Over the last few years, the class struggle in Québec has passed several milestones that had not been approached in the previous 30 years. The Parti Québecois, camouflaging their programme in nationalist rhetoric, pursued austerity measures and anti-worker policies for years. Despite the claims of the bourgeois media, the defeat of the PQ in 2003 was a reaction to its attacks on the working class rather than a rejection of separatism, or a victory of federalist policies. The issues that brought down the PQ remained unaddressed by the Liberal administration under Charest, and a renewed wave of reactionary policies were savagely affected a few short months after its election. Without the nationalist rhetoric to mask class relations, working-class activity took on a character of renewed radicalization. 2003 saw a push for a general strike, which had the overwhelming support of the rank-and-file, but the movement was betrayed by a section of the trade-union bureaucracy. The discontent of the working class was reflected in other sectors of Québecois society as well, most notably the student movement culminating in the recent general student strike.
In immediate terms, the strike was a response to the Liberals’ conversion of $103 million in bursaries into loans. This meant that students who receive bursaries, in particular students from poor and working-class families, would now have to pay back – with interest – money that was originally theirs to keep. Also at issue was “autonomy” for the CÉGEPs (colleges). Québec is the only province in Canada to require a level of post-secondary education before university. The Liberals actually wished to abolish the CÉGEPs entirely, but were forced to back down a year ago in the face of public outrage. The programme of “autonomy” and “decentralization” meant that in reality there would be far less standardization across the board, making diplomas from some colleges worth less than others. Both these “reforms” lent themselves to an increased division of the classes, allowing a quality education to become more and more the preserve of the wealthy. These issues were the catalysts that precipitated underlying tensions within the Québec student population into strike action.
The student movement in Québec is split between two wings. The FECQ/FEUQ (Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec/Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec) is led by the right wing, while the CASSÉÉ (Coalition de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante élargie) has a more radical program. CASSÉÉ was born a decade ago out of a split within the student movement following the betrayal of the last student strike by the FECQ/FEUQ leadership, who dropped many key demands such as the abolition of unequal fees for foreign students. The FECQ/FEUQ essentially functioned as a training ground for future PQ bureaucrats, and their links with the then-ruling PQ administration meant the leaders would not effectively defend students’ interests. The gains that were made (including the current tuition freeze which has kept Québec’s tuition the lowest in Canada) were made in spite of the reformists and are a far greater testament to the militancy of the student rank-and-file than to the effectiveness of the bureaucracy.
In the wake of this betrayal, the radicals in the student movement broke away to form their own federation, the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante. This federation became the expression of a more militant platform within the student movement and took on a greater role as pressure from below built up, and students demanded a more cohesive and militant expression of their aspirations than the FECQ/FEUQ offered. In the present struggle the failure of the reformist wing was exposed when the struggle reached its boiling point and its leadership did not respond. When the time came, it was ASSÉ who took the initiative by organizing a coalition which included disenchanted FECQ/FEUQ members: the CASSÉÉ, which proceeded to call for a general unlimited student strike. FECQ/FEUQ was forced to either respond to the call or lose the bulk of its membership to the CASSÉÉ.
The student strike began on February 24, 2005, initially limited to participation from CÉGEP college students across Québec. The Parti Québecois and the Action Democratique du Québec both opportunistically supported the strike; however, the bulk of the students rejected their support. Democratic, bottom-up strike committees were organized at every striking CÉGEP. Weekly ratification assemblies, called throughout the strike at every level, ensured the active participation of the rank and file and provided legitimacy to the actions of the federations. Congresses were held regularly, and were open to the public. Even the presence of the police at these meetings could not intimidate the students, nor did it hamper their ability to make democratic and unapologetically militant decisions.
On the first day of the strike, Collège du Vieux-Montréal was occupied, followed a few days later by Collège St.-Laurent. Both these CÉGEPs had a long history of militancy and displayed their colours rather graphically. Barricades made of tires, furniture, and metal fence material, red and black flags, and slogans condemning the Liberals as well as the FECQ/FEUQ adorned the entryways. The strike grew quickly, reaching 70,000 students within the first week and growing to over 230,000 at its peak. While initially it strictly involved students in CÉGEPs, by the third week it had spilled over into universities across Québec. The struggle even reached rural areas which had not seen this kind of activity in decades. The largest university in Québec, Université du Québec à Montréal, (UQAM) also saw a short-lived illegal occupation which was crushed within hours by the police. It was without a doubt the largest student strike that Québec had seen since the turbulent year of 1968.
Before the strike had even been called, a Montreal-based organization had been formed known as the Reseau des travailleurs et travailleuses solidaires (Workers’ Solidarity Network). The Network was quickly able to establish itself as a presence by engaging itself in the everyday struggle of workers, including the formation of flying picket squads and other forms of support. These militants foresaw the need for solidarity between workers and students, recognizing that students need the backing of workers in order to achieve their aims. The demands of the student movement, particularly as expressed in its radical wing, can only be brought about by a socialist transformation of society.
It bears attention that the existing regime of low tuition, in effect due to previous struggles, was actually responsible for the working-class composition of the majority of students and led to the radical outlook of the strike. In fact, when we visited striking and occupied schools, the discussions buzzed with references to May 1968 in France. Schools such as Vieux-Montréal were displaying documentaries of that student strike; students were already drawing the conclusion that in order for the strike to become a genuine movement, it would have to join hands with the workers’ movement and address issues that struck at the core of capitalism.
CASSÉÉ’s demands increasingly reflected this tendency, beginning with the demand for free higher education, as opposed to a simple return to the status quo. They immediately received the moral and financial backing of major labour unions. Donations came in from the CSN-Construction union even before the students approached them for solidarity, and the transit workers’ union aided in obscuring public transportation advertisements with posters presenting the students’ positions. Such posters proclaimed the need for a “general social discourse” on the future of Québec society. The unions also funded television advertisements and transportation for the strikers. As the strike progressed, the demands grew organically beyond purely student interests. By the end of the strike, the CASSÉÉ had also joined ranks with unemployed workers, and recipients of social assistance (who also suffered a $150 million cut).
Additionally, the government’s contract with the teachers’ federation had expired; over 222,000 teachers voted for rotating strikes and other pressure tactics (which are still ongoing). Maintenance workers employed at schools across Québec also struck for a day. The mood of solidarity was felt even at schools that did not join the unlimited strike. Important links were built between students and teachers in defence of common interests, which continue beyond the student strike. An expression of this solidarity came at Vanier college, where administrators attempting to intimidate non-unionized teachers by means of illegitimate “performance reviews” found massive resistance. In one particular incident, a Marxist student (who had succeeded in enlisting teachers’ support for strike agitation within the student body) explained to students what the teachers could not: that these performance reviews were a form of attack on the teachers from the government, which must be resisted by students’ solidarity. The resulting support from the student body surpassed the expectations of the teachers: entire classes walked out rather than break ranks with their allies.
The student strike struck a nerve with the vast majority of Québecois society who saw the cuts as unjust. Demonstrations called by both federations consistently drew masses in the tens of thousands, and the red felt badge that became the symbol of the strike was proudly worn by grandparents, working men and women, schoolchildren and strikers alike.
However, the strike came to an end when FECQ/FEUQ leadership once again betrayed its membership and negotiated a deal with the government. The government had refused to negotiate with CASSÉÉ, citing its support for “violence” (which in reality referred to graffiti and economic disruption). Initially, the FECQ/FEUQ refused to condemn CASSÉÉ’s tactics as a result of rank-and-file pressure; however, they ended up cynically exploiting the radical wing of the students to position themselves as the “legitimate” negotiating partner with the government. The government agreed to reinvest $482 million in grants and bursaries, including $70 million this year and restore the full $103 million per year by the 2006-2007 school year. Few of the more general demands beyond the $103 million figure were addressed. Many students involved in the movement will not see even the meager gains they were able to secure – not to mention the interest that will accumulate over the next year for those students who do eventually see their loans reconverted into bursaries. Although the CASSÉÉ wanted to extend the strike further, in isolation they did not have enough social weight to carry through their demands, and in the climate of demoralization that followed FECQ/FEUQ’s sellout, they wisely recommended that their membership return to class, without abandoning other means of struggle. Much more could have been achieved with a united movement and a radical leadership.
At the end of the strike, an element of despair set in among the advanced layers of the movement, which was understandable considering the amount of work and personal energy invested in the strike. However, what is needed is not despair, but an honest appraisal of the objective failures and successes of the strike, and a sober discussion of how to build from the current situation in preparation for future battles.
While the student strike was an extremely important development in the overall movement of Québec society, certain key failures must be addressed in preparation for the next wave of events. CASSÉÉ led a campaign of “direct action” and economic disruption by blocking key trade and commerce locales in Montréal. At some points, the execution of these tactics degenerated and strained relations between students and rank-and-file workers. Naturally, media exaggerated these tensions in order to slander the student movement. In fact, this is a fundamental flaw with direct action tactics in general: when they are taken in isolation from the masses of workers, they alienate the movement and undercut support from otherwise natural allies. The students should have ensured the cooperation of the workers who would be affected before embarking on this particular campaign. As a matter of fact, the level of worker discontent with the current system is high and these tactics could have been an excellent opportunity to build solidarity.
However, it must be noted that these tactics emulate current union tactics in Québec and are evidence of the influence which unions are beginning to have on the student movement. The government condemned the link between the unions and the student movement, telling Québecois that students should “learn to manage their own affairs.” These words exposed the fear that the ruling class and government have of the labour movement in Québec and the growing radicalism of Québecois society.
In spite of these tactical weaknesses, it is absolutely indispensable to take into account the important achievements which have emerged from this struggle, which can only be viewed as successes. The Workers’ Solidarity Network, for example, found itself in a unique position to intervene once the strike began, and its calls for class unity found an echo within the student movement due to direct organizational connections with the student movement and labour militants. One of the greatest successes was a call from the CASSÉÉ for the expansion of the general strike with the slogan of a “General strike at all levels” of Québec society. These are qualitative changes in the consciousness of the student movement in Québec – which unfortunately emerged too late in the strike to have effect, but which will have an overwhelmingly positive effect on coming struggles. The fact of the matter is that the idea of students’ and workers’ unity has not been present in the mass consciousness for the last 30 years – and now that it has re-emerged, it establishes a starting point for the next struggle.
These gains must now be built upon by continuing the tactical unity and expanding upon it. This strike established ASSÉ as a presence within the student movement. These militants can be proud of the role they played and the support they were able to build around their slogans and demands. The fact that they were able to organize the CASSÉÉ coalition is testament to the fact that there is an echo for class politics within the rank and file of the FECQ/FEUQ. However, the division in the student movement played into the hands of the government and their allies in the leadership of the FECQ/FEUQ. While CASSÉÉ was (and continues to be) successful in attracting support and winning over significant layers from within FECQ/FEUQ on a class basis, their existence as a separate federation merely allowed the FECQ/FEUQ to increase its bargaining power. The fracture in the movement provided the government the means it needed to get away with granting the bare minimum in concessions. Instead of prolonging this self-defeating division, the overall interests of the students would be better served if CASSÉÉ devoted its energies to re-entering FECQ/FEUQ from its current point of strength, and used its influence to mobilize the overthrow of the discredited leadership of FECQ/FEUQ. The CASSÉÉ could agitate skillfully on a distinctly working class-oriented platform. This would allow them to exercise greater influence within the mass student movement, and would provide students represented by the FECQ/FEUQ with a genuine class alternative within their traditional union which is denied them by their bureaucracy. A united, radical student federation would accomplish far more in the next battle with the government than a splintered movement could ever be capable of.
One anecdote, perhaps, illustrates best of all exactly where the movement stands today. At a Montréal meeting in solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution, organizers invited a representative of the student movement to speak. The spokesperson, after describing the trials and the exhilaration of the strike, ended with a statement to the effect that “We are all united in a common struggle against capitalism. The Venezuelan revolution, the movements of workers and unemployed, and the student movement all have in mind the establishment of a just social and economic system which truly benefits all. We cannot achieve this under capitalism.”
Ensemble nous vaincrons.