Since it was elected with a majority in 2014, the Quebec Liberal government of Philippe Couillard, has embarked on an aggressive austerity drive aimed at liquidating the social gains remaining from the class and national insurgency of the 1960`s and 70`s. Slashing budgets, opening up contracts to raid the pension plans of municipal employees, imposing new or higher user fees for public services, increasing the workload of teachers and nurses, eliminating programmes to safeguard health and the environment or provide assistance for vulnerable citizens — the government has cut a wide swath, targeting even privileged groups such as doctors.
Anti-austerity mobilisation showed promise this spring, spearheaded by a student strike, but could not be sustained. Expectations are now focussed on the renewal of the public sector contracts this fall.
The Common Front of public sector unions represents some 400,000 workers whose contracts will expire in October. The government insists on a two year wage freeze and three more years of increases tied to inflation. But everyone knows that more is at stake than a fight over wages. A defeat for the Liberals would place its entire austerity agenda in jeopardy. Even a sustained struggle by the Common Front could bolster the morale of the forces opposing the government.
The Liberals hold many cards in their hands. They exude an air of self-confidence and absolute conviction. Aided by a pliant media, they will try to portray government employees as lazy and pampered. Polls indicate support for the government and its austerity policies, at least for the moment. Couillard and his cronies can also rely on stepped up repression including, if required, a special law aimed at forcing striking employees back to work.
In the anti-austerity camp there is uneven consciousness and lack of strategic unity. The militant wing of the student movement, and many of the popular organizations that dot the Quebec political landscape, have absorbed the lesson of the 2012 ‘printemps d’érable’, that only a general or ‘social’ strike can defeat neo-liberal governments. In contrast, the bureaucratic union leaderships, are trying to revive the class compromise of 50 years ago. Their plea to negotiate in good faith falls on deaf ears. Undoubtedly, many union activists see the need for a radical re-orientation, where the unions champion the demands of other sections of society, make common cause with them, and recognize the intransigence of the bosses. Nevertheless, at the big union mobilisations, the last of which was in November 2014, the placards urging a return to collective bargaining were dominant, reflecting the strategic orientation of the union apparatus.
Missing is a cross-union tendency ready to fight for a revitalised labour movement by advancing a class struggle program
that rejects the concertationist line of the union brass. At present, there is no political leadership in Quebec capable of spearheading such a tendency. Although disposed in theory towards the perspective of a social strike against austerity, Quebec Solidaire (QS), lacks the base and the political will to build an opposition in the unions. While ensuring a presence at all the big anti-austerity mobilizations, QS does not provide leadership. Its role is reduced to being the (hoped for) beneficiary at the ballot box of the radicalizing dynamic in the movement.
With these caveats in mind, it is wise not to have exaggerated hopes. Nevertheless, the looming confrontation in the fall, may bring surprises. Quebec has a history of struggles becoming quickly generalised across the society. At the least, there will be lessons for future struggles which this bankrupt social system is sure to produce.