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From The Socialist newspaper, 7 March 2012

Quebec: Students engage in 'indefinite' general strike action

Tens of thousands in battle against massive rise in tuition fees

Cedric Gerome, CWI

A powerful students' struggle is sweeping over Quebec, the French speaking province of Canada. Over 65,000 university and high school students are currently engaged in an indefinite general strike all over the province.

At the core of the dispute is the biggest neoliberal attack on education since 1990, with a dramatic increase in university student fees of $1,625, (a rise of around 75%) over the next five years.

Currently, 65% of students in Quebec finish their studies with an average debt of $14,000. The new measures, if passed, will hit young people from working class and middle class families even harder.

The right-wing provincial government of Jean Charest says that even after the increases, Quebec university students will still be paying less than the Canadian average for a higher education. This is a cynical attempt at 'divide-and-rule' policies aimed at pitching Canadians against the struggle of Quebec students.

What the establishment politicians do not explain by using this comparison, is the fast-developing social segregation taking place in the Canadian education system. According to official figures, the number of Canadian students contracting a debt of up to $50,000 has risen by an incredible 1,475% in the last four years!

CBCNews, reported: "Thirty years ago, tuition fees accounted for less than a seventh of university operating revenue. Now, it's more than a third, as governments increasingly download the cost to the students and their parents". This is the 'model' they want to import into Quebec.

Furthermore, comparatively low tuition fees in Quebec are a direct result of important student strikes (in 1996 and 2005) that partially succeeded in cutting across the attempts of successive governments to roll back the idea of accessible education for all.

To justify the increase in tuition fees, the government of Jean Charest and its supporters keep repeating that there is not enough money to finance education. Yet the same government says nothing about university rectors earning wages above $300,000 a year, does nothing about the $2.5 billion annually lost in tax evasion by the rich and big corporations, gives record amounts of public subsidies to 'vulture' private companies making enormous profits and sells off, at a discount, Quebec's mineral resources.

Escalating movement

Two weeks after the start of the 'hostilities', following a call by the 'Coalition large de l'association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante' (Classe - an umbrella organisation involving several student associations) the strike continues to spread, involving mass street protests, sit-ins, occupations and pickets.

After a first wave of students voted for the strike in mid-February, more have joined in. Several other student associations and unions are about to vote in favour of taking strike action in the coming days and weeks, meaning that tens of thousands more could add to, even double, the ranks of strikers in the near future.

This is already one of the biggest students' strikes in Quebec's recent history. A victorious outcome to such a movement would not fail to leave a profound mark, not only on every student who participates in the movement, but on the Quebec working population, which suffers cuts and a bosses' offensive on wages, jobs and conditions.

Indeed, the students are not the only ones affected by the neoliberal policies of the Charest government. In addition to the rising tuition costs, the introduction of a healthcare tax, the increases of electricity rates and other measures are part of this spending cuts and tax increase programme.

Students are not the only ones fighting back. Important industrial battles have taken place in recent months, such as at the Rio Tinto Alcan aluminium factory and the ArcelorMitall metal plant near Montreal. For the student movement to be successful, the struggle needs to be spread, especially to the organised working class.

In the context of the austerity policies being carried out, the students' movement forcing the government to retreat could serve as a spark for broader layers to move into action, not only in Quebec but across Canada.

Some initiatives have been undertaken to link up the student strike with other community and working class campaigns. This is among the proposals that Alternative Socialiste, the CWI section in Quebec, is advocating in the students' movement.

Alternative Socialiste calls for the students' struggle to appeal for active support beyond the students, to build a united mass movement against the rise of tuition fees and all cuts, and in opposition to the unpopular reforms of the Charest and Harper federal government.

Union leaders

However, at this stage, these sorts of initiatives are not advocated by the leaders of the trade union bureaucracies whose support for the student movement has remained at the level of pure rhetoric.

The Fédération provinciale du travail du Québec, the biggest union federation in the province, which organises over 600,000 workers and 44% of the unionised workforce in Quebec, expressed its solidarity with the students but, at the same time, its leaders argue for a rapid way out of the disputes. The union leaders have refused, so far, to engage in anything concrete to help build overwhelming support for the students' struggle.

When it comes to the main student union leaders, they fall short of providing a programme of action for victory. In part, this is because they fear losing control over their own membership.

Their aim is to keep the strike within 'safe channels', limiting it to a single issue. This is only laying the basis for a poor negotiated deal with the government which is what happened in 2005, the last generalised student movement in Quebec.

The education minister has made clear that he is determined, at all costs, to pass the measure and states it is part of the budget decision that cannot be modified. A similar determination to win should be the general stance on the students' side.

Polls already indicate that the support and sympathy for the student strike is mounting. This is despite the propaganda of the mass media, the attempts at criminalising the movement, and the police repression against students.

These polls indicate the potential for a broader movement in opposition to fees and cuts, which needs to be urgently built.

For example, a call should be made by student unions and workers' unions alike, as well as by all community campaigns, to join the students in their national demonstration on 22 March, in Montreal, and to take strike action on the same day, to build a united show of strength against the austerity policies of the government.

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In The Socialist 7 March 2012:

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Quebec: Students engage in 'indefinite' general strike action

Spain: Thousands in student protests against education cuts

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