I haven't thought much about Quebec since 2012. That spring, the longest student strike in Quebec history lasted over 100 days and drew as many as 300,000 people on to the streets of Montreal, bringing the city to a near-nightly standstill. From New York, activists looked on impressed, if a little envious of the powerful "manifencours" (street demos).
In our hundreds, we staged unremarkable marches in Manhattan, pinning little red felt squares to our clothes and bashing pots and pans, a la Quebecoise. The strike ended (with considerable wins for the students), the streets of Montreal quietened, and Quebec drifted out of the U.S. protest imaginary. Nearly three years later, it may be time to return our gaze Northwards. The students of Quebec strike again.
On Monday, more than 50,000 students officially went on strike, with at least 25 student associations voting to do so from six universities. In the coming week, associations representing over 100,000 students are set to hold strike votes. As in 2012, workers unions are lending support, and at least a week of major protests is planned. No such collective student mobilization seems possible in the U.S., where the idea of student organizations empowered to call mass collective strikes feels a world, not a border, away.
The 2012 student strikes primarily targeted (and defeated) the provincial government plans to increase college tuition fees by 75 percent. Tuition fees in Quebec are cheaper than anywhere else in Canada, and are dwarfed by those in the U.S., thanks in part to a tradition of sustained and radical student protest in defense of free and affordable education. I wrote at the time that if the Quebecois students took to the streets under the banner of being "in the red," debt-beleaguered American students had all the more reason to do the same. This remains true, but the 2015 Quebecois strike should resonate here for a different reason.
The students are striking now not over tuition fees, but for the wellbeing of the Quebecois people. On March 26, the provincial government, led by the Liberal Party, will introduce a harsh program of austerity measures, cuts to public welfare programs under the rhetoric of necessary budget balancing, and fiscal pragmatism. The plan, announced last year, is expected to include cuts to daycare programs, ambulance services, and volunteer support programs.
It is to the students' credit that they mobilize in defense of the collective wellbeing, not student issues alone. This is solidarity in action—not to strike on behalf of the oppressed, but to seek collective action against systems that perpetuate oppression.
The Quebecois students are mobilizing in force, like students in Europe have done in recent months and years, to stand against their government's proposed austerity program. While austerity proved devastating in Eurocrisis struck nations, because economies like Greece's were already decimated, Quebec's deep cuts won't likely cripple the province economically. But make no mistake, the poorest and most vulnerable will be hit by cuts to healthcare and education services.
Anti-austerity protest is largely absent from the U.S. political landscape. The simple answer is because instead of administering cuts, the Obama administration introduced a stimulus package in the wake of the financial crisis, prompting a faster recovery than almost every European country. But I don't think that entirely explains why we don't talk about austerity in the U.S.—after all, the U.S. has in fact implemented a stricter program of fiscal spending reductions than any major European economy since 2010.
Yet, if austerity is an attack on the welfare state, then little wonder we don't talk about it in the U.S., where we don't have the historic sense of a welfare state in need of defending. The average Eurozone country allots 30 percent more of government expenditure to welfare programs than does the U.S. And of course, the GOP-controlled Congress would like to see fewer provisions still. I'm no fan of big government myself (while regularly labeled a "dirty commie" by rightwing interlocutors, I am in fact a dirty anarchist), but I recognize the violence of slashing public services, punishing the poor, and cushioning the wealthy.
It's more than a semantic point, that U.S. activism has centered regularly on inequality, but eschews the framework of anti-austerity. It ideologically separates austerity-burdened Europe from inequality drenched America. But if we think of austerity as our resting state, undergirding inequality, then we, like the Europeans and the Quebecois should be standing up in dissent, buoyed by an international resonance. Solidarity means attack, as the old anarchist dictum goes.