They created a monster that will haunt them

June 4, 2012

Students have been on strike for months in the Canadian province of Quebec in an attempt to stop the government's proposed increase in the cost of tuition at public universities.

With the education system effectively shut down and faced with almost daily demonstrations of students and their supporters, Quebec's government, led by Premier Jean Charest of the Liberal Party, has attempted to repress the movement with mass arrests and escalating legal restrictions. Quebec's parliament passed Bill 78 to curtail the right to assemble.

However, that law has only spurred the movement to greater heights. On May 22, about 300,000 students and workers protested the tuition increases and Bill 78. Since then, there have been nightly illegal demonstrations of thousands throughout Quebec--and solidarity actions have spread to the rest of Canada.

The largest student union organizing the strike is CLASSE, which stands for Coalition large de l'association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, (Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity). CLASSE is itself a coalition of different Associations for Student Union Solidarity (ASSÉ). Guillaume Legault is the general coordinator of CLASSE and Guillaume Vézina is the secretary of information for CLASSE. They spoke to Ashley Smith about the role the union has played and how activists organized.

WHAT ARE the key issues in the struggle?

Vézina: We are on strike against tuition hikes imposed on us by the Charest government. Our union, CLASSE, is founded on the idea that education should be free and a social right. When Charest proposed tuition increases, we said we wouldn't accept this. That's the main issue in the strike.

We reject the idea that the universities need more money from us. They have increased their enrollment and are meeting their budgetary needs that way. But there are deeper reasons we raise as well about what education should be about. They want it to be about research and development for Nike and the other companies. We think education should be about improving society, not making profit. 

WHY IS the Charest government trying to impose the tuition increase?

Legault: Since 2007, they just started to do really intense things. Even before the 2008 economic crisis, they announced they were going to put in place a big austerity plan. They decided to dramatically bring down the level of taxes for enterprises. They even abolished the last tax on business capital starting in 2007.

Student demonstrators defied the recently passed repressive law known as Bill 78
Student demonstrators defied the recently passed repressive law known as Bill 78

Then they said, "We don't have enough money. We need to increase the cost of public services to balance our budgets." You know, the song is always the same. They put little taxes on every service. In health care, they put some fees on medicine. They did the same for many other services. But faced with that situation, resistance by unions and other organizations really began in 2010.

We knew that they would come for education next. So in 2010, when they proposed this tuition increases, we were like, "Whoa, what's going to happen? What are we going to do with this?" At this time, ASSÉ, which spearheaded the formation of CLASSE, just decided that we're going to try to make a big information campaign for everyone concerning the tuition hike

At that time, it was already clear for ASSÉ that nothing could stop the government except a general strike. At that time, everybody was looking at us, saying, "Ah, look at all the dreamers who all want to go on strike." They never thought that we would be able to get 150,000 people out on strike.

After the two hard first months of general strike, many protests and direct actions had already been organized, and we set up a huge rally in Montreal that united the voices of more then 200,000 people. For that event, on March 22, we had more than 320,000 people on strike for one day. This was just--I'll use a bad word--fucking amazing. We saw the local student associations coming out, one after the other. The list of student associations on strike was starting to get long!

So maybe we had big ambitions, but I think today's struggle just confirms that anything is possible. Now the masses of people have actually gone even further to our left. We don't have any more control on what's going on, and it's beautiful.

Just look at the protest on May 22. It was one of the biggest protests in Canada's history. We were really surprised by its size because this strike is getting really, really, really long.

But the government just went into attack mode. They systematically tried to bring us down with Bill 78, which basically criminalizes organizing. But that law just outraged people and expanded the struggle. Everyone turned out on May 22. So they've created a monster of determined new activists that will haunt them for at least the next decade.

WHAT IS Bill 78 and what has been the response to it?

Vézina: The law does several things. First, it suspended the semesters until August. So they basically shut down all the universities, whether they were on strike on or not, to try to paralyze the strike.

Second, the law gave the cops the right to ban a protest of 50 or more people if the organizers don't submit the hour, date, time and route of the march to authorities. The cops can even change the route if it breaks the "social peace." I mean, if we're making a protest against the prime minister being somewhere, they can just tell us "go protest in another city on another day." This is absurd.

This law affects more than just students. It affects everyone, including the traditional trade unions. They can even suspend automatic dues collection to the unions if people violate this law.

Legault: This law has given the police a blank check to go after activists. But CLASSE has announced that we will not respect that law. By doing that, we're exposing ourselves to massive fines.

Vézina: Despite this intimidation, I think the law has backfired. You could see this on May 22. On the 22nd, some student organizations gave the authorities one legal itinerary that almost everyone did not like. So it was put to the demonstration whether they wanted to go the legal route or the illegal one.

Everyone, the entire demonstration, opted for the illegal itinerary. So the whole march of hundreds of thousands was illegal. This was the biggest act of civil disobedience of the last 40 years in Quebec.

Legault: Ever since the passage of the law and especially since the 22nd, people are marching every single night, banging pots and pans together in what we call casseroles. People gather together every night on a volunteer basis. There is no organization, no speakers, no sound system and no security. People just gather in a park, and march every night. And every night, there are anywhere from 2,000 to 100,000 people in the streets if you add up all the small protests that take place in lots of towns and cities across Quebec.

Vézina: Last year's biggest demonstration was on Mach 31. It was the biggest event of last year's campaign--I was arrested there--and we had between 5,000 and 10,000 people in the street. It was a huge demonstration, and we were proud. And now that's happening every night. People are violating the law and showing their opposition to the government.

HOW STRONG is the strike across Quebec?

Vézina: It depends on the campus. On some campuses, it is very strong, and others not so strong. It depends on how effectively students are organized. On the strong campuses,, they understand the meaning of the problem: they don't strike for meaningless concessions, they strike for their rights. This is what they want, after being out on strike for so long--they really want their rights.

Legault: We have over 160,000 people who are on general strike for various reasons. From them, more than 100,000 are striking for more radical demands. Some are on strike until we get a reasonable offer from the government; others until we get back the 2007 level of tuition; still others until we get free tuition; and there is even one campus that recently voted to be on strike until the social revolution, even though this is not part of CLASSE platform.

These 100,000 people are not coming off the strike until we get a reasonable offer at least on tuition fees.

Until now, we didn't have a single offer from the government on tuition fees. This is astonishing, because right now, they've lost way more money than they would have gotten from the tuition hike. They have not even finished counting how much this strike is going to cost them. This truly shows the political and ideological objectives behind the tuition hike.

WHY DO you think the struggle go so large this time compared to previous student struggles?

Vézina: I think the international context helps explains why the struggle is so big. After the big strike of 2005, the government came back at us in 2007. They implemented a tuition hike of $100 dollars each year over five years, and the mobilizations just went down and nothing happened. In 2011, the Arab Spring inspired us.

Legault: On top of that, the Occupy movement showed people that it's possible to make a move and to protest. But there are also specific reasons here in Quebec. I think this year, one of the main differences is the size of CLASSE and the place that ASSÉ had in this whole struggle.

We built a huge national team of volunteers, organized the campuses, laid the groundwork and built general assemblies to prepare for the strike. Many of us went through the mistakes and setbacks of 2007. We learned a lot from that.

In all the organizing, many teased us for being so romantic, thinking that we could ever do something as big, as large, as long and as dynamic as the 2005 student strike, which was the biggest in the history of Quebec. But with this strike, I mean we just completely broke all historical records of student militancy.

HOW IS CLASSE organized, and how does it differ from the other two student unions, FEUZ and FECQ?

Legault: I think the main difference is direct democracy. In our organization, we never wanted to tell people what to do, but we wanted people to tell us what to do. We just don't organize an entire campus in one union. We organize our local unions by academic departments, so that we can have as deep roots as possible, involving as many students as possible.

Two other major differences between the national organizations are definitely principles and actions. ASSÉ and CLASSE proclaim ourselves as part of combative syndicalism. This main principle of our organization defines the actions we make to get heard.

This type of unionism made us build our movement completely independent of the political parties. Another key idea for us is that we need to be a fighting union based on the complete rejection of collaboration. We also are principled feminists. These principles have structured our struggle. CLASSE is really a grassroots movement.

I could not say that for FEUQ or FECQ. They try to have really tight control. However, with the growth of CLASSE, we have been able to have a lot of influence on the other student unions, pushing them to the left and into a more combative stance. That is a real breakthrough compared to the past.

SO HOW do you coordinate this grassroots democratic unionism across the whole of Quebec?

Legault: We have a strike committee of 12 to 20 people that is elected. On top of that, we have almost 55 volunteers who are part of various committees to organize things throughout Quebec. These people are really committed, risking their jobs, taking time away from their families, girlfriends and boyfriends. They go throughout Quebec just trying to keep the strike going on and helping people organize actions.

SO HAS CLASSE grown larger and more influential as a result of the strike?

Legault: ASSÉ has grown from 42,500 at the beginning of the strike to 55,000. CLASSE has grown to about 100,000 members. We've grown because CLASSE was the major leader of the strike. In fact, CLASSE started the strike. Lots of people just turned to us and said, "Well, they're fighting. They're leading the strike, they're leading the struggle so why not join them." I think that's pretty much what initiated that big enlargement of ASSÉ. We completely and totally took the lead.

HOW DO you collaborate with the other student unions?

Vézina: In the beginning of the struggle, you had a big tension between the different organizations. The other two unions were intimidated by Charest and were not friendly toward CLASSE and our combative union principle. So we didn't collaborate that much.

But then we worked together on a series of demonstrations against the tuition hike. After that, we formed a joint negotiating committee that agreed to hold firm on the things we agreed on--like stopping the tuition hike.

Legault: We have built unprecedented solidarity between the student unions. This was put to the test as well by the government. It tried to exclude CLASSE three times from the negotiations. But we have kept our unity strong so far.

The other unions have not been sucked into separate negotiations without us. However, our differences remain strong, and there is a history with the other national organizations. We experienced this in the 2005 strike when the other unions made separate deals from us. We have to take this into consideration in the political strategies we use.

ONE TRADITIONAL division in the student movement in Quebec has been between Anglophone campuses and Francophone campuses. Have you been able to overcome this division?

Legault: We were successful in this effort, really for the first time ever. We had two people on the national team who made it a priority to go to McGill and Concordia, the main Anglophone campuses in Quebec, to organize them for the strike. It worked at Concordia beautifully, but not at McGill.

There is a really big cultural gap between unions on the Francophone campuses and Anglophone campuses. They are organized in a completely different manner. They have big unions organized across the whole campus. In most cases, CLASSE is organized department by department. We had to work a lot to organize to get their departments on strike, to join CLASSE or to participate in actions.

They often have campus-wide general assemblies and mostly use Robert's Rules to run them. These assemblies are not that effective in organizing a strike because only a minority of the campus tends to turn out. The problem then is how to you keep the strike when you have a minority who are at the assembly voting for it.

That's why the smaller organizations established in the departments are more effective. For example, if you have a 2,000-student department and, let's say, 1,200 people who vote for the strike, the strikers will be able mobilize stronger and bigger picket lines.

On the other hand, if you have a campus general assembly that represents 40,000 students and 5,000 attend and vote for the strike--which is pretty impressive--there are still 35,000 people who just didn't vote on it, didn't think about it and don't know how it's going to be applied.

Another difference is probably that historically, the Anglophone campuses had way richer populations than the Francophone universities. L'Université du Québec à Montréal in Montreal has always been the poor people's university, the place where the first people in their families to go to college would go, and that makes a clear difference.

While it's been a struggle to overcome these differences, we've achieved an unprecedented solidarity between Francophone and Anglophone campuses, and we mean to go forward with this work.

WHAT HAS been the relation between the Quebec strike and other campuses in Canada?

Vézina: Education is a political responsibility of the provinces in Canada. So one province's decision does not have big impact on other provinces. But solidarity is always welcome, and we have tried our best to cultivate it. But it's just starting. We are beginning to see this across Canada with calls for casseroles in many cities.

HAS THE student strike won solidarity from the trade union movement?

Legault: We have gotten overwhelming support. Most of the unions have passed resolutions in support of our strike. They have given us big donations. They bring people to every protest we have. We even have unions that pay for buses to bring people from one place to another to build the picket lines.

Vézina: Lots of teachers and other public-service workers have joined our picket lines. The whole education sector is really angry with the government, and is really against that the tuition hike and Bill 78. And they are really taking a part in the struggle.

WHAT WAS the response to CLASSE's call for a social strike, a general strike against government's policy?

Vézina: We didn't have much of a response to that call because the traditional unions are not legally allowed to stage a political strike. If they do, the government can go after them to try to destroy them. And they have a lot to lose--money, buildings and much more. That's why they did not respond to the call for a social strike.

Legault: Not yet, but there are dynamics that can change that situation. In 2010, because of Charest's radical attacks on public services, lots of unions took a formal position in favor of a social strike. One of the three big unions in Quebec, Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux, took a position in favor of a political and social strike. But they did not act on it.

The idea of a social strike came from some of our local unions. But a social strike has to be planned in a serious way. We have work on it, inform people and concentrate on mass preparations.

We are part of the coalition called Against Tarification and Privatization of the Public Services. This coalition is going to be a major leader in discussing plans for social strike. It may be able over the coming months to build momentum for a real social strike against the Charest government.

HOW DO you see the struggle in Quebec in relation to the struggle throughout the world against austerity?

Legault: I'm proud to say we're one of the major movements in North America at the moment. We never thought it could happen here. But people see what's going on throughout the world, what happened in the Middle East, and what's happened in the Occupy movement.

All of these actions opened everyone's minds about the problems with our economies, all the absurd financial speculation, and how much we live in a false world, with false things and false debates. In this system, our future is gambled on the roll of dice.

We can consider ourselves in the same global struggle, even if they are affected dramatically worse than we are here, and the fight is not on the same scale, too. In Greece, it's a social revolution. Here, we're still banging pots and pans. However, we are pleased to consider the actual mobilization the start of something that could somehow grow bigger.

WHERE DOES the struggle go from here?

Legault: After the discussions we had in the congress, we have decided not to negotiate separate agreements with the local administrations of the campuses. Everybody was pretty determined to continue the strike.

But we might have problems starting the strike again in August. The government is betting that there will be a large backlash against us in the fall. But the government has also discredited itself with its repression, with all these arrests, and with their stupid law.

In reality, they are spending far more money on suspending the semester and all this police activity than they would ever make through the tuition increases. It's completely insane.

So we have to continue organizing through the summer. In Montreal during the summer, there are 200,000 to 300,000 people in the streets every night for the festivals. That is a huge opportunity for us to distribute information, give out our newspaper and win over more and more people to our struggle. It's going to be a hot summer.

Vézina: We have to continue the strike to stop the tuition hikes. We have to win. We don't have a choice. If we win, it's going to be better for all the rest of Canada and North America. If the student movement here falls, it's going to be worse for everyone. We have no choice but to win. In the process, we are giving birth to a new left to take on the government on many other questions.

Transcription by Karen Dominguez Burke, Michael Stemle and William Crane.

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