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Snapshots of the student movement in Montreal
north america / mexico | education | opinion / analysis Wednesday May 30, 2012 02:39 by P. Gage - Recomposition
At the bottom of this article are links for how your trade union or community group can support the students’ struggle. That will help tremendously, but spreading the struggle to your own job or school will do even more. This article is meant to help explain how, by showing how students in Quebec were able to organize their general strike. [Italiano]
Snapshots of the student movement in Montreal
I arrived in Montreal the night the government of Quebec had turned the province into a police state. Jean Charest had passed a law declaring any demonstration over 50 people not pre-approved by the police to be an illegal gathering punishable by up to $1,000 in fines for individuals and $125,000 in fines for any organisation endorsing the action. That night, over twenty five thousand students and supporters defied the law and marched through downtown Montreal. We marched under banners dropped from apartments, past bar patrons cheering with raised fists, and among cars honking in support. In that and other nightly demontrations, I saw random beatings on the streets by a police force run amok. While we marched, the student delegates met all weekend in their congresses and debated whether to endorse the demonstrations.
There is a strong temptation to write a protest tourism piece that says “I was there,” and no doubt that phrase still makes me smile a couple days after having left Quebec for New York. I am still in awe, but this piece is not intended to talk about how amazing it all was. That does not do students, working families, and the unemployed any good.
Instead, this article is intended to convey to militants in the rest of the world a few of the things I saw and heard about in Quebec that I thought were tremendously strong developments, and things that any organization in the class struggle could learn from. The more questions I asked, the more the mask of Quebec exceptionalism fell away to reveal a real practical movement that succeeded not because they were at the right place at the right time but because they did things right. Below I will outline three explanations for why this movement has been so successful: the class analysis of the Quebec students, the elevation of rank-and-file assemblies over executive power, and the central role direct action plays in the movement.
The Student Union System in Quebec
Like in the rest of Canada, student unions in Quebec are united into various federations of campus unions. In English speaking Canada, the two main federations are the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), who generally line up politically with the New Democratic Party and the Canada Labour Congress, and the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), a more right-leaning federation with ties to the Canadian Liberal and Conservative Parties. Quebec is an exception, however: neither of those student federations has a strong presence there. Instead the three main Federations are ASSÉ (l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante), the FEUQ (Fédération Étudiante Universitaire du Québec), and the FECQ (Fédération Étudiante Collegiale du Québec).
The FEUQ and the FECQ both have strong ties to the Parti Québecois, a nationalist populist party in the province. The FECQ (Federation of Quebec College Students) is based in the Cégeps, a school system that sits between high schools and the post secondary system that many Quebecers go to before moving on to a trade school, a career or university. The FEUQ (Federation of Quebec University Students) is based in the universities.
ASSÉ (pronounced ah-say, a play on the French word for “enough”) is different in that it hostile to political affiliation and openly anti-capitalist, feminist, and anti-colonial. They have no formal connection to the mainstream labour movement, though many workers are now looking to the students for how to move their own struggles forward (this worker included).
CLASSE is the “coalition large” of ASSÉ and allows the members of the other federations to affiliate with ASSÉ through their local. During strike mobilization, student associations joined the coalition as a way of strengthening their numbers and improving coordination of the strike. This allows the militant anti-capitalist politics of ASSÉ to influence the politics in other federations while at the same time keeping their separate organizational identity, their militant autonomy from the official left, and their radical politics intact.
It has also allowed ASSÉ to spread the assembly system of decision-making and organization to schools where the students were represented by other student federations. As the strike gained momentum, more and more student organisations claimed dual affiliation with ASSÉ through the CLASSE coalition. The strict requirements placed upon this affiliation shifted the decision making power in the local organisations: all associations that joined had to hold regular general assemblies and these assemblies had to be the highest decision making power in the association, even above the local union executive.
This took control of the strike and the collective actions of the students out of the student politicians’ hands and placed it firmly in the hands of the rank-and-file. Soon ASSÉ transitioned from being an anti-capitalist student union to also being the central hub in a network of student militants fighting against the steadily rising debt load of student graduates.
The Assembly System
There can be no doubt that the charismatic, articulate and brave leadership in ASSÉ and CLASSE has played a major role in the public perception of the strike, and these spokespeople should be commended for putting forward a point of view that runs counter to that of every powerful person in our society (that is a lonely place to be). However, the strength of the student movement lies in the limits it has placed on reliance on leadership, and the way that its politics revolves around direct action rather than charismatic personalities.
The assemblies are organized either by department (like biology) or faculty (like sciences) that meet regularly. For example, the geography department at Concordia has very strong support for their strike, and they meet every week to debate the strike’s effectiveness, tactics, and demands, and vote on whether or not to renew the strike for another week. Other departments or faculties, like the science faculty at McGill, decided not to strike and classes continued there.
The assemblies are run on a majority rules system with clear rules of order spelled out in a constitution, however there are some hallmarks of consensus such as designated people who watch the room for students who might be upset, or not speaking up, and who can alter the meeting stack according to these dynamics. Many of the assemblies have a huge turnout, especially around strike votes, but they also grow and shrink depending on what is going on. The faculties that are on strike have strong strike mandates, often well over eighty percent. This is a typical outcome of the practice of voting by a show of hands and why trade unions traditionally took strike votes this way. Often it is the fear of being alone, more than the fear of taking action, that affects the outcome of a strike vote. Seeing those around you willing to openly show their willingness to strike by raising their hand emboldens everyone. In fact, the McGill administration tried to reduce momentum for the strike by requiring strike votes to be taken online – not too different from government-supervised strike votes for union workers. (This failed when students voted overwhelmingly in favour anyway.)
Trade Union Bargaining and Direct Action
Many commentators have raised the issue whether students can really form effective unions the way grocery store clerks or steel workers can. Of course this shows a certain short-sightedness in how we as a society define a union. Fortunately, working people don’t generally let semantics get in the way of what they want.
As far as effectiveness is concerned, a union is a collective body of working class people organized to exert pressure on the capitalist system in order to extract concessions in the short term, and to advance the political interests of its members in the long term. The student movement in Quebec is a union movement because it is organized on a class basis and uses direct action to achieve its goals. In fact, by these lights, the student movement is a better example of a union than many unions in North America.
Student unions in Quebec are regulated by laws and register and certify like other unions. However, they have no collective agreements or grievance procedures, and they do not have the legal right to collectively bargain like workers in an auto plant or grocery store. They only have negotiators now because the government asked for someone to bargain with once the strike started.
In general, the way that unions advance their agenda is through disruption of capitalist profit. If businesses don’t make money, either by striking, sabotage, boycott, or social disruption, they are brought to their knees very quickly. The students’ capacity to bargain likewise comes from their capacity to create a disruption. They have two main fronts in this disruption: their picket lines on campus and their demonstrations in the streets, especially in Montreal but also at Jean Charest ‘s office and home (the Premier of Quebec), or at Liberal party gatherings like in Victoriaville, where a police riot ensued.
As far as picket lines go, some militants I spoke with felt that the best pickets let students cross but block professors, often other union members who were sympathetic anyways. This was very effective because it minimized the group of angry anti-strike students stubbornly trying to get through the classroom doors while ensuring class wouldn’t happen anyway.
As far as demonstrations go, these had been happening for thirty straight days by the time I arrived in Montreal, and continue at the time this article is going to press. Students have now been joined in the streets by the “casseroles” marches, which involve other Quebec residents who object to Law 78. There have also been weeks of targeted economic disruption – blockading the National Bank building early in the morning, blocking delivery routes to the port, blocking doors to the Ministry of Education’s office, blocking the doors of Hydro Quebec, or the headquarters of the SAQ, or the Association of Cegep Administrators… the list goes on and on and on.
Decision-making in the Assemblies
The discipline required to carry out the strike on such a massive scale relates directly to the way decisions are made in the assemblies. Even those who were opposed to the strike were encouraged to attend and debate. At the end a vote would be taken that was considered binding on everyone. This sort of collective, horizontal discipline is the root of all unionism and also probably why consensus decision-making was not adopted.
One practice that made all of these separate votes and separate picket lines work together on a larger scale was a practice called “the floor”. Basically student groups would vote to strike but hold off on walking out of classes until enough other students likewise voted in favour of striking in their own assemblies. So, for example, one association might vote in favour of a strike, but pass a motion not to walk until at least 2,000 more students, in other assemblies at that school, voted in favour of striking. This would contribute to the sense of momentum while at the same time allowing for a high degree of coordination among a large group of students.
It is telling that there were attempts to break up this kind of organization and encourage the more “moderate” student unions to take the lead, with the Charest government eventually kicking CLASSE out of negotiations. But barring them from the negotiating table more than anything proved the strength of ASSÉ and the CLASSE, since it showed that the capacity to negotiate came from the power to disrupt, and an end to disruption was only likely to come through the assemblies.
The assemblies, as a place for decision-making that included everyone, short-circuited the crisis of leadership that exists, and has existed for decades, in most union and left-organisations in Canada. Rank-and-file students were radicalized by their own sense of power and at their first taste of an actual, living democracy they began to become less and less interested in cutting a deal regardless of what their leaders might think. The student leaders, some emboldened and others held hostage by their radical constituents, have become caught up in a process that is much bigger than any single personality. In fact when CLASSE was barred from negotiations the two more moderate federations stopped negotiating in solidarity. This move is especially significant considering the bad blood between these groups based on political differences.
By the end of my weekend in Quebec (May 21st) CLASSE had instructed their spokespeople to announce that they would not only refuse to condemn the “illegal” marches, but would actually endorse them. The following day, an illegal march celebrating the 100th day of the strike drew over 400,000 people in what was described as the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. And now, regular “casseroles” marches are drawing in growing sections of the Quebec population in solidarity.
It’s easy to think that these things come out of nowhere, that there is such a thing as spontaneous social combustion. There is an element of spontaneity, and the social foment that exists on the streets in Quebec is partly a product of the tensions that can explode anywhere in society at any time. But from the militants I talked to, one thing that stood out was a strong connection between the veterans of the failed strike of 2007 and the new generation of strikers in 2012. The veterans have brought their past experiences in struggle to the current strike.
As their struggle progresses, the Quebec students have become a rallying point for workers’ unions. Let’s be clear though, the workers’ unions’ support did not come earlier because the student movement represents something completely different. CLASSE has the courage to defy the legislation that the CAW, the IAMAW, and the CUPW did not. These business unions are offering their support now because they can advance their own bargaining agenda by making the students appear to be an ally of theirs. But it is not enough to line up the big old unions behind CLASSE. The next step is to build similar structures to the ones that facilitated this strike. We need structures across workers’ unions like what CLASSE contributed to the student federations: assemblies grounded on the shop floor that plan and manage direct action without the interference of political specialists.
Building a stronger movement isn’t simply a question of a sharper analysis, but of useful practices. A broad conception of the problems with the education system, and with capitalist society more generally, is empty until it is linked to practical proposals regarding the strategic decisions movements have to make on a day-to-day basis. For many people, including some of the students I spoke to, action precedes consciousness in a very real way, and analysis is generated from the struggle. Capitalism is no different than any other machine: you don’t really learn how it works until you take it apart. The Quebec struggle has revealed a way for us to struggle that makes it harder to turn our organisations against us, and we need to learn from that.