Fighting austerity in Quebec

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By Nora Loreto

imageDespite the rosy picture painted by many of the English mainstream media in Québec, the budget of Carlos Leitao, Quebec’s Minister of Finance, is not good news for average people.

After nearly 11 months of piece after piece of legislation attacking the public service, Leitao and Treasury Board Chair Martin Coiteux announced the return of a zero deficit budget for the first time in seven years.

The process of arriving at the zero deficit mark has not been painless and is not a simply exercise of paying down debt to free up public spending in the future to invest in health and education. On budget day, Leitao referenced the hope that Quebecers would some day pay less tax than they do now. A balanced budget today means tax cuts tomorrow. 

Most Quebecers concerned with the direction of the Québec government are still reeling from cuts that have already been announced this past year. But even so, there were few surprises.

The night that the budget was introduced, students protested outside of the National Assembly. There, Quebec City police now famously shot a college student in the face with a can of tear gas. The attack has been widely reported probably thanks to a video that caught the moment of impact.

Many mainstream journalists presented the news of the budget while arguing that the Liberals had little choice but to cut the way that they did.

Québec Solidaire rejected this frame, arguing that Leitao missed the opportunity to increase revenues by $4.3B by creating a Pharmacare program for the province, reviewing the tax system for banks and corporations and stopping fiscal evasion measures. They argued that while Leitao’s budget gives $500 million to businesses, it takes $5.5 billion from citizens.

The budget fixes program spending at just 1.2 percent and creates tax incentives for people to work past the age of 65. It pulls $729 million more out of the public system than had been announced in December, during the last economic update.

One estimate from a Université de Québec à Rimouski professor places the cuts for universities to reach 10% over the next four years. Université Laval is facing an $11 million budgetary shortfall.

Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU) estimates that the budget will close 1500 public housing units.

Heathcare has been hit the hardest. The budget maintains spending at a rate too low to keep up with inflation and workers are starting to see the results of Bill 10, a law that eliminated an entire tier of bureaucracy and democracy within the health sector. On April 1, the new super-bureaucracies start their mandates. Health workers who are members of the Fédération de la Santé du Québec declared April 1 a day of mourning.

In the Chaudière-Appalaches region, workers only found out on Monday whether or not they’d be working in the new CISSSes. At least 75 workers will not be transferred, according to the Chaudière-Appalaches regional council of the CSN. Many of the job cuts will be made through attrition.

Much of the focus has turned to the newest controversial Bill 20. This bill will force doctors to increase their patient load, or pay a penalty of up to 30 percent of their salaries. This has led to an unprecedented one-day strike taken by all medical students in the province, as doctors who teach will be penalized for not being able to take on more patients. Two of the strike votes received unanimous support.

With students striking and daily protests happening across the province, many are amplifying the calls for a social strike on May 1.

On March 31, some 2500 union activists met in Québec City’s congress centre to reflect on the common strategy of the front commun. One of the drivers of the front commun, the CSN, is not calling for a social strike. Instead, it’s calling for local activists to picket and demonstrate in their regions.

Despite the tepid support for actions on May 1 from the labour federations, many unions are planning to strike. Many college teachers represented by the FNEEQ for example, affiliated with the CSN, have voted in favour of a social strike in various schools across Québec. Unions in the Bas-St-Laurent region of the province have already vowed to block Highway 20 on May Day.

95,000 students have voted to strike on April 2, centred in Montreal. Faculty at UQAM have also voted to strike for the day.

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