From the Quebec student strike to the movement against neoliberalism
The 2012 student strike in Quebec is a lesson in successful struggle against austerity policies.
The strike was sparked by the announcement by the governing Parti libéral du Québec (PLQ) of Premier Jean Charest that tuition fees would increase 75 percent, from CND $2168 per year to $3793 by 2017. This was not the first time a liberal government decided on such an increase. During the neoliberal high point of 1994, the PLQ pushed through a drastic increase. Tuition fees had been frozen at $540 since 1968. Now at a stroke they rose to $1668. Subsequent attempts to raise tuition fees in 1996 and 2005 failed in the face of resistance from students, but there were nevertheless smaller increases in tuition, most recently by the Charest government in 2007.
In the latest attempt, the government argued universities were underfinanced and that Quebec’s global competitiveness required increased funding through a tuition increase. This argument set the students against the government. The fact that the government justified the increase by referring to a budget shortfall added a new quality to the matter. This made it clear that the government’s actual aim was to shift the costs of the economic crisis onto the students.
Resistance emerged mainly out of two groups. The first group consists of the students who saw a long-term neoliberal agenda at work in the tuition increase. This agenda’s aim is the lasting transformation of education into a commodified service and the reorientation of universities and colleges towards the interests of the private capitalist economy.1 However, these students argued that education is a social right and that democracy requires free access to education. They counterposed a “humanistic education” to a “commercialized” one.2 In doing so, the students could point out that Canada had ratified the 1976 United Nations “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” in which the right to tuition-free education is anchored.
This first group does not accept that future wage earners should indebt themselves to cover the costs of qualifying their labor power as a commodity. They represent an anti-neoliberal, indeed, an anti-capitalist perspective.
Yet even for the students from the second group, who are not fundamentally opposed to neoliberalism, the government’s argument was not valid. For if education, as neoliberals gladly emphasize, is the key to social mobility in the “knowledge society,” then it should not be dependent on the pocketbooks of parents, and even under the logic of the neoliberals, investment by “labor power entrepreneurs” in their education is no longer worthwhile. Years of stagnation in the incomes of post-secondary graduates has contributed significantly to the emergence of an academic precariat. In the face of declining opportunities for well-paying jobs, even these students see no point in paying more for an education just to indebt themselves.
The relationship between student debt and precarisation
This relationship is particularly dramatic in the United States. In the U.S., tuition fees increased by 1120 percent between 1978 and 2011; since 2000 in particular, the curve shoots steeply upwards.3 At the same time, real wages for 25-34 year olds with a bachelor’s degree fell dramatically: for men by 19 percent since 2000, for women by 16 percent since 2003.4 This is also related to the fact that only 21 percent of those jobs lost in the crisis, but 58 percent of newly created jobs, are found in the low-wage sector.5 In the meantime, the student debt bubble has grown to a total level of more than one trillion US dollars and is already being treated by economists as potentially the next mortgage crisis.
Even in Canada, where tuition is not nearly as high, almost sixty percent of graduates leave college or university with debt. The average level of debt is about $28,000, and repayment requires 14 years.6 Given the immense cost of education, half of all students under thirty still live with their parents. In Germany, in contrast, the share is still “only” about a quarter.
That conservatives also see an urgent need for action in view of student debt is related to its effects on the economy and to the crisis of social reproduction. According to Canada’s most prominent conservative newspaper, The Globe and Mail:
A mix of a weak economy, changing tastes and shifting demographics has been cited in the U.S. to explain a decline in home and car buying by twenty- and thirtysomethings. Student debt is likely to ensure this trend continues. You can’t become a fully functioning player in the economy if a big piece of every paycheck goes toward student debts. We need today’s students to become tomorrow’s big earners, and it’s not just to support the housing market, keep the retail sector afloat and supply customers to the financial services industry. Someone has to pay the taxes that fund social programs for the aging baby boom generation.7
The government has constantly pointed out that tuition fees in Quebec are the lowest in North America, and in point of fact, as the media never tires of emphasizing, tuition fees and debt levels here are “only” half the national average.
Evidently the government in Quebec City nevertheless failed to realize that the population considers these circumstances to be the basis of a more democratic access to higher education. Indeed, in every age cohort, the number of degree holders is ten percent higher in Quebec than in Canada overall. The CÉGEPs (community and vocational colleges) are particularly important with regard to the training of skilled workers. As a result, the government’s argument failed to catch on—either in Quebec or in the other Canadian provinces. In an opinion poll, 62 percent of Canadian students indicated that they would also likely participate in a student strike in their respective provinces.8
The organizations behind the student strike
Against this backdrop, protests against the government’s measure began shortly after its announcement. On February 13, 2012 the student organizations went on strike. The students formed strike committees, held general assemblies, organized alternative education events, and built alliances with organizations and social movements outside of the post-secondary institutions. By the middle of March, out of an entire student body of 400,000 in Quebec, 300,000 were on strike.
Of particular importance was the fact that strike participation did not remain passive. Massive demonstrations took place regularly. The biggest occurred on March 22 when over 200,000 people marched through the streets of Montreal, the largest ever in Quebec’s history.9
Nevertheless, the dynamic of the student strike did not represent a spontaneous outbreak of protest. Without the support of democratic student associations it would have never come into existence. The crucial organization was the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE), whose local organizations initiated the strike. The three other student organizations—Fédération étudiante collêgiale du Québec (FECQ), Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ), and Table de concertation étudiante du Québec (TaCEQ)—only decided to participate in the strike three weeks later.
CLASSE emerged out of the anti-globalization movement in 2001 (under the name of ASSE) and represents, within the self-management structures of the eighteen post-secondary institutions, about 44,000 students, or eleven percent of all students in Quebec. The Coalition is not only the most active but also the most democratic student association. While FECQ and FEUQ function according to the principles of representative democracy and ascribe comparatively little importance to local plenary assemblies, CLASSE operates on the principle of grassroots democracy. Decisions are taken in local plenary assemblies and then coordinated through the national delegate assembly as an imperative mandate. The strategic approach of the organization can be characterized as such:
CLASSE rejects lobbying, as it perceives the interests of the state as irreconcilable with those of the students; it believes in creating leverage against the government through grassroots mobilization and various means of escalating pressure.10
Behind this approach lies the realistic understanding that the state under capitalism does not represent the common good. In the name of global competitiveness, the neoliberal state cuts taxes for capital and firms, privatizes the services necessary for social reproduction (education, child-care, health and senior-care, etc.), and shifts them onto (working-class) families—in particular onto women. From this perspective, the goodwill of the government is not to be expected, and only resistance and countervailing power can be used to oppose these policies.
The success of the Quebec student strike resulted not least from the lessons of previous conflicts, above all from the failure of the 2007 attempt to organize a general strike against tuition fee increases. The movement drew two conclusions from that time: First, for success to be achieved a unified movement was needed, and second, broader alliances would have to be organized. In order to facilitate the collaboration of smaller local student associations, the main association reorganized itself as a coalition.
In addition, the success of the 2012 student strike rested upon the “Red-Hand-Coalition.” This coalition was formed in 2009 after finance minister Raymond Bachand announced an austerity budget, which—in the words of student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois—was the first budget that “clearly attacked public services, to terrify and privatize.” The Red-Hand-Coalition functioned as an alliance to resist the crisis and struggled against “not only the specific measures but also the vision of society and state that is inside this budget” and remained “the main coordination place for the social movements.”11
Altogether 125 organizations—trade unions from the healthcare and education sectors, municipal policy campaigns, anti-poverty initiatives, and environmental organizations—affiliated with the “Red-Hand-Coalition.” This alliance also benefitted from a new willingness on the part of the trade unions to fight back. At the convention of the CSN, the second largest trade union in Quebec with 300,000 members in the public and private sectors,12 a clearly militant position emerged and was accompanied by demands for a “social strike” against the neoliberal Charest government. In Montreal, the CSN regional organization also supports the left-wing Québec Solidaire party, founded in 2006. The alliance which ASSE sought with the trade unions—and the cooperation it invested for years prior to the strike—finally paid off.
The National Teachers Union (FNEEQ), as well as the CSN, CSQ, and FTQ came out against the tuition increase right from the start, though the trade unions were legally restricted in terms of what they could offer beyond symbolic support. As part of the new strategies for struggle, post-secondary teachers organized themselves into the alliance “Profs contre la hausse,” with 674 professors and teachers signing this group’s proclamation. Being a part of this alliance allowed the trade unions to support the strike more openly and flexibly, but it also conferred a greater legitimacy in the media, since it was not “the trade unions” taking action but rather a “citizens’” coalition of actual post-secondary teachers. With these organizations behind them, the strikers also benefited from spontaneous solidarity, as from the “mѐres en colѐres et solidaires“ (angry mothers in solidarity).
The failure of the peace talks
Confronted with massive resistance, the government found itself forced into talks with student representatives. In an age of austerity, as CLASSE itself realizes, the aims of the government and the protest movement are fundamentally antagonistic. While the government seeks to push the costs of budget cuts onto the lower classes, the protest movement strives to thwart the very same cuts from taking place at all.
The aim of the government was, therefore, to take the wind out of the movement’s sails by signaling a willingness to talk. Prolonged talks, or rather, “negotiations,” can make confrontational escalation, on which the protest was based, more difficult and could have led to a step-by-step demobilization of the movement. The prospects for this strategy’s success were, indeed, quite sound. In contrast to CLASSE, FECQ and FEUQ pursued a strategy of lobbying aimed at persuading the government to adopt a policy more congenial to students. For this reason, the latter associations were invited to talks by the government during the 2005 strikes but ASSE was not.
Yet FECQ and FEUQ learned from the mistakes of the past. They withdrew from negotiations with the government and, in this way, maintained unity on the strike front. An apparent concession by the government—its plan to raise tuition by 80 percent over seven years instead of five—fell flat. More so, the students took this proposal as an affront. From that point on, large demonstrations took place in Montreal every night. At the beginning of May, severe confrontations occurred between students and police outside the PLQ convention in Victoriaville; two students were seriously injured and 106 taken into custody. As a result, Pauline Marois, leader of the opposition Parti Québécois (PQ), criticized the government’s “authoritarian” tactics.
At the same time, representatives of all the associations had restarted negotiations. Though the government offered to eliminate some special fees within the scope of the tuition hike, the central demand of the students, a permanent tuition freeze, fell by the wayside. When the result of negotiations was put to a vote, the negotiators distanced themselves from the preliminary agreement, and the vote ended in a catastrophe for the government: the deal was defeated at all post-secondary institutions. On May 14, four days after the defeat, the minister of education, Line Beauchamp, was forced to resign.
Instead of respecting the students’ democratic decision and returning to the negotiating table with the will to respond to their legitimate demands, on May 18, literally overnight, the government passed—together with the votes of the right-wing populist party Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ, founded in 2011 by the billionaire Charles Sirois and François Legault, the former head of Air Transat)—“Loi 78,” an emergency law designed to be valid for one year. It ended the current academic year by means of a directive and limited freedom of assembly. By making the most meager reference to “national security,” this law enabled the police to forbid events and enacted a complete ban on assemblies at universities. In addition, it severely limited university workers’ right to strike. All in all, the law aimed to paralyze the main actors and organizations taking part in and driving the resistance; contravention of the law was to be punished with high fines.
This course of action divided the population into two camps. The law was welcomed by Yves-Thomas Dorval, president of the employers’ association, and by some sections of the population. On the other hand, it was denounced by (some) opposition political parties, the trade unions, and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). The Quebec Bar Association repudiated the law and demanded the government return to the negotiating table. Louis Masson, head of the Quebec Bar Association, described the law as unconstitutional.
Student leaders called for civil disobedience. On the night following the adoption of the law, police clashed violently with demonstrators. A website with the motto “Arrêtez-moi, quelqu’un!” caused a sensation by publishing, eventually, 5305 photographs of individuals or groups willing to engage in civil disobedience.
From student strike to anti-neoliberalism movement
Emergency Law 78 boomeranged on the government. Many citizens who originally did not approve of the strikes now supported the protests. The demonstration against the increase in tuition fees, planned for the 100th day of the student strike on May 22 in Montreal, turned into a massive protest against the government. CSN, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), as well as the left-wing Québec solidaire (QS) and Option National all supported the protest. The demonstration was by far the largest in Canadian history. Over 400,000 people—more than five percent of Quebec’s population—marched through the streets of Montreal. Quebec became the symbol for student and anti-austerity protests worldwide. Prominent artists such as Michael Moore and the rock band Arcade Fire expressed their support publicly; demonstrations in solidarity took place across Canada and in New York, London, and Paris.
However, according to opinion polls, a majority still supported the law and the tuition increases. Ultimately it was the repressive impacts of the emergency law that tipped public opinion. On the night of May 23 alone, police arrested 513 demonstrators in Montreal, 150 in Quebec City, and 36 in Sherbrooke. In total between February and September, 3387 people were taken into custody. The government, which had been struggling for a long time with several corruption scandals, now appeared to many Québecois as repressive and illegitimate.13 The number of participants in the nightly mass protests, which occurred simultaneously in several locations across Quebec, multiplied by the thousands.
With this, the character of the movement changed fundamentally. Out of the student strike emerged a mass popular movement. Correspondingly, the demands also broadened; the increase in power of the financial elite, social inequality, and the dismantling of the public sector became issues. The political science professor Anna Kruzynski aptly noted after May 22:
The tuition hike is part and parcel of a neoliberal agenda […]. It’s not isolated from other measures that aim to privatize public services […]. What the student movement has managed to do is to bring this debate into the forefront beyond the question of tuition fees.14
The “hardest-fought student strike in Quebec (and Canadian) history”15 resulted in the “most powerful challenge to neoliberalism on the continent.”16 The movement was now increasingly referred to as the “Printemps érable”, the Maple Spring (a simultaneous reference to the national symbol of Canada, the maple leaf, and to the Arab Spring).
In the weeks after the massive demonstration of May 22, the protest expanded to almost all districts of Montreal. Institutions of self-governance emerged in several city districts in the form of the Assemblées populaires autonomes de quartier. On May 31, with the student strike itself still 150,000 strong, the government finally withdrew from negotiations.
Early elections held on September 4 resulted in the increasingly unpopular PLQ’s expected defeat. Premier Jean Charest was defeated in his own electoral district and stepped down as party leader as a result. With 32 percent of the vote and 54 out of 125 seats (an increase of seven), the PQ became the largest party in the National Assembly of Quebec. Student leader Leo Bureau-Blouin was also elected on this party’s ticket. Québec Solidaire also profited from the Maple Spring. In contrast to 2008, the left-wing party increased its share of the vote from 3.8 to 6 percent, thus becoming the fourth strongest force. In three (separatist orientated) working-class districts of Montreal, they achieved a vote share of over 20 percent. In the wake of the Maple Spring, the party doubled its membership to 13,000.
Yet a big landslide failed to materialize. Though the PLQ clearly lost, the CAQ made gains, with the result that the new PQ minority government will depend on the right-wing opposition for votes. On September 20, the new government froze tuition fees. In addition, it announced the abrogation of “Loi 78” (which, however, was only possible with the PLQ’s and CAQ’s cooperation).17
Lessons from the movement
First off, it can be stated that the student movement achieved a victory in the “Maple Spring.” The dramatic increase in tuition fees sought by the government is off the table. Even more so, the protests share responsibility for ultimately chasing the government out of office. Because of this, it seems unlikely in the short-term that a renewed attempt at a drastic tuition increase will be attempted. Even if the success was undoubtedly based on specific circumstances, some conclusions can nevertheless be drawn that are also relevant for movements outside of Quebec.
First, the Maple Spring makes clear that resistance to austerity policies can be quite successful when it is based on the protection of essential social-welfare achievements from which a large majority of the population benefits. This applies particularly when the population considers these achievements to be part of their “identity” and the identity of the country, and the movement defends them as such.18
Second, in the context of increasing labor market competition and individual strategies for survival, the knowledge that solidarity and collective struggle are worthwhile is of immense importance. Every success shows that the prevailing policies are by no means without alternatives. Because these protests make the state budget a political issue, they prove that alternatives always exist—as long as one fights for them. The best evidence for all this are the (in total) nine student strikes that have taken place since 1968, which have resulted in tuition fees in Quebec being the lowest in North America. At the same time, the successful struggle for free education is a refutation of the theory of immiseration. The successes of the Quebec student movement over the decades show that it is not the “maximum misery” of high tuition fees that led to the movement but rather—at least in this case—the open spaces created by low fees which encouraged the movement. Additionally, those with high levels of educational (or other) debt—and facing increasing fears of job loss—are also less likely to mount a defense against deteriorating working conditions.
Third, the chances for successful protests are considerably greater if they are not based solely on spontaneity but rather on long-term organization. “This strike did not spring from some spontaneous wave of revolutionary romanticism. It was organized over a long period of time by activists who mobilized support among their local CÉGEP and university student associations.”19 Furthermore, the Quebec student strike would not have proceeded so successfully without the Red-Hand-Coalition’s networking of social struggles. Here again: a spontaneous protest only becomes fully effective if a strong organization and a broad alliance of social forces have prepared the ground for its emergence.
Lastly, the reference by the “Printemps érable“ to the “Printemps arabe” was an important factor in the success of the movement. Before the Arab Spring, political conditions seemed to be fossilized—and not only in the Arab world. Since then, mutual references to movements and the internationalization of symbols and forms of political action have invigorated social struggles. Petrified relations have started to move—it’s time to make them dance.
Translated from the German by Sam Putinja.
1 Eric Martin and Simon Tremblay-Pepin, “Québec Students Teach the World a Lesson,” Canadian Dimension, May 2012, p. 21.
2 Louis-Philippe Véronneau, “De l’éducation humaniste à l’éducation marchande,” Presse-toi à gauche!, November 13, 2012.
3 Bloomberg, August 15, 2012.
4 New York Times, March 2, 2012.
5 Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2012.
6 Financial Post, September 5, 2012.
7 The Globe and Mail, August 29, 2012.
8 The Globe and Mail, May 7, 2012.
9 Andrea Levy and Fanny Theurillat-Cloutier, “Le Printemps érable: An Education in Dissent,” Canadian Dimension, May 2012, p. 20.
10 Martin Robert, “The Organizations Behind Québec’s 2012 Student Strike,” Canadian Dimension, May 2012, p. 28.
11 Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, “Student Strike, Popular Struggle,” People’s Voice, June 1, 2012.
12 In 1980 CSN officially renounced class struggle but maintains a reputation as being the most left-wing trade union. Since 1990 it is openly “separatist”, and advocates for Quebec’s independence from Canada.
13 Sabine Friesinger, “Reporting the Strike: Campus Television Embeds Itself in the Student Movement,” Canadian Dimension, May 2012, p. 25.
14 Cited in Democracy Now, May 25, 2012.
15 Levy and Theurillat-Cloutier, ibid., p.19.
16 Guardian, May 5, 2012.
17 Richard Fidler, “Quebec’s Election: An Initial Balance Sheet,” The Bullet 695, September 12, 2012.
18 Dacid Camfield, “Quebec’s Red Square Movement,” The Bullet 680, August 13, 2012.
19 Robert, ibid., p. 28.