marxism 2012 program notes: the quebec student strike, or why every canadian needs to bang on a pan

I want to begin my posts from Marxism 2012 with the Quebec Student Strike, because it's currently the most important progressive development unfolding in Canada.

By now it should be obvious that the Quebec student strike is not only a student strike and is not only about Quebec. It should be obvious, if the corporate media wasn't ignoring, minimizing, scoffing at, or narrowly spinning this major story.

I posted ten things everyone should know about the Quebec student strike, cribbed from the Montreal Media Coop. It's a good list, and the full story is worth reading. But here's the most important takeaway: this is not only a student movement against an increase in tuition fees. It is a widespread, student-led movement against the austerity agenda, and against the attempt to transform Quebec from a socialized culture where services are universally accessible, or nearly so, to a privatized, user-payer system where access can be purchased by those who can afford it.

That's a fight for every one of us.

What follows are my notes from an inspiring panel discussion about the Quebec Student Strike, then an item from Socialist Worker analyzing the strike in relation to English Canada.

I do my best to accurately represent the Marxism talks based on my notes, but any errors or misrepresentations are mine.

Xavier LaFrance
Student Organizer

The student strike launched in February, but the campaign against the tuition increases was going on for months prior to that. There were months and months of meetings, and there were smaller, local days of actions, and occupations of government and university offices - a continual escalation of pressure on the government.

The student unions held a series of general membership meetings ("G-Mems") in order to gauge the interest in and mandate for a strike. The strike was over the $1,625 tuition hike, but it was also much broader than that. The strike aims to make more students and the general population aware of the government's bid to create a "user-payer culture", in place of our culture based on social payments. The government says it's in the midst of a cultural revolution - using these austerity measures to reshape Quebec society.

This is the largest student strike in Quebec history. In 2005, there was a strike for seven weeks. Right now, the 2012 strike has been on for 16 weeks. At its peak, on March 22, 300,000 students demonstrated through the streets of Montreal, many of them on a one-day strike. Since then, 190,000 to 200,000 students have been on continuous strike. There have also been hundreds of local creative actions.

For two months, the government refused to bargain, then said it would bargain, but not with CLASSE [the more militant, broader-based union]. The two other student unions, FECQ and FEUQ, which in the past had been more conservative, more like lobbyists than unions, stood in solidarity and refused to bargain unless CLASSE was at the table.

[FECQ = Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (in English : College students federation of Quebec)

FEUQ = Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (in English : University students federation of Quebec)

CLASSE = Coalition Large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante]

There has been tons of police repression - arrests, police-led violence, court injunctions, and of course the "special law" 78. But it's still going on "and I don't see it stopping any time soon". For 32 nights in a row [as of the date of this talk, May 26], there have been nightly marches, and now we've added the clanging of the pots and pans, as many of you know. "The spirit is incredible. The sense of collective power that you see and hear is absolutely amazing."

CLASSE continues to defy Law 78 both in courts and in the street.

The basic organizing principles of the Quebec student movement has two currents. On one hand are lobbyists. These are more corporatist, not combative, and not especially democratic. The other is the activist, combative, democratic student unionism. The basic tenets, principles, and tactics of this current were inspired by combative labour unions.


We believe in education as a right, to be publicly funded, accessible to all. We see this as a social responsibility, and we have a broader perspective which leads to specific demand.

We mobilize membership with specific interests to defend.

We keep the student population as informed as possible, in order to mobilize, thus building a base of power.

We don't just send representatives to the media or to meetings with their own ideas - the model of executives holding meetings detached from the membership base. Here, the leaders are connected to the base democratically and collectively. Representatives only have power through the base.

We connect our struggles to other struggles, and form alliances with other social groups with similar aims.

They key is that we are a democracy. This is the key difference between the student movements in Quebec and Ontario. In Ontario, people are against the tuition hikes, but they have nowhere to take their opposition, no effective mechanism of protest. There are no general membership meetings here, so there is no way to collectively, publicly react.

This is most crucial. A mobilization committee is needed to rebuild tradition of general membership meetings. Through that process, through struggle, people transform themselves individually and collectively. "I knew this theoretically, but I saw it for myself in 2005. Now, through this process, the two more corporatist, lobbyist unions are becoming both more democratic and radical."

Sibel Epi Ataogul
Attorney representing CLASSE, member of the International Socialists

The strike is the workers' most powerful tool. It is the one concession the ruling class has made to unionized workers, and they don't want to see it expand into other realms of society. As a lawyer, I got involved with the Quebec Student Strike when the injunctions started coming in.

The strike evolved completely organically, through a system that has been established in francophone educational institutions. The student associations all have strike protocols in their charters. The CEGEPs, where many students attend between high school and university have strike protocols, in which teenagers are negotiating their own agreements. So the concept of a strong student union and a student strike are part of the culture.

The instructors - also in unions - mostly honoured the student strike and didn't teach during the strike. Teachers also acted as mediators between students and those teachers who continued to teach and didn't honour the strike.

The injunctions came because the strike went on for so long. Some students wanted to return to class, even though they are still adamantly against the fee hikes. The students who wanted to go back to class were in minority. They were not winning votes. This was a clash between people's personal plans to continue their education, and the majority wishes within a culture of direct democracy.

The government was and is trying to frame the strike as a "boycott," which is an option of individual choice. A boycott is based on a consumer model: "You paid for your chocolate bar and you can eat it anytime you want, and no one can stop you from eating your chocolate bar."

But this was and is not a boycott! A strike is a collective action. It's not "I won't go to class". It's "there will be no class". A strike says you see yourself not as consumers of an educational product, but intellectual workers. It says, "We are part of the process and if we’re not part of the process, the process will stop."

An injunction is the edge of the rule of law. It is so completely discretionary. An injunction seeks to preserve the status quo until evidence can be heard from all sides, and a final decision will come later, balancing interests. In some cases, an injunction is necessary. Someone wants to cut down a tree. Someone wants the tree preserved. It could take a long time for the parties to gather evidence and the court to hear all the evidence, and by that time, the tree has been cut down, and the argument is moot. An injunction says: preserve the status quo. Don't cut down the tree, and the court will hear all the evidence and rule on it later.

In this case, the injunction was being served between a democratic mass movement versus an individual student who wanted to go to class. This views the action as a boycott, not a strike. "They can have that ideology, but it’s not going to change the reality."

So people did not respect the injunctions, and the injunctions became more and more restrictive, ordering school administrators to call the police to arrest striking students. Despite this, because there was so much unrest and turmoil, classes did not take place. So despite the injunction, the view of the class as an individual right did not prevail.

Then came the special law. Special Law 78 requires schools to suspend sessions unless an agreement is made with the student union. It recognizes that right now the situation is too volatile for there to be classes.

It also places huge limits on the right to protest. It forces teachers to teach and not respect the strike. It contains clauses saying there cannot be a student protest within 50 metres of any educational grounds if the protest has the effect of denying anyone access to class.

The main problem with the law is the general provisions regarding the right to protest. Any gathering of more than 50 people has to be communicated to police. Not to the City, not to any elected official, but directly to police. The police then have the unilateral right to say no, to change the route, at their own discretion. It gives the police the power to decide where and how people will express themselves.

Special Law 78 is the movement of power within a representative democracy to the armed wing of that system.

And from the reaction of CLASSE and the reaction on the streets, you can see the law is having the exact opposite effect. The law does not work. "People who would have never gotten out of their houses to support the students are now saying, I’m going to go outside with my pots and my pans...!"

Two groups of people did give their route to the police, but then the protest didn’t follow that route. 200,000 people went on their own route. The police couldn’t arrest them all.

Sibel told a great story of her own experience on the first night of the "casseroles" demonstrations. She went outside, very tentatively, with one friend, and they kind of sheepishly banged a little on their pots and pans. Then three people came along and joined them, and the five of them had a little more confidence to bang away. Then someone came along and said, "It's happening in front of the church on such-and-such street." They all ran off, a few blocks away, and there were 100 or more people banging on pots and pans! And more and more kept coming out, until there were too many to all stand on the sidewalk and they spilled over to the street...

Monique Moisan
Montreal-based activist, leading member of Quebec Solidaire

The strike is not students vs non-students. It is a class struggle. Many parents of students are involved. At times parents have acted as shields between students and the police.

Students organized a day to talk about a social strike with community groups. People in the community are often isolated. They have many issues but are not prepared politically. 230 people attended this meeting! They understood that the student struggle is their struggle, too.

When there are more than 200,000 people in the streets, they can't all be students! In a city of 1.5 million people, it couldn't be. But the media still calls it a "student strike". The students in Quebec are leaders of a social movement that is much wider than the student struggle. It has caused people to think about the problem as a whole - not only fees, but the entire culture of a user-payer society.

People understand that if the students lose this struggle, the rest will follow: health care, transit, city services - all will be privatized.

From the discussion...

The students haven't won yet, but Charest's plan has been completely destroyed. He wanted to provoke the student movement and use public opinion to his own advantage. He knew if he announced a 75% tuition increase there would be a student strike. Then for two months he ignored the strike. So that part of his plan worked. But then he couldn't control it. He couldn't divide it. And now he can't even end it with repression.

His plan was to destroy his political opponent on the right. He thought he would win over their base by being tough on students and unions. He had no idea that he would provoke the biggest social movement since the 1970s!

And he didn't count on another political party: QS. Quebec Solidaire is "a fish in water" in this movement.

[Ed note: this shows you an important tenet of activism. You never know.]

* * * * *

There have been massive job losses in Quebec over the past year, just as there were in Ontario in 2008. Now links are being forged between students and the labour movement. Busloads of students went to Alma, Quebec to support the locked-out Rio Tinto workers, and labour unions have donated money and other help to the striking students.

These are the methods and mechanisms that we need to learn and adopt in Ontario. Demanding that the student union leadership call a strike won't work. A strike that is not built and prepared will end up in a setback, potentially disastrous. In order to be successful, it has to arise from a process.

* * * * *

Quebec Solidaire has a representative in the National Assembly of Quebec, Amir Khadir, and what a difference that has made! To have a spokesperson at that level, to get that media coverage, to get the real story and demands into the public view. Membership in QS has soared since the student strike.

We must press the NDP to do the same!

* * * * *

"General Membership Meetings are the same thing as pots and pans. That's the real social media." We can't just transplant the Quebec experience to Ontario.

The strike arose from the Quebec tradition of mass demonstrations among students. It doesn't exist in Ontario yet: but it can be built. It won't happen from the top down. We have to build from the base.

* * * *

From Socialist Worker:
How do we spread the Quebec Spring?

The Quebec student strike is inspiring people across Canada who would like to see a similar mass movement against austerity. But how we spread the Quebec spring?

Some say the Quebec spring is unique, and Quebec certainly has its own particular conditions that are important to understand.

From the experience as an oppressed nation within the Canadian state, the people of Quebec have a strong history of resistance—including the biggest anti-globalization protests in 2001, the biggest anti-war protests in 2003, and the biggest May Day protest in 2004.

Quebec students also have a tradition of mass strikes, most recently the 2005 strike that forced the government to give back $103 million in cuts.

That experience cannot be spontaneously summoned across English Canada, but that doesn’t mean that the struggle can't spread.

The Quebec Spring is a combination of past local experiences along with inspiration from global revolt. That people in Quebec have called the strike wave the "printemps erable" — meaning maple spring but sounding like Arab Spring — shows the links with the global revolt. But how do we spread it?

Some are impatiently demanding that the leadership of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) simply call a strike, or arguing that radical students organize on their own— counterposing the Quebec student organization CLASSE with other student unions. But this ignores the way in which the Quebec student strike — and strikes in general — are built.

Hundreds of thousands of students didn't go on strike because CLASSE told them to. The strike was built from below since the end of last year, and CLASSE—which numbers in the tens of thousands—has built unity with other student unions FECQ and FEUQ.

We can't turn our backs on mass student organizations or expect them to call a strike that has not been built from below (which would invite failure).

The CFS organized a pan-Canadian day of action against tuition fees on February 1 and occupied the Ontario Education Minister's office on April 5. If we want to spread the Quebec spring we need to learn the lessons and build a mass student movement from below, uniting with and strengthening the CFS.

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