So, many of Quebec’s student unions are on strike again (if you’re interested in a running total, check out this site). Only this time it’s not about tuition or even (mostly) about university funding – it’s about “austerity”. If I were the government, I would welcome this, because it’s likely to end in defeat for the radicals.
Let’s dial the clock back to 1986. Back then, there were two big pan-Quebec student organizations: the Rassemblement des associations étudiants Universitares (RAEU), roughly the equivalent of the present-day Féderation étudiante universitaire du Quebec (FEUQ), and the Association nationale des étudiants et étudiantes du Quebec (ANEEQ), which roughly represents the same unions as does the present-day Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), and sometimes goes by CLASSE (the CL standing for “coalition large”). The Liberals had replaced the PQ late the previous year, and there were rumours that their first budget would remove the freeze on tuition fees that had been in place since the late 1980s. It’s unclear that the Liberals did in fact intend to do this (in their first budget at least), but ANEEQ led an impressive student mobilization that definitively took this option off the table. RAEU, which had been more luke-warm about mobilization, lost members and folded soon thereafter.
Flushed with a sense of power, ANEQ called another strike in the fall of 1988 over what were a pretty minor set of revisions to the student loan act. The strike didn’t go very well: students could see the point in fighting a tuition fee freeze, less so with something that didn’t seem as negative. The next December, sensing weakness, the Liberals finally broke the tuition freeze and increased fees from about $550/year to $1,300/year (still well below the Canadian average, even then). RAEU re-invented itself as FEUQ, a more “presentable” option than the communist/syndicalist ANEEQ, but was still unable to stop the tuition hike.
(You think I’m exaggerating about communists? I vividly remember being at a student “summit” in February 1990 in Quebec City, at which the leaders of ANEEQ kept running to the back of the room every few minutes to get instructions from this dude no one had ever seen before. He was dressed in fatigues, combat boots, a red beret, and a Che Guevara beard. Totally surreal. And this was three months *after* the Berlin wall fell.)
Anyways, you can see where I’m going here in terms of the parallels. The 2012 student mobilization was superb, the best ever seen in Canada. But the conditions this spring just aren’t there for a repeat. The leadership is not as inspired (FEUQ is falling apart, ASSÉ’s Camille Godbout is no Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois), the issue at stake is much vaguer and much less likely to resonate among students, and most importantly the Couillard government has a public legitimacy that the late-stage Charest government, worn out by scandal, fatally lacked. It’s 1988 again, and the student movement is fighting the wrong fight.
In short, this strike is pure hubris on the part of the syndicalists. It will likely end in failure, and weaken the student movement. The door will then be open for the Liberals to finally raise tuition fees.