The ’96 strike : what if history repeated itself?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

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“Public funds are at an all-time low. We are going to have to make concessions. Students will have to pay their fair share”. Does this sound familiar to you?  This speech does not come from 2011, but from 1996, when the PQ government held the same discourse the Charest government is serving us today to justify raising tuition fees. The PQ was pretexting a crisis in public finances in order to raise tuition fees but was abruptly stopped in its tracks: the student movement was able to freeze tuition by calling a general strike. The question is: in 2012, will history repeat itself?

As of 94, federal transfer cuts that impacted higher education were used by Lucien Bouchard as a pretext to put forward his “zero deficit” policy, in an attempt to “cure” Québec public finances.

On the other hand, the government was given an ultimatum to act before October 23rd by the MDE (Movement pour le Droit à l’Éducation) a recently formed national student union, and ancestor of CLASSE, with threats of recourse to a general unlimited strike and civil disobedience.

MDE demands included maintaining free access to CEGEP education, a tuition freeze at the university level, the removal of recently instituted “cote R”  (or "R-score,") improving the loans and bursaries programme, and eliminating budget cuts.

On October 24th, while many associations were already on strike, the first protest took place, bringing together 1000 people, from which both FEUQ and FECQ were absent, having refused to participate or even envisage calling a general strike.

What these federations did do, however, was participate in a socio-economic summit held on October 30th and 31st in the hopes of convincing the government of the validity of their positions. Unsatisfied by the failure of their lobbying tactic they walked out of the meeting.  Just outside the meeting, 5000 had been been brought together in a protest coordinated by labour unions, community groups and the MDE.

On November 6th, the education minister announced her intention to reduce loans and bursaries funding instead of raising tuition fees, and that she was ready to consider revising the way the “cote R” was calculated. This was clearly insufficient for a movement that was growing in numbers. At this point, 60 000 students spanning 24 CEGEPS were already on strike, and universities were beginning to join the movement. At the peak of the movement, the number of students on strike totalled 100 000.

On the same day, the FECQ and FEUQ suggested the education budget be compressed by 150M$ in order to maintain the tuition freeze.

On the 14th of November, striking CEGEP student associations formed a coordination committee to which all were invited to join, claiming this committee was the only legitimate group entitled to negotiate a resolution of the ongoing conflict with the government. The FECQ firmly opposed itself to this new group. Pauline Marois, then education minister, took advantage of this division to discriminate between groups, choosing to recognize exclusively the FECQ and FEUQ as valid interlocutors.

A victorious outcome for the strike

November 18th marks the ministry of education’s announcement that it would maintain tuition and related fees as they were; however, this promise comes with a price to pay in the form of monetary and discriminatory measures: 700M$ are cut from the budget, restrictions imposed on loans and bursaries, tuition is increased for non-Québec residents, and a tax imposed on CEGEP students who fail classes.

With its last breath, the student movement mobilized 10, 000 people for a protest held on November 20th to contest these measures. The movement was reaching its end, but came out of it with its head held high: the unlimited general strike managed to maintain fees frozen until 2007.