April 25, 2010

MASS STRUGGLES SHAKE CHAREST LIBERALS, PV Québec Bureau, April 16-30, 2010 issue of People's Voice

Québec's political landscape is becoming increasingly volatile. A number of recent mass demonstrations by labour and other peoples' organizations have rocked the province with tens of thousands of people hitting the streets. As People's Voice goes to press, a major government scandal appears to be coming to a head, and a recent poll by Léger Marketing and Le Devoir newspaper has announced that Jean Charest's Liberal government is at an historically all-time low approval rating.

The major direction of public anger has been against the Charest Liberals' budget, unveiled in late March. Over 12,000 students, workers and community groups mobilized on April 1 against the budget. On April 11, 50,000 people rallied against the budget in Québec City. These huge protests came just weeks after the March 20th mobilization of 75,000 people in Montréal under the banner of the Front Commun (Common Front) - a coalition of trade unions representing almost all public and para-public sector workers in Québec (see our April 1-15 issue).

According to labour and social movements, the Liberal budget has attracted strong opposition because it targets workers and the poor through increased fees and taxes, including a $200 per-person "contribution" for health care and higher tuition fees. The budget also steps up a sharp privatization attack on public services.

"In fact, the budget is probably illegal because of its reforms to health care," Robert Luxley, editor of the Québec communist newspaper Clarté, told People's Voice in an interview. "It violates the Canada Health Act and provokes a federal-level attack on Medicare."

"People in Québec are mobilizing now because they think enough is enough," Luxley said. He pointed to the case of the labour unions where the Common Front is negotiating against a government position of five per cent wage increases in five years. "This is after a two year wage freeze, which is a decrease with inflation, and many years of other cutbacks."

The government is demanding a series of harsh austerity measures from the Common Front's members. For example, nurses' overtime will essentially be abolished, reclassified as regular work hours. Sick leave pay will be regressively reduced from 80 per cent to 50 per cent.

At the same time as the budget, the Liberals have announced they will build two major university hospitals in Montréal as "public-private partnerships", in spite of strong public opposition and a damning review of P3s by Québec's Auditor General. The contracts are worth more than three billion dollars. In the case of the Montréal University Research Centre, the contract will be awarded to a former Québec Liberal Party official.

"Over the past year there have been a lot of revelations showing the government is linked in an illegal way to the big bosses - especially in the building industries who are the first beneficiaries of the government's bailout packages," Luxley said. Radio Canada (CBC) has just revealed statements by the former Minister of Justice, Marc Bellemare, that construction companies have conspired with Charest to appoint three Québec judges.

The Radio Canada revelations show that some of the companies are possibly linked with the Mafia or the Hells Angels, Luxley told PV. "But that is not the major point. We see that the bosses have decided to make the laws for the government. This again proves what the Communists say [about capital and the state] and what happens `behind the curtain!'"

"At this moment we think it is necessary for the Common Front to place itself at the core of the fight-back and make a bigger commitment to the broader people's struggle," Luxley said. "It is not enough to stay the course and continue fighting on their immediate bargaining demands. The Common Front must go further, denouncing the budget."

Québec solidaire, the province's left party with one member in the National Assembly, has called for the resignation of the government. Luxley also regards as very positive the resolution adopted on April 9 by some of the health sector unions in the Confederation of National Trade Unions (CSN), calling for the government to resign.

"This is an excellent idea. What is needed is a political general strike against the budget," Luxley said.

If the spirit of resistance is being taken up by the people, the evidence lies in the April 1 action of the students and workers in Montréal, and April 11 mass mobilization in Québec City, according to Luxley.

The student demo featured a larger turn-out than recent years. Bold speeches by youth and community activists suggested the struggle was a class conflict. In Québec the rally came together under the direction of a man better known to the public as an organizer of pop music concerts. It bought out people from the broad sweep of civil society.

"While the Québec demonstration was, perhaps, `mixed' - for example, there were evidently some anti-taxation voices - it is correct to say that the workers and poor people pay far too much taxes. The people are seeing clearly that the rich do not pay enough," said Luxley.

He noted that the Communist Party had longstanding demands for a progressive tax system based on ability to pay, including increasing the corporate tax rate to 29 per cent, ending tax loopholes and shelters and jailing corporate tax evaders, while eliminate taxes on incomes under $35,000/yr and abolishing the regressive GST and QST. "These kinds of demands could be won through the type of struggle we see developing with the Common Front," he said.

Following the Common Front's mass action on March 20, the government publicly called for a flurry of negotiation. Before long, however, it was clear the government was not willing to change any of its demands and talks remain jammed. Instead, the Charest Liberals put forward their budget as a way to divide the people from the demands of the Common Front, Luxley suggested.

"I think both sides are very conscious that this is a battle to win the public's opinion," Luxley said. "The government is running a series of large ads in the media. They are suggesting that cutbacks will save public services. It is blatantly hypocritical."

The ads say that the debt load because of the economic crisis can be re-paid - 38 per cent by the public and corporations, and 62 per cent by the government itself. In fact, Luxley explained, this means the main victims of the cutbacks will be the workers and people at large.

Meanwhile, the Charest Liberals are touring Québec, meeting with local business associations and boards of trade. "They desperately want to be the hero of big business at all costs," Luxley said. "Charest knows this is the Liberals' last mandate. They are not afraid to use their powers."

"The Common Front exists because of the past experience of the trade union movement in Québec," he added. "When the unions were divided, the people were defeated. They have learnt from this to be united. Today the people want to make pressure on the government, and are searching for real alternatives. The Le Devoir poll reinforces the idea that the people are not satisfied by the main political parties. This is a very important situation. It calls for more united action of the working class and people's forces, with the Common Front at the core."

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