Québec’s Labour and Left Movements:

A Shadow of Hope after the Collapse

by Marc Bonhomme

The following text was prepared for the Socialism 2009 conference, organized by Socialist Action in Toronto, Ontario, May 22–24, 2009.

Graph 1

[][]Rounded Rectangular Callout: The glorious period of the 60&#821    []

Graph 2

Ministère du travail du Québec

From the hope of the Marche des femmes, in the fall of 2000, to the capitulation of the public sector union movement in December 2005

The beginning of the new millennium saw a surge of the fight back movement

·  La Marche de femmes (Fall 2000)

·  The anti-FTAA counter summit of people of the Americas (April 2001)

·  The world Iraq anti-war demonstration (March 2003), especially large in Montréal

The main characteristics of the first phase of this surge were political and internationalist, the consequences of the 1999 Seattle protest and of the first World Social Forum in 2001. It put Québec on the left world map. The downside of this surge was a weaker implementation as far as social struggles (labour, housing, environment…) are concerned. But labour struggles did increase (see graph 2). The reverse was true for the political side. The astonishing electoral results (24%) of the April 2001 by-election in the Mercier riding (in the center of Montréal) for a broad left candidate revealed the potential for a left political party.

The second phase of this surge, from the fall of 2003 to December 2005, was mainly social but with a positive though problematic political development. As dramatically shown by graph 2, after the increase of the first phase, there was another increase in 2005 due to many one day uncoordinated strikes in the public sector (all teachers, all hospital workers, all civil servants). This increase is relatively small compared to the 60’s and 70’s as graph 1 demonstrates. But it does not show the largest and deepest student strike ever, in 2005. It also does not show an important mobilization of the ecology movement in that period. And, especially, it does not show the occupation, in 2004, of an Alcan aluminum mill for almost a week by the workers, backed by the local population (in the Saguenay area), and finally quashed by the top brass of the FTQ (Féderation des travailleur(e)s du Québec).

That upheaval, lead by the unions of the public sector, ended abruptly in December 2005, not by a defeat after a fierce battle, but by a total capitulation to the Liberals’ special law. Graph 2 shows the drastic decline in struggles in 2006, still not recovered by 2008 and early 2009. It is not so much that the unions’ top brass went into the fight divided, to the point of engaging in raiding each other’ members, but more importantly that they stuck to the nationalist “concertation” (class collaboration) strategy institutionalized by the PQ in socio-economic summits of the late 90’s. And they adhered to this fatal strategy even after the Liberals had stated in non-ambiguous terms that there would not be this time a last minute deal in the middle of the night.

That the “concertation” was the main problem, not the lack of unity which was more of a consequence, was proven by the relatively successful student strike. It was the more radical but smallest student association, l’ASSÉ, which started the strike forcing the two main pro-PQ associations to follow in their steps. It is true that having joined the movement, the two pro-PQ organisations took control of the negotiations and accepted a minimally victorious deal, blocking the government’s plan but not improving the status-quo, and not linking the strike with the ongoing teachers’ strike for which the union top brass is also responsible. In that sense, the lack of militant unity became a problem which led to a not so positive balance sheet: why such a long and deep strike for so little?   

The first phase of the 2000-2005 surge was the mother of Québec solidaire, the new left political party founded in February 2006, as a merger of Françoise David’s (leader of la Marche des femmes) Option citoyenne, without a program and a strategy, with the political party Union des forces progressistes (UFP), with a anti-liberal program and a strategy (and a electoral experience). The assets brought to the fusion by the UFP were completely ignored to the point that Québec solidaire still has no program after more than three years of existence. Nevertheless, the positive aspect in the balance sheet of the 2000-2005 surge is certainly the founding of a socially significant left party after the promising but abortive trials of 1905–07 and of 1944–47.

But this founding had also a father, the second phase with its strategic defeat of December 2005. The negative aspect is the electoralism of Québec solidaire and its expression in lack of leadership accountability (verticalism), early bureaucratization and programmatic social-liberalism, recently sugar-coated with a half baked anti-capitalist discourse (in “Le Manifeste du premier mai”) a lot milder than that of the German Left Party’s and radical left neo-Keynesian Oskar Lafontaine.

This negative aspect of QS is due to a wrong balance sheet of the 2000-2005 fightback surge, namely, that demonstrations and strike movements end in defeats while elections give unexpected positive results exemplified by the election of an MNA (in Mercier) in 2009. In fact, both the women’s movement and the “mouvement populaire” (called anti-poverty in Ontario), from which come the bulk of the membership of Québec solidaire, have not mobilized at a significant level, contrary to the union, student and ecological movements, in the second phase of the 2000-2005 surge and since then. Their defeats, especially for social housing and an anti-poverty legislation, led them to quit “la rue” (the street) for “les urnes” (the ballot box).

This is especially true in the aftermath of la Marche des femmes. (The Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ) is now trapped in a divisive and sterile debate of their own making on the Islamic veil instead of mobilizing to defend Philippina domestic workers.) This important organization of women stopped mobilizing in 2000 for the very popular demand of a minimum wage of 8.50 $ after the PQ government insulted them with a 10¢ raise from 7.00 $. They then made an electoralist turn, especially the main group around Françoise David, now the almost undisputed leader of Québec solidaire.

As for the main groups of the anticapitalist left - Gauche socialiste (Fourth International), International Socialists and the Parti communiste du Québec (PCQ) (a split from the Parti communiste du Canada on the independence issue)- they became recognized as “collectives” of Québec solidaire after having been scrutinized by a long and thorough bureaucratic process and after having renounced the organization of an anti-capitalist tendency openly critical and offering an alternative programmatic pole as, for example, in the German Left Party. This tactical alliance with the social-liberal and electioneering leadership was accepted on the basis of a one-sided and rather complacent analysis of the reason for the existence of Québec solidaire. To use my previous analogy: for them, Québec solidaire had a mother but no father. Their (Gs`s and IS`s) happy go lucky lengthy analysis of the political situation in early 2006 to explain the founding of Québec solidaire completely ignored the strategic defeat of December 2005, not even mentioning it.

A New Rebound after the Catastrophe?

As shown by graphic 2, the December 2005 capitulation threw the fightback movement into the doldrums. But the graph also shows a resumption of struggles, albeit weak, from 2006 to 2008 and maybe 2009. One can notice some victories against non-Québécois bosses (Petro-Canada and the CSN’s Hotel “coordinated negotiations”), a very hard, long and loosing fight against Québécor on the issue of the restructuring of their tabloids newspapers and a winning streak of strikes of University teachers and teaching assistants since 2007 (Concordia, Laval), 2008 (Université du Québec à Trois Rivières) ending with the very militant and media reported seven weeks strike at Université du Québec à Montréal in 2009 backed by sporadic student strikes.

The one year lock-out at the Petro-Canada Montréal refinery ending in late 2008 was especially noticeable as the company refused to apply the Canadian pattern to its Québec workforce. Hence, this lock-out had a clear chauvinistic aspect that went unnoticed by the left, Canadian and Québécois, even if the Canadian workers did financially back their Québécois fellow-workers. One can only guess if the national contradiction reinforced the class contradiction in the remarkable hotel “coordinated negotiations” organised by the CSN ( Conseil des syndicaux nationaux) and involving 40 unions of which two are still on the picket lines to this day. The strategy of striking together in the summer time, the heavy tourist season, first by one-day warning strike then with an unlimited one is especially efficient in this mainly non free-trade affected sector. (A similar strategy is being tested in the food sector with 38 stores.)

Québécor’s one year lock-out of the tabloid Le Journal de Québec in 2007-2008 and the actual one of Le Journal de Montréal started in January 2009 are horses of another colour. This “jewel” of Québec Inc. is infamous for its hard line against unions whether in Québec or in the USA and in France. The Journal de Québec workers managed the remarkable feat of publishing an alternative daily on paper for the duration of the lock-out with the backing of the population and even some merchants. But the conflict was lost because the union top brass failed to organize that spontaneous sympathy. As for the on-going and more important Journal de Montréal lock-out and considering that Québécor also own the Sun tabloids in Canada and use their employees as strike-breakers for some tasks, would it not be possible for the Canadian left to intervene in some ways? As for now, the lock-out employees are publishing a daily web paper. But they seem to be isolated.

It is possible to explain the small upturn in militancy by a good employment situation, as shown by the unemployment rate curve on graph 2, at least until the fall of 2008. Even since then, the economic crisis has hit Québec less than Canada, especially Ontario because of its auto/steel industrial collapse and the importance of its financial sector. In Québec, the traditional textile/clothing sector has been in crisis since the signing of the FTA, the forestry sector since the “solving” of the USA-Canada lumber dispute, the drastic reduction of the demand of newspaper and the plundering of the forests. The on-going agony of Abitibi-Bowater is its last chapter. For now, the important Montréal pharmaceutical sector does not seem to be affected but on-going mergers might reduce employment later on. The software sector seems unaffected for now, and the same for the mass transit (bus, subway cars, locomotives) industry which might even benefit from government investments. But the very important aviation sector is being hit hard as too is the aluminium industry. As for the financial sector, it is not that big compared to Ontario. Finally, the large hydro-electric projects coming on line for export purposes soften the effects of the crisis. Thus the relative diversification of the Québec economy, compared to the Canadian, provides something of a cushion against the crisis al least for now.

The crisis has hardened the attitude of the bosses. Of the eleven conflicts going on, seven are lock-outs. What will most affect the left-right correlation of forces in the near future will be what happens in the public sector where a global collective agreement has to be renewed in 2010. After the collapse of December 2005, starting in 2007, it was the university teachers, teaching assistants and other workers, not included in the global collective agreement that went into battle with some success. In fact, the militancy of the seven weeks UQAM teachers’ strike, backed by strikes of various lengths by the majority of UQAM students, from February to April 2009, surprised everybody including the strikers. Not only did they win a good wage settlement, better than the imposed collective agreement of the public sector, but they won the hiring of 145 new teachers and this in the middle of a major financial crisis at UQAM. Again, it was possible to perceive an element of national oppression in the background of this strike because of the under-financing of UQAM, a State teaching university without much endowment, compared to McGill or even the less prestigious Anglophone university, Concordia.

The happy ending and combativeness of this strike seems to have provoked a sense of optimism that served as a prelude to the announcement on May 11 by the unions’ top brass of a reconstitution of the historical “Front commun” of 1972, even larger because it comprises everybody without exception, with a solemn no-raiding commitment. Lacking in their announcement, based on a superficial but correct balance sheet of the 2005 catastrophe, is a commitment to break away from “la concertation” and thus to prepare for a major confrontation. It is naïve to promise a quick settlement before the end of the present collective agreement, which almost never happened in the past, with a relatively important wage increase of 11% over three years plus a productivity bonus while the crisis is provoking wage and pension freezes and reductions and creating unemployment. Maybe they believe that the crisis will be over by 2010, like some pundits predict, disregarding the unchanged income inequality and the mountain of debts to be digested by the system, both of which portend a long depression after the end of the crisis…when it ends.

It must be said that the analytical emphasis on the lack of unity as the main problem of the last round of the public sector negotiations, including by analysts of the anticapitalist left who should know better, does not help to focus the attention on the class collaboration issue. Fortunately, perhaps stung by the founding of the French Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA) whose radical anti-crisis emergency program is starting to be known in Québec and is such a contrast to Québec solidaire`s mild neo-Keynesian response, Gauche socialiste has just begun to seriously criticize the bureaucratic union leaders, especially after their praise for the last Liberal budget, and also to criticize the recent pro-capitalist “Manifeste du premier mai” issued by the QS leadership and published without even minimal discussion by the rank and file.

Let’s hope that the ideological anticapitalist collectives of Québec solidaire will start soon talking about the necessity of preparing a political general strike to create the winning conditions of a victorious “Front commun”, which would necessitate a drastic fiscal and budget reform driving towards a substantial increase in public services and social programs. It is easy to realize that such a left turn would require that the people of Québec, to avoid a gigantic flight of capital, acquire the power to expropriate the banks, the economic core of federal oppression, which receive the bulk of government aid even in Canada where they are in no trouble at all. This means putting “l’indépendance” at the centre of the anti-crisis strategy. Should not the labour and popular movements talk about that in a renewal of “les États généraux” which launched, in 1967, the huge mobilizations leading to the 1972 “Front commun”?