From November 14-16, 2007, more than 60,000 students across Quebec joined ASSÉ, the radical student union in the province, in 3-day strike for the following demands:
- For free, quality, accessible education
- For a massive reinvestment in post-secondary education
- For a reinvestment in daycares for student parents
- For the abolition of the anti-strike Law C-43
To the shock of many in the media, students at one anglophone institution – Dawson College – joined for all three days, with an additional demand for a $10/h minimum wage. After the strike, ASSÉ adopted a motion in solidarity with the Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign. Below is an analysis of the Quebec student strike by Marxists working in Montreal, as well as an account of their victory at Dawson College.
The student strike across Quebec and at Dawson College this November, 2007 was a product of the Quebec student strike of 2005. In 2005, Quebec society was looking for a way out of the impasse posed by the class-collaborationist PQ (Parti Québécois) on one hand, and savage Liberal attacks on the workers’ unions on the other. The labour leadership, particularly the PQ-friendly FTQ (Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec – Quebec Federation of Labour), frustrated the aspirations of the workers for even a 1-day general strike.
Thus, the issue of funding for post-secondary education became a catalyst for the discontent of society. When the Charest Liberals attempted to slash $103 million from the education budget and convert bursaries into loans, clear and decisive leadership came from radical student union ASSÉ (Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante – Association for Student Union Solidarity), representing tens of thousands of students in colleges and universities across Quebec. ASSÉ was able to organize a strike whose momentum captured the imagination of advanced workers, the middle classes and students in the rival FÉCQ/FÉUQ unions. Even the PQ-friendly bureaucrats of FÉCQ (Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec – College Student Federation of Quebec) and FÉUQ (Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec – University Student Federation of Quebec) were dragged along into the strike movement. The government and these bureaucrats collaborated to crush the strike on the basis of granting minimal demands.
In 2005, the International Marxist Tendency in Montreal was literally composed of two active members. Our “forces” were isolated: we were anglophones in a French-speaking society, we were Marxists in an anarchist-inspired movement and we had no influence in unions or organizations when these elements were clearly necessary for an intervention in the movement. Nonetheless, we enthusiastically threw ourselves into the strike, and drew several conclusions from the development and betrayal of the 2005 strike.
First, that workers’ support was an absolute precondition for a successful student movement. The strike aroused a mutually sympathetic feeling between workers’ and students’ unions: however, this was limited to informal collaboration which did not extend to the rank-and-file level. Many strikers just expected workers to “down tools” in solidarity, not realizing that the trust and respect of the workers must be built and earned by collaboration over time.
Second, that division between rival student unions must be overcome. Despite ASSÉ’s radicalism, they failed to recognize that as a minority they could play an important (even a leading) role – but that by maintaining a division in the movement they left the bulk of students under the influence of collaborationist bureaucrats.
Thirdly, we learned, through our exposure to the movement, the power of clear and bold demands to mobilize the population. The unlimited strike tactic and the call for free education were dismissed by many as too radical – but it was precisely this radicalism which proved the most effective means of building a combative student movement with meaningful social weight.
After much debate, the IMT in Montreal set out to bridge the divide between anglophone and francophone students. This meant working at Dawson College, where an accreditation drive had opened up possibilities for work in a newly independent student union. Although Dawson was a part of the traditionally passive anglophone population, it was the largest college in Quebec, and students were primed for further action by the accreditation drive.
We eventually drafted a statement of principles and called weekly meetings for a new, broad-based organization: Common Front – a name which drew on the experience of the revolutionary Quebec General Strike of 1972.
Common Front picked up the slogans of free quality accessible education, the abolition of Quebec’s Law C-43 (which bans 500,000 public sector workers, including teachers, from striking), and a comprehensive investment in daycares for student parents. These were the demands of ASSÉ’s mobilization efforts.
Law C-43 was recognized by ASSÉ as a threat to students’ right to strike. However, Common Front pointed out the larger implications of its abolition. Instead of treating it as a purely student issue, the demand for abolishing this law could be used to build links with the powerful public sector unions. Common Front made these arguments before an ASSÉ congress, and the demand was officially adopted after intense debate.
Perspective Towards a Failed General Strike
Unfortunately, time was not allocated to resolving other, more serious issues in the build-up towards the 2007 student strike. ASSÉ organizers were preoccupied with the eventual goal of an unlimited general student strike. Rather than considering this the apex of the strike movement, they considered it a starting point. This perspective led to a loss of momentum, as student unions folded their arms, waiting for others to go first. Unfortunately, at the most radical schools of the 2005 strike, this resulted in a backlash of massive proportions. The opportunity was lost, and the strike was defeated by enormous proportions at several schools.
It came to light that FÉCQ/FÉUQ bureaucrats had colluded with the Nationalist PQ to delay the strike for one semester, in order to use the strike to call for a new election (and thus a PQ victory). The bureaucrats, who admitted the plan’s authenticity, mobilized for “No” votes at general assemblies across the province.
However, isolated schools did gain strike mandates, so the sights were lowered toward a 3-day strike on Nov. 14, 15, and 16, in preparation for a larger strike in the new year. This proved to be successful virtually everywhere, including the schools which voted against the unlimited strike.
Dawson Breaks the Barrier
At Dawson, we were helped in our mobilizations when ASSÉ agreed to publish an English edition of their newsletter, the Ultimatum. Common Front gladly took the opportunity to write and distribute it.
The student union was holding elections for 4 executive positions and Common Front fielded candidates. We used the Marxist analysis of elections as a guide for our activity: they became a mobilizing tool, with our election platform clearly calling for the 3-day strike. Our message was clear, we stuck to the demands without distraction, and we used a variety of tactics – but all with the same central issue: a strike for free, quality post-secondary education. Throughout the campaign, we collected signatures – but more importantly, contact information – from supporters of the 3-day strike. This resulted in a very tight race, which nearly put us in control of the student union, but did not reach that point. More importantly, classrooms and corridors buzzed with talk of strike action for two months, as the walls were plastered with our red posters, and the strike banners hung proudly for all to see.
On the day of the General Assembly, hundreds arrived half an hour early. Hundreds more arrived in the ensuing half hour. Over seven hundred students tried to pack into a room designed for 350, with hundreds overflowing into the hallway. This was the highest turnout since the accreditation drive, and bureaucrats were used to struggling to reach the quorum of 115. Common Front organizers were in shock. At first, the bureaucrats and a panicked college administration tried to turn people away, but they had no control whatsoever over the collective will of the students. Their attempts to delay the assembly did not dampen the mood, as spontaneous chants of “Strike! Strike! Strike!” traveled through the waiting crowd.
The Dawson executives had shipped in the Deputy Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students-Quebec Brent Farrington (who had played an integral role in “neutralizing” the CFS-Q and countering our efforts at Dawson) – all the way from Ottawa – to “handle” the situation we had created. They placed their trust in his abilities to hold back the wave, but no fancy footwork could hold the students down. Attempts by the chair to delay voting were defeated no less than five times. After the vote, he shrugged and looked for forgiveness from the routed bureaucrats.
When the time came to vote on the strike itself, a deafening majority voted with their lungs and their hands – while 10 voted against. The divide between anglophone and francophone students was visibly crumbling.
There was little time for celebration. Though the moment was emotional, there were picket lines to organize.
The response of the bureaucrats was contradictory. A few called Common Front organizers to help negotiate details of the strike. The President of the DSU, however, initiated a secret meeting with administration that specifically excluded the one Common Front member of the DSU executive. In an attempt to divide students from teachers, their deal stipulated that one door to the College was to be left open, and teachers were ”required” to break the picket line by using this door. But the class solidarity of many of the teachers overshadowed these petty manipulations: the support from teachers on campus was phenomenal, in spite of this attempt to sow division. Symbolic pickets at all entrances were relatively effective, however, with support from teachers high despite end-of-semester stress. Half the classes were canceled throughout all three days.
Over the next three days, news came in of attempted student occupations at Vieux-Montreal College and the university of UQÁM, both ending with blood and arrests as riot police stormed in and swung batons indiscriminately. At Dawson, picketers were quickly met with a squad of 20 police officers early on the first day, and the picket line was broken by threats of fines and arrests. On one day, the head of security barreled through the picket line on his way out of the school, and pushed several picketers to the ground after exiting.
Despite this, we were happily surprised to see dozens of new faces who remained committed for all three days, through rain and sub-zero temperatures – students brought to the fore by the strike itself. Strikers’ morale soared as francophone students from St-Laurent College, and anglophone students from Concordia and McGill, came to picket with us on the second day. Together, we marched to meet more than 3,000 protesters in downtown Montreal. The cold rain did not dampen the mood of the students gathered from across Quebec, and massive red banners proclaimed slogans for free education. For many of the Dawson picketers, this was their first strike, and their first protest. Many of them subsequently joined Common Front.
A New Strike for the New Year
This is only the beginning: ASSÉ is already mobilizing towards a longer-term strike in the coming semester. The university of UQÁM, facing a serious financial crisis and government threats to close down the state-run institution, has a mandate for an unlimited strike beginning in late January. With this in mind, the strike at Dawson has had some important consequences.
Dawson’s strike is a proof of the power of Marxist organizing methods, and the power of organized students to change their corner of society. It shattered the “common-sense” belief – prevalent amongst both anglophone and francophone activists – that anglophone students were too “apathetic” to take combative action for radical demands. The three-day strike was successful in breaking the silence of English-language media regarding the student movement. It consistently raised the demand for free education in the public eye. Common Front is now in a unique position, being the only organization successful in mobilizing anglophone students for a strike. This has led us to recruit a few new activists from Vanier College, where things look promising for the winter semester.
Through work at Dawson, Vanier, Concordia, and McGill, Common Front must prove that free education is a demand finding support from all who work to pay for their tuition fees: whether anglophone or francophone. As ASSÉ schools begin to strike in January and February, anglophone colleges and universities must not return to the role of watching from the sidelines. Instead, anglophone student activists must put forward the demands of the movement – and develop links with teachers and support staff. Students at FÉCQ/FÉUQ schools, such as Concordia, need to mobilize for solidarity with ASSÉ’s demands, and for an end to the division in the student movement.
Only by an organized and united campaign across Quebec, in unity with teachers and workers, can students win. Such a victory, however, would come at a heavy price to Quebec’s bourgeoisie, as free education can only be financed by an end to the tax cuts and goodies the government grants the corporate sector. It is for this very reason that students can no longer consider their movement simply a movement for free education: this is a part of a wider movement to fight back against all the attacks of the government on social services, and the wages and conditions of regular students, teachers and working people across Quebec. Any movement that sides with workers against corporate profits must know its enemy.
Ultimately, our movement will come to the inescapable conclusion that free education, the right to strike, comprehensive daycares and a living wage can only be guaranteed by abolishing capitalism. Capitalism hoards all the wealth of the society in the hands of a small privileged group – an immense wealth which, owned and controlled democratically by the working class, would be more than enough to guarantee free quality accessible education for everyone, guarantee living wages for all, and rebuild our crumbling health care system. This is socialism, by its very nature.
We’ll be working toward that goal, every step of the way.