Quebec student strike shows the way to fight fees

By Chantal Sundaram

As we go to press, over 65,000 striking Quebec university and college students have shut down their campuses to protest Quebec government plans to raise tuition fees by $1,625 over the next five years. They are motivated by some important past victories won through the determination and organization of the Quebec student movement.

From 1968 to 1990, tuition fees in Quebec were frozen at $500 a year. After a hike of about 150 per cent from 1990 to 1993, a PQ government introduced a new freeze in 1994. But that same government opened the door to a new increase in the name of deficit cutting in 1996. It faced a Quebec-wide student strike with mass street protests and gave up that idea. Fees have also increased by $100 a year over the past five years under the Charest government.

Today’s strike comes only seven years after the last one. In 2005, an unlimited student strike shut down nearly every post-secondary institution in Quebec to protest the cutting of $103 million from bursaries to convert them into loans. The students won, forcing the government to backtrack on a policy it had already passed. That strike received massive public support and was the source of the “red square” badge, worn by thousands of students and supporters, which is also in use today.

Strike organization

The strike of 2005 was, like all student strikes in Quebec’s history, organized through mass student assemblies to hold strike votes. In January and February of this year the strike was voted on in mass assemblies, faculty by faculty in some universities, and at colleges (CEGEPs) across Quebec.

Quebec students use a strike vote threshold approach (first used in the 1986 strike) to establish an official start of the strike on each campus. A threshold of 20,000 students in at least seven student unions and on at least three campuses was established for many student unions, and that threshold was met on February 9. Strike votes have continued since then in other faculties and on other campuses, and other, more ambitious thresholds have been met and triggered additional walkouts (for details, see bloquonslahausse.com).

But all of the walk-outs, no matter when they start, are unlimited (or renewable, usually every three days). So the ranks of the strike continue to grow, and will reach its height over the course of March.

The strike votes were initiated by the Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE), with over 40,000 members, but the strike will soon be joined by members of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ, which has 125,000 members) and the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ, which has 80,000 members).

On February 23, about 1,000 students shut down the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal during afternoon rush hour, as part of a demonstration of 15,000 people. As they made their way to the bridge, the police aggressively confronted the march, breaking it up with pepper spray, and arresting at least one student.

Solidarité

The success of all of the Quebec student strikes to date has involved not only walk-outs but public demonstrations of strength—whether it be picketing in front of campuses, staging mass demonstrations in the streets, launching sit-ins or occupations of the Ministry of Education and other government offices, and other direct action like street blockades. These actions have received wide support by the Quebec population in the past as a legitimate part of making the strikes a success. But the English Canadian media, including the CBC, has undermined the students’ message and defended the police repression at the Bridge blockade.

We have a responsibility to show visible support outside Quebec for the students’ struggle. There is a call for solidarity actions with the Quebec strike on March 13: contact your local student union and voice your support for some kind of action on that day. Our support could make a difference to the outcome, and a victory for Quebec students could inspire resistance to tuition hikes across the country.

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The Robocall rogues gallery

By John Bell

The growing RoboCall scandal is being likened to Watergate, and Stephen Harper to our own Richard Nixon. I used to run home from school to watch the Watergate hearings. My pal Stu and I collected tapes of Nixon speeches: we would marvel at the evident gap between Nixon’s self-righteous sincerity and the weasel words issuing from his jowly mouth.

I think the comparison is valid. Stephen Harper may lack the jowls, but I believe he shares Nixon’s honest belief that he has license to break any law because the cause he serves is right—in more ways than one.

Harper says he is shocked–shocked I tell ya–that anyone in the Tory ranks would stoop so low as to use pre-programmed phone calls to try to prevent voters in crucial swing ridings from getting to the polls. This must be the work of a lone, rogue zealot.

And behold, Michael Sona, a young staffer for Tory MP Eve Adams, has resigned. Sona was a campaign worker in the Guelph riding where many of the misleading automated calls were sent.

The calls didn’t just come to Guelph. As many as 26 ridings across the country are being investigated for similar incidents. It simply deifies belief that one 23-year-old Tory nerd could have engineered such a widespread and costly dirty tricks campaign. Can you say fall guy?

Even pro-Tory columnist Andrew Coyne isn’t buying the lone pimply gunman story: “But, well, let’s say it fits a pattern–if not of outright law-breaking then certainly of close-to-the-wind tactics and ends-justify-the-means ethics.”

To see what Coyne means, just Google the name of a Tory cabinet minister and the word “scandal” and see what happens:

Bev Oda: the Minister of International Cooperation cut funding from interfaith social justice group Kairos, back in 2009. First she said it was slashed on the recommendation of the Canadian International Development Agency. In fact CIDA recommended that funding should continue, and someone in Oda’s office wrote “not” in between the lines. Oda denied lying, saying that she was “confused” by sloppy paperwork on the part of her staffers. Then it was proved she had ordered the “not” to be inserted. So Oda lied to Parliament and then lied to Parliament about lying to Parliament. No wonder Harper backed her to the hilt.

Peter MacKay: our Defence Minister is a well-documented flying fool. His misuse of government jets and search-and-rescue helicopters is legendary, and has cost taxpayers a fortune. Not only did he abuse military resources to pick him up from his fishing holiday; he further abused those resources to try to find dirt on a particularly dogged Liberal critic. What was supposed to be MacKay’s “gotcha” moment backfired—it seems the Liberal MP actually went through channels to book a full day with the search-and-rescue team.

Lisa Raitt: now Labour Minister, she had the Natural Resources portfolio when she fired respected civil servant Linda Keen because she dared to order the Chalk River nuclear facility shut down over safety violations. Chalk River produces Canada’s supply of medical isotopes for cancer treatment. In a mistakenly recorded conversation, Raitt declares that she will score political points because cancer is a “sexy” issue.

Tony Clement: the Treasury Board boss abused his office and funneled G20 funds into the pockets of developers and small town politicos in his own Muskoka riding.

Jason Kenney: the Immigration Minister and Deputy Prime Minister is Harper’s right hand. In 2009, it is alleged, his office illegally interfered with plans by British anti-war MP George Galloway to visit Canada. Kenney’s chief aide, Alykhan Velshi, resigned. Weep not for Velshi: he went on to set up EthicalOil.org, propaganda wing of the oil industry and the Conservative government. Velshi now works directly for Harper, as director of planning in the PMO.

Mr. Kenney detained a boatload of Tamil refugees in 2010; several court rulings declared the mass detention was illegal. Kenney displayed his respect for law and order by simply ignoring the judges.

From the slime to the ridiculous: it was Kenney’s office that staged the phony citizenship ceremony live on Sun TV. Kenney denies any involvement.

Gerry Ritz: perhaps inspired by Kenney’s respect for the courts, the Agriculture Minister broke the law by summarily disbanding the Canadian Wheat Board, then thumbed his nose when the courts sided with farmers.

Their way or the highway: First there was Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver saying that anyone opposing the Tar Sands or the Northern Gateway Pipeline was an economic traitor. Canadians responded by flooding environmental groups with donations and support.

Then Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews seized his Dubya moment and declared that you are either with the government’s internet spying bill or with the child pornographers. His senseless hyperbole drew massive opposition and forced the Tories to scrap the bill, at least temporarily.

I could go on, but I invite you to Google the names of Tory Ministers Maxime Bernier, Helen Guergis, John Baird and Julian Fantino followed by “scandal”. Or for real fun look up Bruce Carson, one of Stephen Harper’s closest and longest serving advisors for a sordid tale of fraud convictions, abuse of office, illegal lobbying and a penchant for prostitutes.

So far they have ridden it all out by stalling, lying, finding some fresh young staffer to sacrifice, and then changing the subject by announcing some headline grabbing story usually involving illegal immigrants.

But maybe that is being unfair. Maybe it is true, as junior cabinet minister Pierre Poilievre said on CBC News: “The Conservative national campaign functioned in a clean and ethical fashion. That’s how our party operates in all cases.”

Maybe Michael Sona is an evil mastermind worthy of a James Bond movie.

Oh, here’s a story about how Jason Kenney is going to crack down on that flood of illegal immigrants flying here to have their “passport babies”.

Tory business as usual?

Fight McGuinty’s austerity agenda: Stop Drummond’s 1% solution

by Pam Frache

On February 15, the much anticipated Drummond Commission issued its 1% solution for the rest of Ontario.

Ten months ago, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty appointed former TD Bank Economist Don Drummond to head the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services, to deal with a projected (and likely overestimated) debt of approximately $16 billion.

Ontario’s deficit was a result of the global economic crisis triggered by the gang of banking bandits to which Drummond belongs, but Dalton McGuinty asked the same gang to suggest remedies.

It is therefore not surprising that the Commission’s recommendations are heavily biased in favour of the 1%. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the pain will be absorbed by the most vulnerable in society and ordinary working people, because  McGuinty directed Drummond not to keep revenue generation off the table, including increasing taxes for profitable corporations or for the 1%.

Instead, Drummond proposes a host of new or increased user fees, including post-secondary tuition fees, which would hit low- and modest-income earners hardest.

Drummond admits his recipe for balanced budgets in 2017-2018 entails sharper and deeper cuts than those meted out by former Conservative Premier Mike Harris in the mid-1990s—and for a much longer period of time.

Drummond estimates that spending cuts will be the equivalent of a permanent 16.2 per cent cut for every man, woman and child in Ontario. And of course, not every Ontarian relies on such services to the same extent, guaranteeing that those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy will experience the sharpest cuts.

But Ontario is already at the bottom of the heap in terms of provincial per capita spending on social programs, a fact even Drummond is forced to acknowledge. Clearly public sector workers and social programs are not “out of control” as the rest of the report would have us all believe. It is McGuinty’s huge tax giveaways that are out of control—$4.5 billion annually when fully phased-in. Drummond’s report is really proposing a way to pay for those tax cuts.

In order maintain existing services in line with inflation and population growth, public spending would need to increase by about 3.1 per cent annually. Instead, Drummond wants to limit spending increases so low that the effect would be deep cuts ranging from 0.6 to 5.5 per cent.

To meet these devastating targets, Drummond recommends measures that, while avoiding legislated public sector wage freezes, will have the same effect. He calls for:

  • The further privatization of service delivery, reducing staff;
  • Greater management rights to discipline, dismiss and move employees;
  • Funding envelopes with no wage increases, resulting in harsher negotiations;
  • Restructuring of the arbitration process to allow maximum flexibility for employers while imposing arbitrators on workers;
  • More performance pay for management (with no recommended pay caps).

Throughout the entire 543-page report, Drummond takes shots at “public sector pay”, pensions, and supposedly inflexible collective agreements.

The Drummond report is a recipe for disaster—of falling wages, rising unemployment, reduced consumer confidence, and a diminished market for small and medium businesses that, above all else, require customers with disposable income. The likely result of Drummond’s proposals is a double-dip recession and a worsening fiscal outlook.

Drummond’s every recommendation embodies a strategy of paying workers less. Some economists have estimated that Drummond’s proposals will result in a quarter of a million jobs lost, pushing the unemployment rate up to 11 per cent. Such a disaster would worsen the deficit, since it would increase pressure on the social safety net and decrease revenue.

But Drummond’s report does not represent the only solution we have to the economic crisis. He overstates the problem and leaves out taxing the rich as an option.

That’s why the April 21 demonstration at Queen’s Park is so important, as are mobilizations by the federal public service planned for March. Defenders of social justice should mobilize wherever possible for these demonstrations.

The 99% must be heard. Dalton McGuinty must reject the banker’s budget, and instead implement a budget that works for the 99 %.

Bahrain: Canada complicit in Saudi crackdown

By James Clark

Canadian arms companies exported $4 billion worth of weaponry and ammunition to Saudi Arabia in the last year, including light armoured vehicles (LAVs) that human rights activists believe were used in the Saudi crackdown on Bahrain’s democracy movement.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s well-documented history of human rights abuses, the Canadian government licensed the sale of billions of dollars of weaponry to the Saudi government, over 100 times the amount that had been approved for sale in 2010. Saudi Arabia was the single largest purchaser of merchandise from Canadian arms exporters, including over 700 LAV-3s from General Dynamics Land Systems based in London, Ontario.

Since the start of the Arab Spring at the end of 2010, Saudi Arabia has played an aggressive role in undermining the democracy movements that have spread across the region, including burgeoning protests within its own borders. It also sent tanks and troops to occupy the tiny island state of Bahrain, backing its government’s attack of peaceful protesters. Bahrain continues to repress all signs of dissent in the country, abducting and torturing protesters, some of whom have disappeared completely. Its actions have been condemned by human rights organizations around the world.

Fifth Fleet

Meanwhile, the US has ignored Bahrain’s repression of its own people, all the while claiming to support freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf—all key shipping lanes through which oil flows to the US and its allies.

Saudi Arabia is a key ally of the US and Canada in the region. The Canadian government joined only the Saudis and Israel in backing former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak before his overthrow on February 11, 2011, echoing their claim that “stability” is more important than democracy. Since Mubarak’s demise, Saudi Arabia has funneled money and arms to extremist groups across the region, including Salafists in Egypt who are hostile to the aims of the Egyptian Revolution. The Saudis are also attempting to hijack the revolution in Syria, fearful of a movement that threatens to inspire revolts throughout the Arab world.

Bahrain’s government recently escalated its attacks as activists gathered to mark the anniversary of the uprising on February 14. Opposition groups say over 60 people were arrested after trying to gather at the site of last year’s protests. Over 100 were injured after riot police fired birdshot and teargas at protesters. In addition, injured protestors who seek medical treatment face the risk of being detained and tortured. Dozens still face trial by military tribunal, despite claims by the government that their cases have been transferred to civilian courts.

 

Austerity in Greece: Bailout leaves workers in misery

By Paul Kellogg

Workers making minimum wage in Greece are about to receive a 20 per cent pay cut. Pensioners in Greece are about to see their monthly cheques sharply reduced. Public sector workers in Greece are bracing for 15,000 layoffs.

These are just some of the consequences of the “bailout” of the Greek economy, organized by the so-called Troika—the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In return for drastic cuts in services and jobs, the Greek government will receive €130 billion ($175 billion) to prevent a default on looming payments required to service its debt load of some €368 billion ($495 billion). But this bailout will not end the misery.

Last year, 150,000 jobs were lost in small and medium-sized businesses alone. This year, the figure is expected to be 240,000. The economy in Greece has contracted every year since 2008. This year the decline was supposed to slow to just three per cent. But a draft of the bailout agreement indicated that the rate of decline this year will be at least four per cent and possibly worse.

Damaging

The truth is, the bailout as designed is an extraordinarily clumsy and damaging method by which to address the problems of the Greek economy.

The European Union (EU), of which Greece is a member, has taken some of the steps towards creating a continent-wide economy. A key part of that process has been the creation, within the EU, of the Eurozone—a currency union whereby countries as different as Greece and Germany share the same currency, the Euro.

Because it has the same currency as Germany, the less productive Greek economy is vulnerable. It cannot do what it did in the past—let its currency (formerly the drachma) devalue relative to the former German mark to keep its prices competitive. Locked into a currency union, the inevitable has happened—German manufactured goods have pushed aside manufacturing based in Greece.

This was offset for a while by the fact that, in a currency union with richer countries, Greece could borrow at quite low rates of interest. But that process has caused debt to build up to 160 per cent of GDP, and a consequent surge in interest rates demanded by the financial markets the Greek government needs to purchase its debt.

The bailout will quiet these fears for a while but the structural problems behind the mess are all intact. This is the mess of a Europe designed by capitalists and technocrats. Only a politics of solidarity and resistance can begin the process of building an alternative.

Women’s Oppression: Origin Stories

By Abbie Bakan

Karl Marx died in 1883, with much of his writing unfinished and unpublished. His life long collaborator, Frederick Engels, turned his attention to editing and completing Marx’s unfinished works. One of the first of these was the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

The subtitle of the book tells the story: ”In Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan.” Morgan published a major study of the life and social organization of the Iroquois of northern New York State in 1877, titled Ancient Society.

Considered a founder of modern anthropology, Morgan provided a detailed account of an indigenous population where women were not subjugated by patriarchal oppression.

The study sharply challenged the assumptions of Victorian morality that were current in the lifetime of Marx and Engels. But Morgan’s work also claimed that the origins of all contemporary ‘civilization’ had emerged from similar patterns. Changes from one form of social organization to another were traceable to an evolutionary pattern of social and economic transformation. These changes developed according to four characteristics, which Morgan saw as universal to all human societies: inventions and discoveries, government, family, and property.

Ancient Society

The publication of Ancient Society attracted the attention of Karl Marx. According to a detailed account by Lise Vogel in Marxism and the Oppression of Women, Engels wrote to German socialist leader Karl Kautsky in February 1884, describing Marx’s enthusiasm for Morgan’s book. Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State was published in the same year, based on Marx’s detailed notebooks.

It has since become a classic in the Marxist tradition, and has also attracted much attention among feminist anthropologists. Many have seen more contemporary findings confirm Engels’ main arguments, even though the work had obvious limitations.

Origins was written prior to first wave feminism, when women were widely perceived to be below the status of men in every sense. But in this book Engels made a strong case for women’s emancipation, thoroughly grounded in the historical materialist method he advanced with Marx. As Sharon Smith summarizes (International Socialist Review, Fall 1997):

“Morgan’s research … helped Engels to clarify precisely how women’s oppression arose hand in hand with the rise of class society. Morgan’s careful study of the Iroquois showed two things: 1) that Iroquois women and men had a rigid division of labor between the sexes; but 2) that women were the equals of men, with complete autonomy over their own responsibilities and decision-making power within society as a whole. Women elders participated in the deliberations of the decision-making council.”

Challenge

But with all its strengths, reading Engels’ Origins in the twenty-first century does not make for light entertainment. It is, arguably, not Engels’ best work, in his own words a “meagre substitute for what my departed friend no longer had the time to do.”

The language of Origins is a challenge. It reflects dominant European thought, also present in Morgan’s study, about the ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ lives of indigenous peoples. Though Engels does not offer a critique, fortunately neither does he mimic Morgan’s sometimes reactionary language, like seeing the “Aryan family” as “the central stream of human progress.”

Morgan was an American of elite training and he expressed undoubtedly racist views. But unlike his contemporaries, he did not see ‘race’ as a scientific category. Instead Morgan focused on the significance of material conditions—property forms and social organization—as formative in human history. It was this approach that Marx and Engels found to be consistent with their own method of social analysis and consequent call for revolutionary change.

Social Theory

Origin stories, as author Joanne Wright explains in her book bearing this title, serve as a central factor in social theory. One of Engels’ aims was to challenge the common sense view of the time that women had always been, and presumably always would be, subordinate to men.

The experiences of the Iroquois families of northern New York became of central importance, and have become part of the canon of the socialist tradition. But this is not the only, or main, strand of critical thought that has highlighted such experiences. Critical race feminism in Canada has also traced its origins to the voices of indigenous peoples, particularly indigenous feminists.

In States of Race, a collection marking these contributions by Sherene Razack, Malinda Smith and Sunera Thobani, the authors pose a radical challenge to capitalism through a focus on the experiences of racialized, immigrant and indigenous women. And as Verna St. Denis summarizes in her contribution to Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, edited by Joyce Green: “[A]boriginal women claim that Aboriginal cultures do not have a history of unequal gender relations; in fact…Aboriginal women occupied positions of authority, autonomy and high status in their communities.”

Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884, was radical for its time. Now, in 2012, capitalism and imperialism have extended their reach. The indigenous peoples who helped Marx and Engels to understand the power structures of their day have continued to challenge these oppressive systems. And they also continue to help activists to explain the sexist, racist, exploitative structures that threaten to hold all of us down.

Stop the War of 2012: Don’t Attack Iran

By Deka Omar

On February 23 a rally was organized to protest the looming war with Iran and the possibility of Canadian participation.  More than 60 protesters gathered at the Human Rights Monument in the City of Ottawa and marched toward the Chateau Laurier where The Conference on defence and security was taking place. 

Key elements of the global military-industrial complex such as the Harper government and military commanders from Canada, the UK and the US converged on Ottawa for their annual general meeting. The anti-war rally organized under the slogan of “Peace and Prosperity not War and Austerity” was an occasion for Canadians to fight back against the Harper government’s attempt to militarize Canada at the detriment of more pressing social and environmental issues.

The March took the protesters to the doorsteps of the conference at Chateau Laurier for a mass die-in.  Although this was the first Don’t Attack Iran rally of the year, the protesters promised that they will continue their fight against the war machine in order to prevent a repetition of the Iraq debacle and the possible destabilisation of the entire region.