Saturday, May 17, 2014

Building coalitions against austerity — Some lessons from Quebec

Some important initiatives are being taken in my home town Ottawa, to fight the austerity offensive of governments and Big Business.

In the forefront is Solidarity Against Austerity (SAA), a newly formed network of community, student, labour, peace, environmental, and anti-poverty organizations, which is organizing to stop the cuts to our public services and defend workers’ rights.

On May 1st, SAA organized a march of several hundred people through city streets to the prime minister’s office; such demonstrations on May Day are an annual event now in Ottawa, but an innovation this year was a feeder march of several dozen workers who marched across the bridge from neighboring Gatineau, Quebec to join the Ottawa march.

On April 26 Solidarity Against Austerity organized a day-long “School on Past and Current Struggles” that drew about 75 activists to the meeting hall at Ottawa’s new left and progressive community centre, 25One Community at 251 Bank Street. The centre houses a number of progressive organizations, including the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and a branch of the left bookstore Octopus Books.

Those in attendance included a fair sampling of militants in local public and private sector unions, as well as activists from other social movements. One was Carleton University professor Hassan Diab, who is now, in the wake of an adverse ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal May 15, appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada against his extradition to France on a highly suspect charge of involvement in the 1980 bombing of a Paris synagogue.

After an excellent talk by David McNally on “Global Austerity and Global Resistance,” which set the context for the event, the school continued with a panel on “Learning from Our Past” featuring a film on the 1980 seminal public service clerks’ strike and presentations by Rosemary Warskett and Jean-Claude Parrot.

During the lunch break we were addressed by Hassan Husseini, the candidate for president of the Canadian Labour Congress of the Take Back the CLC campaign, aimed at reorienting the labour movement in a more progressive activist direction. Although the campaign had a major impact at the CLC convention in Montréal May 5-9, winning the support of some unions and many militants, Husseini withdrew his candidacy in order to ensure the victory of another candidate, Hassan Yussuff. The outgoing Secretary-Treasurer of the CLC, Yussuff managed to defeat the incumbent president Ken Georgetti in a close vote.

The afternoon session began with a panel on Fighting Austerity Today with speakers Natalie Mehra of the Ontario Health Coalition, former Solidarity Halifax activist Dave Bush and a representative of Ecology Ottawa. This was followed by a panel on Organizing Beyond Current Struggles, featuring a number of labour activists and, as wind-up speaker, Jérémie Bédard-Wien, a leader of the massive 2012 student strike in Quebec.

With his permission, I publish below the text of Jérémie’s remarks, which were delivered in an impeccable English.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

We’ve had a pretty exciting day today. We’ve heard from people from across the country: I’d like to tell you what’s happening in that nagging little province on the other side of the Ottawa River: two interesting events in particular.

One, we have a new provincial government. The Parti québécois have suffered a historic defeat at the polls — given their xenophobic Charter of Values, I think that deserves a round of applause. What is less deserving of your smiles is that the Liberals are back in power. The prime minister, the education minister and the health ministers are three doctors; two of them are ex-lobbyists for private healthcare investment funds. Coincidentally, the first budget they saw fit to cut was free dental exams for children under 10, who apparently don’t need good teeth while they attend 20%-more-expensive childcare!

What the election of the Liberals means is more austerity. What it means is dishonest negotiations with unions. What it means is the plundering of Northern Quebec for the benefit of mining and energy companies, with First Nations communities standing to lose the most.

But I have good news for you. Quebecers won’t go down without a fight. Four days before the election, a demonstration of 10, 000 people took to the streets of Montreal to demonstrate against austerity.

What’s interesting, apart from the fact that it wasn’t a hockey riot, is that it was held while the Parti québécois, the traditional “partner” of the Left, was still in power. Quebecers had enough of standing by while the PQ copy-pasted the agenda of the right. Quebecers are beginning to see that governments, blue or red, will not listen to popular will if we don’t force them to listen. And if we want to push for lasting change, we have to do much more than “get Harper out” in 2015.

The left has developed an annoying obsession, in Quebec, in Canada, and in much of the Western World, with elections. And we’ve often chosen to favor support for whatever stands as the left, followed by lobbyism when they’re in government, over the hard work of mobilization. The problem is that it doesn’t work.

No matter how many millions we spend in advertising, our demands are whispers compared to the shouts of the private sector. These governments want to demonstrate they can be “responsible managers.” And so, time and time again, we are told that their progressive promises will have to wait after millions and millions in cuts to balance the budget. When they do, they cut taxes.

Adopting the playbook of the right is a losing strategy. Instead, we should be radical, in the traditional sense of the term: look at the roots of what made the Left so strong.

The student movement of 2012 was successful precisely because it looked to 40 years of left history and unearthed the heart of our movements: mobilization and democracy.

We in the labor movement often deplore that so few members get involved in our activities. In my day job, as a union coordinator for a local of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, I have witnessed many disappointing assemblies, and many excuses to explain poor showing. “Our members are right-wingers”, I often heard. “They’re always complaining about dues, there’s no way.” But it’s surprising what happens when you actually talk to them. The labour movement of this country was built on mobilization.

We have to talk to our members, talk to their fears, share our worldview, and, more often than not, we may find they are quite different than what we expected. And then we have to invite them to a general assembly.

The Quebec student movement wasn’t successful because we had 22 million dollars to spend on ads against tuition increases. No, it was successful because every single one of those 300,000 students on strike had a part to play in shaping the direction of the movement, in directly democratic general assemblies held on every campus. That’s a tremendously effective way to foster engagement.

Participating in a general assembly where you have real, binding power to change the orientations of your movement, from the date of your local’s Christmas party to the recalling of your federation’s president, is a transformative experience. To me, it’s an experience that carries more weight and meaning than a vote in any election, and it’s an experience both borne out of struggle and leading to mobilization.

I’d like to congratulate Hassan Husseini for courageously challenging the leadership of Ken Georgetti of the Canadian Labour Congress. We need troublemakers like Hassan in our movements. But even his election — there’s no doubt in my mind Hassan will be elected, given Georgetti’s stellar leadership — will not be enough. The best cure against the old boys’ club is a much larger club: you and me, hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file members.

To go back to the student strike, our leaders were under constant pressure to negotiate worthless settlements. They were under constant pressure to be the reasonable ones and “stop the violence”; yet the horizontal structure of the student movement prevented them from caving in under that pressure. Six months passed, the threats mounted, and not one of our leaders called for the strike to end. It turns out people on the ground were just as radical as the people at the top, because people on the ground weren’t fighting against a tuition hike; they were fighting for systemic change.

I wasn’t lucky enough to attend David McNally’s presentation this morning, but I’d sure like to see him speak to every single audience like this one. In Quebec students understood, thanks to painstaking mobilization work, that the issue of tuition was part of a much broader international shift in the funding and objectives of higher education. In response, we wholly rejected that framework and asked for entirely free education.

Our challenge is similar. We cannot understand the attacks we are facing as a series of disconnected measures, and we have to escape the narrow possibilities afforded by the framework of neoliberalism. Instead of arguing about the economic feasibility of the changes we advocate, we should challenge the economic dogmas that point to only one way forward: more austerity.

There has been much talk about how defensive our demands are, particularly in the labour movement. And the truth is, we have to fight against those attacks — there’s no way around it. But we should go further. We cannot afford to fight our struggles in our own corners. As someone said earlier, we need a coherent global response to a global attack. We need to build coalitions that can agree on common demands and share a common analysis: coalitions that can win.

I’d like to give two examples, from Quebec, of successful coalition-building on the left.

First, I’d like to talk about Québec solidaire. In Quebec, when we looked at the National Assembly, we found three parties whose main point of contention was how quickly should we cut into social services. For years progressives reluctantly supported the PQ, only to be bitterly disappointed. For years they built modest electoral initiatives.

Now we have a proper left party, Québec solidaire, built on the idea that a political party can be active both in parliament and in the streets. I was lucky to work on Québec solidaire’s campaign in March and April. We fought our campaign on issues that were strangely absent from the national public debate: the environment, education, tax fairness and an inclusive Quebec independence. Yet almost 400,000 Quebecers chose to give their vote to a coalition of community groups, feminist groups and Trotskyist parties. Thanks to Québec solidaire, progressive Quebecers have a loud voice in the National Assembly.

Outside of the National Assembly, we’ve also managed to build bridges between community organizations, unions, student associations, and the radical left. CLASSE, the student coalition built for the student strike, was itself a coalition of student associations, each with their own realities and expectations, from all across the province. The student movement is also part of a broader coalition, the Red Hand Coalition, an assembly of community groups, militant unions and student organizations. That coalition set four objectives when it was founded, in 2010. Thanks to that focus, they were attained.

These coalitions are not passing alliances between self-interested groups. They reflect the values of internal democracy, mobilization, political education and commitment to structural change that we hold dear at the grassroots level. Most importantly, they reject the right’s playbook. They resort to demonstrations and long-term action plans to build leverage in order to achieve their demands. That’s where our collective power lies.

When we think we can’t achieve mass mobilization, when we think Canadians are too conservative anyway, when we think we should better listen to those who say we can’t do it, we set ourselves limits.

The takeaway of today is that those limits do not have a basis in reality. Ahead of the first Social Forum in the history of this country, I’m confident we are able to surpass them and build a Canadian response to the global alternative rising internationally. We can fully realize our collective power.

Thank you.

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