toward free higher education.[2]

What is happening now, is that “the requirements of the modern (capitalist) economy” have changed. In the 1960s and ’70s, Western governments were confronted by big struggles for the democratization of education. Key examples were the racial integration of schools in the United States and the expansion of university education in France following the student-worker revolt of May-June 1968. In Quebec there was also a desire, among the capitalists as well, to take control of the natural resources of the province (the expansion of Hydro-Québec) and to escape from an economy of producing raw materials. So in order to make the Quebec economy more competitive, the bosses needed a technically qualified labor force.

Today, the needs of capital are different. With the “globalization” so praised by the capitalists and denounced by “alternative globalization” activists, only a handful of Quebec companies are competitive on the international level – Bombardier, Quebecor, Power Corporation – while many others have been sold to “multinational” firms, as in the case of the Alcan, now Rio Tinto Alcan. These are the ones who control the media and the formation of “public opinion.” Even though there may be disputes between these empires (the Power Corporation mouthpieces La Presse and Le Soleil don’t always see eye to eye with the Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec owned by the Péladeau family’s Quebecor), the Charest government is the servant of these monopolies.

Currently, these giants of world capitalism no longer feel the need to have access to a reservoir of skilled labor. If they need technicians, they can subcontract the work to other companies in other countries, as RTA and Bombardier do. They can build plants in countries with lower labor costs, or closer to the main imperialist markets, as Quebecor does in the U.S. and France. Confronted by union struggles, they can resort to lockouts and hiring desperate strikebreakers, as they have increasingly done in Quebec, despite the impotent anti-scab laws. And now they have taken aim at public higher education, which they deem too expensive.

The increase in tuition in Quebec is part of this international offensive by imperialist capital against the expenses of social overhead capital, which do not contribute to profits and whose costs the capitalist wish to slash. Facing a crisis of a falling rate of profit, which led to the 2008 financial crisis, they want to make higher education a new profit center. There is no justification for raising tuition costs from the standpoint of financing the universities. The cost of totally eliminating tuition, some hundreds of millions of dollars, is trivial. The bourgeoisie wants to raise tuition in order to produce superprofits for the banks from student loans [which are risk-free since the government guarantees them], and to subject students to the discipline of debt servitude.

Thus the Charest government’s attack is not a case of the desperate, mafia-infested PLQ running amok looking for a campaign theme for the next elections. It is perfectly in accord with the actions of governments and banks in the U.S., where the incidence of student debt has risen from around 45% of graduates in 1994 to 94% today, and where hundreds of thousands of students have taken on more than $50,000 in debt (and today cannot find a job). This offensive has been coordinated and theoretically justified over the last two decades by the international financial agencies including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and particularly the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.[3]

Thus in order to resist this offensive by international capital, it is entirely insufficient to fight on the basis of a bourgeois democratic program. For the bourgeoisie there are fundamental class interests at stake, and they will not be deterred by some thousands of students and faculty who produce no profit and who, even if they can “disrupt” the economy cannot bring it to a halt. It is therefore absolutely necessary to mobilize a proletarian counteroffensive, a workers response, to the assault not only by the Charest government but rather by the employers and the bourgeoisie as a whole. Expressions of solidarity are nice, but above all now that the government has thrown down its challenge with Law 78, it is high time to undertake workers action to shut down the economy and politics.

To win the strike, it is indispensable to extend it to the workers movement. We have suggested the formation of a common front of students and faculty with the locked-out metal workers of RTA at Alma, with the locked-out Aveos airline mechanics and construction workers under government attack as a first step toward a strike of at least the key sectors of the Quebec economy in support of the students and all working people targeted by the offensive of capital. Given the furious reaction of large sections of the working people and even the middle classes against Charest’s loi matraque, which many compare to the stage of siege laws issued during the 1970 October Crisis, one can even pose the need for an unlimited general strike to sweep away this corrupt government which endangers the well-being of all working people.

We are presently witnessing a stream of student struggles (Puerto Rico, Chile, England, Quebec) being waged on a national and democratic program in the face of an iron front of capital. Last week there was there was a demonstration of upwards of 100,000 Chilean students and their supporters, and there will in all probability be many thousands of Quebec students and their defenders in the streets of Montreal on May 22. But they remain isolated from each other, and they are not supported by workers action.

Members of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) who formed joint defense guards with students during the ten-month strike of the National University, July 1999. The banner reads: “The Electrical Workers Support the University Students’ Demand for Free Education.”
(Photo: SME)

It is instructive to consider the experience of the ten-month strike of the National University of Mexico (UNAM) in 1999-2000 against a government attack which, in order to satisfy a contract with the World Bank, sought to introduce tuition. The students suffered more than 1,000 arrests, but in the end they won. How were they able to do it? To be sure, they occupied University City with tens of thousands of strikers. They fought off attacks by strikebreakers. Quebec students have also shown great combativeness in this respect, driving the Liberal government crazy. The big difference is the intervention of the power of the working class.

We in the League for the Fourth International fought in the UNAM strike for the formation of worker-student guards to defend the strike against threats of invasion by the army. At first, many students thought we were crazy, dreaming of long-gone and more heroic times. But as the threat of a military attack drew closer, the strike committees approved our proposal. At the key moment, hundreds of electrical workers arrived on campus to participate in joint defense guards which made it possible for the strike to go on. The Mexican bourgeoisie was well aware that while students can cause lots of “trouble,” the workers in the electrical system could throw the switch and plunge Mexico City into darkness. And today, there is still no tuition at the UNAM.

The democracy of the assemblies in the Quebec student strike is an important gain, which has made it possible to continue for almost 100 days. Popular support is tremendous. The determination of the students in the face of merciless repression and demonization in the bourgeois press has even surprised the strike leaders. To wage a victorious strike, a class struggle going beyond the limits of phony bourgeois democracy which is now being revealed as a police state, it is necessary to forge a leadership based on a revolutionary program. This leadership, the nucleus of a revolutionary workers party, will not appear from one day to the next. It must be built through intervening in struggle, proposing measures to mobilize the forces necessary to win and which also raise class consciousness.

The League for the Fourth International fights for the independence of Quebec in the framework of a federation of workers states of North America. We fight on the basis of an internationalist program both against the chauvinism of the Anglo bourgeoisie and also against the bourgeois Quebec nationalism of the PQ and its offshoots as well as the petty-bourgeois reformism of much of the left. We offer our observations on the course and program for victory for this historic movement in the spirit of combative solidarity, as participants in a common struggle.

Mobilize the power of the working class to win the student strike! Send Charest packing, this wannabe emperor who rules with the riot club, gas and bullets! Fight his financiers and his backers in the forces of big capital, from Toronto’s Bay Street to Wall Street in New York. The power of a mobilized working class with a revolutionary leadership can defeat these relics who represent the dead hand of the past that seeks to destroy our future. ■

[1] In Quebec, universities are institutions granting bachelor (and higher) degrees while the colleges (CÉGEPs) are roughly equivalent to junior colleges or community colleges in the United States.

[2] The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1966, declared: “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”

[3] For more specific references on the role of the OECD, see the documents of the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques (IRS), in particular: “L’endettement étudiant : un ‘investissement’ rentable?” (March 2012), “Faut-il vraiment augmenter les frais de scolarité?” (May2011) and “Financement des universités : Vers une américanisation du modèle québécois?” (October 2008).

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com