Social Blindness: the Union Bureaucracy’s Ultimate Sickness

The student strike is not over in Quebec. Yet we may take advantage of the summer respite to assess this extraordinary upheaval; a mobilization that became both social and political in Montreal and in many urban centres throughout Quebec. In order to make a proper assessment, we must acknowledge the gains, but also pinpoint the defects. We must identify those actors who did not heed the call, and try to understand why not. We are speaking here of the large union centrals of Quebec [the Quebec Federation of Labour (in French, the FTQ), Confederation of National Trade Unions (in French, the CSN) and the Central of Quebec Unions — NSW]. Our intent is not to create divisions within the Quebec Left but to initiate a debate surrounding the labour movement’s absence in the social struggle in Quebec.

It is safe to say that, during the whole strike period, the labour movement did not come out in full force. There was no strategic dialogue between the union centrals and the student movement. This dialogue could have begun two years ago given that the student movement had already by then expressed its intention to mobilize against the Liberal government. Neither did the union centrals make links with the popular movement after public sector negotiations in 2010. Yet a Coalition Against Fee Hikes and the Introduction of Fees for Public Services was already off the ground and managed to organize a protest that drew more than 15 000 people in 2010 against the Liberal budget. What did the union centrals do in the face of this mobilization? They created another coalition called the Social Alliance. The decision to create another coalition when one with the same objectives — to stop the privatization of public services and the introduction of user fees — was already off the ground created a lot of confusion in the Quebec Left. After all that, we still cannot say that this confusion has cleared up. Of course, the Social Alliance held press conferences in support of the student movement, but these media interventions did not translate into concrete struggles.

We were even more confused when the top union officers announced their intention to intervene in the negotiations between the student movement and the government at the beginning of May.  Their role was unclear: would they act as mediators? Or would they act as supporters of the student movement? Not only were their intentions unclear, but the deal that came out of these negotiations was convoluted and far from satisfactory. On May 5th, Louis Roy [president of the CSN — NSW] was saying on television that the deal was very good news for the people of Quebec.  But this agreement was not good news for the student movement, which was not ready to end an historic struggle, the largest since 1972 [the year of the Common Front strikes].

What left us all baffled was an article penned in La Presse by journalist Michelle Ouimet the following week (May 12, 2012). According to her, “the Liberal government asked the union bosses to act as facilitators.” In the same article, Michel Arseneault explains: “when you’re the president of the FTQ and the Prime Minister summons you, you answer… especially when he appeals to the greater good” (my italics). During this meeting, explains the article, “Jean Charest explains to them (the union leaders) that the crisis is harming Quebec and that a solution must be found.”

Now let’s pull back for a moment. The Prime Minister asks the top union officers to act for the greater good of Quebec. Then, the Prime Minister says this crisis is harming Quebec and that a solution must be found. What we can understand is how both the neoliberals and the top union officers have failed to understand this social struggle. A spirit of solidarity guided this meeting between the state and the union officialdom. They understood each other very well, but they could not understand what was going on in society. What we are witnessing is not a crisis that is paralyzing Quebec society. Instead, we are witnessing an upheaval of citizens who want to change the social order. The massive rejection of the May 5 deal by the student movement in the weeks that followed is an indication of the failure of both the state apparatus and the apparatus of the union centrals to understand society.

The inertia of the union centrals

Right now, we may speak of the deplorable missed encounter of the student and labour movements. There seems to be no change in direction for the union brass. Where can we find the union centrals on the political map of Quebec in 2012? This is the question everyone inside and outside the labour movement should ask. In fact, we need a political sociology of the Quebec labour movement to explain what’s at stake and why it has been incapable of creating or supporting the current social struggles. While we are still formulating a sociology of the labour movement, we can still forward a few hypotheses to explain why its mobilization is lacking:

First hypothesis: there exists a disconnect between the union officialdom and the union membership. The primary mandate of this officialdom is to help union members defend their social and union rights. But the union officialdom has become so powerful that it can afford to ignore the views of its members. The noisy debates in certain public sector federations when the broader public sector settlement was reached in 2010 speaks to a disconnect between the understanding of what’s at stake for unions and what’s at stake for society.

Second hypothesis: the union officialdom pretends as though union members do not want to mobilize. We have heard it time and time again from national and regional union leaders: “It’s difficult for us because the members do not want to mobilize.” Yet there is no space for union discussion in workplaces about the student strike and the importance of a “greve sociale” [a “social strike,” or what in English is often called a political strike — NSW]. Instead, many union members expressed their rage in the casserole protests in the months of May and June.

Third hypothesis: fear of legal repercussions. It is a well-founded fear. The special law enacted by the Liberal government in response to the student movement can really put a chill on social movements in Quebec. However, we cannot say we are refusing to send our members to the dogs without consulting them and gauging their determination and sense of combat.

Although these hypotheses are a start, they call for a larger debate on the inertia of the labour movement in this historic period of mobilization. During this tumultuous period, we have seen new forces joining the struggle against the government. For example, networks such as Profs Against the Hike, CEGEP Profs Against the Hike and even Angry Mothers in Solidarity Against the Hike have emerged to support the students. It is interesting to note that we have put in place flexible structures that help us quickly respond to the immediate needs of the struggle. But one question remains: are these spontaneous initiatives not symptoms of the inability of the labour movement to intervene in Quebec society today?

Rene Charest is an activist in the CSN and Quebec Solidaire. Translation by Zac Saltis, with David Camfield.