Over the past few days students at eight of fourteen CEGEPs (junior colleges which provide both pre-university and professional degrees) have voted in general assemblies to end their strike and return to class. Students at the two CEGEPs who did vote to continue the strike, Vieux-Montreal and St. Laurent, will reconvene general assemblies on Friday morning to reconsider their decision.
It appears as if the strike is winding down, or at least going dormant, with many schools promising to revisit the issue after the election. It would, however, be a mistake to assume that the resumption of classes means an end to the broader social movement born out of the longest student strike in Quebec history.
Anecdotal evidence from students voting this week seems to show that while most continue to support the aims of the strike, and remain committed to the goal of broad social change, they fear the power of Quebec's Bill 78, now known as Law 12, to erase their semester and impose hefty fines on individuals and student associations who support the strike.
In fact, in the mother of all poison pills, Bill 78 allows the government to prevent a student union from collecting dues from its members if it supports a strike which impedes the return to classes, at a rate of one semester for each day that the strike continues.
This controversial clause, one of many in a law condemned as a violation of basic human rights by everyone from the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights to the Quebec Bar Association, would allow Jean Charest's Liberal government to simply eliminate pesky student unions who continue to strike, and leave students at affected schools without representation for a decade or longer.
Bill 78 also mandated the early return to classes, with striking schools set to complete the interrupted spring semester over the next few weeks. The threat that a continued strike could simply eradicate that semester, and leave students as much as a year behind in their education, was also clearly a factor as students voted this week.
Add to these concerns the oft-repeated, but only somewhat accurate, idea that a continued strike would play into Jean Charest's hands as he seeks another mandate in the provincial election set for September 4th, and it's not hard to understand why students chose to put at least a temporary end to their strike.
In lieu of a continued strike, many student associations are focusing on ramping up their political presence in the election campaign, and in the streets. Many schools will hold a one day strike on August 22nd, the latest in a series of monthly demonstrations on that date which have attracted hundreds of thousands of Quebeckers. Organizers have called for a half million people to take to the streets in defiance of Premier Charest and his Liberal government, a number they last flirted with on May 22nd, when an estimated three to four hundred thousand took to the streets.
The three main student groups are also targeting vulnerable Liberal ridings, where student volunteers will use traditional electoral tactics like door knocking to convince voters to turn their back on the government. FEUQ President Martine Desjardins told rabble.ca that an appeal for election volunteers posted on their website received over a thousand sign-ups in its first twenty-four hours. In a close race like this one, a strong student campaign could tip the balance in enough ridings to determine the victor.
On this note, it will be fascinating to see the campaign unfold in Sherbrooke, the home riding of embattled Premier Charest, and a riding the student federations have confirmed they will target. A rare riding level poll was released over the weekend showing Charest trailing his Parti Quebecois challenger by fifteen points. It would be foolhardy to write off an experienced campaigner like Charest, but his seeming vulnerability has already forced him to take a break from the provincial campaign to pound the pavement in his own riding. The question of what happens if voters return his government to power, but he is defeated, will no doubt continue to hang over him as this campaign progresses.
In addition to a targeted riding level campaign, student federations will be pushing their members to vote, and increase an abysmal youth participation rate in Quebec elections. While many students rightly point out that replacing Charest with PQ leader Pauline Marois will not bring about the type of broad social change they are seeking, and that democracy does not mean simply voting every four years, students would be foolhardy not to exercise their power to bring down a government which has essentially accused them of being terrorists for exercising their right to strike and demonstrate.
So as the strike hits the pause button, and students focus on defeating the Liberals and mobilizing their supporters for a series of demonstrations which will culminate on the 22nd, don't be fooled into thinking the broader movement they represent has been defeated.
The issue of governmental priorities, and how a government which has reduced its revenue by over ten billion dollars in the past decade, mostly in tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy, can claim poverty when it comes to funding social priorities like education and healthcare, has never been more prominent on the political scene.
The students put it there. They moved close to forty percent of Quebeckers to support the cause of accessible education, and forced many more to question why we can't follow the European model of free, or nearly free, post-secondary education.
They have already taken down two education ministers, and seem likely to be able to claim credit for taking down a premier, and perhaps even his entire government. As the strike winds down students have much to feel proud about, not least their ability to mobilize global sentiment around the now universally relevant issue of austerity and neo-liberalism.
In Egypt they have a saying I find particularly appropriate now. "The people know the way back to the square".
If the next government, regardless of political stripe, continues Charest's contemptuous and dismissive treatment of our society's youth, the students will return to the streets with a vengeance.