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(en) Canada, Autonomy & Solidarity*, Upping the Anti #2 - “The Strike of the General Assembly”: An Interview with Nicolas Phebus

Date Wed, 25 Jan 2006 10:02:51 +0200

In this interview Nicolas Phebus reflects on the Québec student movement
and its most recent mobilization in the Spring of 2005 against cuts to
education funding by the ruling Liberal Party under Jean Charest. The
Liberals’ attempt to convert more than 100 million dollars in grants and
bursaries into loans, thereby effectively doubling the indebtedness of
poorer students, was met by an unprecedented student mobilization. The
mobilization evolved into a massive general strike: at its peak, more
than 200,000 college and university students were out on strike.
Highlighted by a demonstration involving as many as 100,000 students in
Montréal on March 16, the student mobilization also involved school
occupations and a campaign of economic disruption, including a blockade
of the Port of Montréal. The strike was effectively ended when the
government reversed course and agreed to abandon the loan conversion
scheme. The education sector will continue to be an important front in
the resistance to neoliberalism, with students in Québec once again
leading the way. In this interview with Aidan Conway, Phebus provides
some historical context for this most recent student struggle and
reflects on the openings it has provided for developing radical
perspectives on, and currents within, contemporary social struggles.

UTA: Québec has historically had perhaps the most combative student
movement in North America, going back to the late 1960s. Could you talk
a little bit about this history?

Nicolas: The first thing to understand is that the Québec student
movement is organized around a trade union model. Everyone is a member
of the union and pays dues, and there is a closed shop; by law you have
to certify a student union in Québec. So student unions are not just
action groups. This organizational model forms the basis for a fairly
stable and institutionalized movement which gives the student union
financial autonomy, and provides the basis for certain forms of direct
democracy. There are both positive and negative aspects of this model:
it ensures a certain level of stability and generates a lot of resources
for activists to do their work, but it does institutionalize the
movement since unions do daily casework for students and are what you
might call their “legitimate representatives” with the administration
and the state.

In general, people tend to place the birth of the movement in the 1960s,
and particularly the 1968 strike which was, until recently, the only
general strike involving a significant number of university students.
The strike of 1968 called for the creation of a French University and
led directly to the creation of the Université de Québec à Montréal
(UQÀM), which was basically a popular university where many working
class people went to get the basic training to get into the new middle
class jobs. It has been known as a leftist university, and up until the
early 1990s, students there were involved in most student strikes around
grant and loans and tuition fees, even if these strikes where largely
based in public colleges. The results of these struggles have meant that
Québec is the only province in Canada in which people still have
bursaries based on need and not simply on academic results, not to
mention the tuition freeze, which helps make university education much
more accessible. These measures were put into place by the Québec state
as a way to deal with the fact that Québec lagged behind English Canada
in terms of the proportion of youth getting university education, and
they were also explicitly aimed at training a layer of lawyers, middle
class professionals, and white collar workers and technicians.

The Québec state also sponsored the CEGEP system, which is a publicly
funded system of technical colleges and preparatory schools for
university, something that doesn’t exist in English Canada. The CEGEPs
have generally been more activist, more militant, and more prone to mass
mobilization. Because they are basically free, students generally don’t
yet have a customer or client outlook towards their education and are
less likely to see a strike as a loss of the money they’ve “invested” in
tuition fees. Also, partly because of size, the CEGEP student unions are
organized differently than in universities. In the CEGEP, the student
union is based on a general assembly and an elected executive committee,
making a praxis of mass democracy much easier, whereas in the university
there is a delegated body that is the de facto decision making body. Up
until last spring the only strike that had involved a large number of
university students was in 1968. In terms of universities, until now, it
has generally only been UQÀM students that would strike.

The student movement has been shaped by the fact that most strikes and
mobilizations over the years have been based around student and student
union rights, against tuition hikes, for the reform of educational
programs, and for better or subsidized access to education; bread and
butter questions as opposed to political strikes. There have been some
political strikes but most have related to economic issues. Another
thing that is different in Quebec is that because student unions are
organized like trade union locals, they often enter into negotiations
with the Minister of Education or school administrations similar to
those which take place in workers’ strikes. There have been several
local strikes to get union recognition and around specific local demands.

The student movement was really big up until the mid-1980s which was the
first time that the movement lost on something. In 1986 students went on
strike just to defend the status quo for bursaries and loans. In 1989
and 1990 there was a general strike against tuition hikes which was
lost. The movement emerged from this defeat divided, with the creation
of the FECQ (Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec) and FEUQ
(Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec) which are very
conservative federations. They wanted to build a student movement that
was “respectable” and based on lobbying, which they claim is more
effective than strikes and demonstrations. These federations are
dominated politically by young Liberals and young Parti Québecois (PQ)
members and were organized as an alternative to the historical ANÉÉQ
(Association nationale des étudiantes et étudiants du Québec), which was
seen as too prone to strike and dominated by “communists”.

The radical national student movement was effectively destroyed in the
mid-1990s leaving only the FECQ and the FEUQ apart from some local
unions with a more radical perspective. From the 1990s up until now it
has really been an uphill struggle to reorganize a national leftist
union federation which would be based on the union model and not just on
lobbying. This was the experience of the MDE (Movement pour le droit à
l’éducation) from 1995 to 2000, which was the movement that kick-started
the 1996 general strike against the PQ government.

To give you some background on this, the PQ was re-elected in the
mid-1990s and froze tuition. This was when they were preparing for the
referendum and were still presenting a social democratic public face.
After they lost the referendum of 1995, however, they hosted a big
social and economic summit – involving the bosses’ representatives,
trade union bureaucrats, the FECQ and FEUQ leaderships, and others in
civil society – around which they engineered a major right wing turn.

UTA: This was part of the PQ’s search for a model of so-called
consensus, or concertation?

Nicolas: That’s right. The PQ has been doing this for some time,
basically whenever they have bad news or want to cut social programs.
This summit involved intense negotiations to get a consensus around the
idea of “zero deficit” in which everyone basically won something in
terms of social laws and program funding. Everyone, that is, except
students. At the time there were rumors of huge tuition hikes and a
general strike was launched during the summit. The right wing of the
student movement wanted to keep lobbying but Lucien Bouchard, the new PQ
prime minister, said publicly that there would be no compromise on
tuition fees. This strategy backfired and there was a massive and
widespread strike which after three weeks ended in the compromise of a
new tuition freeze.

The MDE, which launched this strike and sort of coordinated it despite
being quite marginal, was not able to seize the momentum after the
strike in terms of growth and suffered a long and painful death agony
afterwards. Actually, it was the leaders of the FEUQ who negociated the
deal that ended the strike despite never having a single member on the
picket line. People in this new generation have subsequently been trying
to develop a new left student group called ASSÉ (Association pour une
solidarité syndicale étudiante) which leads us to this last, most
recent, strike wave.

It seems to me that the ASSÉ activists carefully studied the 1996 strike
experience and did their best to avoid a lot of the mistakes that were
made. Early on they built a large coalition called CASSÉÉ (Coalition de
l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante élargie) which
involved 40 associations and was the body that, at least initially,
coordinated the most recent strike. From the very beginning they
succeeded in acting, and presenting themselves in the media, as both a
radical wing of the movement and the representative of the majority of
strikers. The FECQ in the FEUQ later got involved and represented some
students and engaged in negotiations, but it was not done in their
normal mode of backroom dealing.

The radical wing was large, influential, and well organized through
democratic general assemblies and presented themselves as a legitimate
wing of the movement. That was something new. The other thing that was
new, as I mentioned, was that this strike was basically a university
strike – the first one since 1968. The really novel and exciting aspect
of this strike is that the strike mandates were coming from the
grassroots bodies of faculty and departmental student unions instead of
being university wide. At most universities the first to go on strike
were the faculties of humanities, social sciences, or social work. The
more liberal and left faculties went on strike and afterwards more
conservative faculties joined them. That’s how it spread.

The other thing that was new was that after getting a majority of their
members on strike the FECQ and the FEUQ did actually issue a call for a
general strike for the first time. Within a couple of days you went from
having 80,000 strikers to 200,000 strikers. The demands put forward by
the strikers were related to grants, loans, and tuition fees – meaning
that people were basically going on strike in solidarity with poor
students. That was pretty amazing. The fact that there was even a strike
vote and a brief strike in the Université de Montréal faculty of
medicine tells us a lot about the depth of the movement. This was a huge
and concentrated upsurge which basically won its demands. It was not a
total victory but the strike succeeded in beating back a significant
round of cuts that had already been implemented for a year.

UTA: Could this strike be seen as a kind of dress rehearsal in which the
Liberals test the fighting spirit of the student movement before
potentially trying to unfreeze tuition?

Nicolas: Absolutely. That is definitely what is coming next, but not
immediately given the success of the strike mobilization. Not only was
the radical wing of the movement really large and influential, but even
the FECQ and the FEUQ found themselves involved in more or less militant
student unionism with a clear mandate from their respective
decision-making bodies. They definitely did mess around with those
mandates in the negotiations, and there was definitely some backroom
dealing, but they still came back with the result before signing
anything and got votes on the negotiation at general assemblies. This is
something new for the FECQ and the FEUQ. It was clearly more militant
and democratic than the norm and this had a huge social impact in terms
of the character of the mobilizations.

UTA: Do you think the student movement was rejuvenated by this latest
strike or given some new energy that will last beyond the strike itself?

Nicolas: I think it’s too early to tell. Of course, every strike bears
new fruit. There are always people who get politicized and it will
definitely shape another generation of activists. I don’t know how this
will translate more broadly. It seems to me that this strike
mobilization was very much part of a continuation – with some ups, downs
and turns – of the anti-globalization movement. While this kind of
mobilization was probably something new for the college kids who were
just too young to have been around for the Summit of the Americas, there
is definitely a relationship between these struggles. One student I
spoke to said that a new political generation was born out of the strike
and that it was kind of like the closing of the anti-globalization loop.
To him what was significant was that the young people fighting global
“free trade” finally found an important local and concrete application
of what they were fighting against. He said it was anti-globalization
politics transposed to the national level within Québec. There’s some
truth to that.

UTA: Do you think that this played a role in the form that the
mobilization took, for instance the importance placed on direct democracy?

Nicolas: Yes, I think so. The thing is, this strike was more democratic
and with more direct action than the anti-globalization movement itself.
There was some “direct action” more narrowly defined, but the strike
mobilization itself and the massive demonstrations were really
impressive. There is a strong tradition of union and student
mobilization in Québec, but the spring student strike was the largest of
its kind ever.

General assemblies have always formed an important basis for CEGEP
student union organizing. They’ve always been important there, but not
in universities. I feel like we could say that this was “the strike of
the general assembly.” There were massive general assemblies where
people fiercely debated with each other and some of the votes were lost
by 1 or 2 percent with 80 percent of the students taking part in the
vote. Of course, when you get a meeting of 3 000 students it often
doesn’t go much further than demagogy, but it was still really impressive.

Everything seemed to be organized fairly democratically. I saw how
things worked at Université Laval in Québec City. There were information
tables with the bylaws of the various faculty student unions and people
who came by the tables were given information about how to call a
general assembly in their local. People were using that information and
putting it into action. Faculty student unions are usually used to
organize parties and things like that, and suddenly you get a strike
assembly. Instead of blocking everything most of the executives were
letting the issues go to the general assemblies which were electing
strike committees, voting budgets, organizing strike action, etc.

UTA: Is that the kind of thing that’s hard to go back on once it gets
going because a whole layer of people now expects things to work this way?

Nicolas: Yes and no. People definitely learn a new way of doing things
and this is not something that is forgotten, but the momentum is lost
and the struggle dies down. When this happens, the product can often be
ultra-leftism and sectarianism, as it was after the 1996 strike. In 1996
a lot of the militants were pragmatic anarchists or communists who were
involved with a mass movement, and then they radicalized more and more
and eventually they ended up so radical that no one was around them
anymore. In the years after 1996 most anarchist militants in Montréal
and some in Québec City left the student movement because it was
reformist and turned to organizing pure anarchist groupings and black
blocs. These are cool, but in the absence of mass mobilizing I’m not
sure that it’s the best way to spend your energy. I think a lot of the
far left people radicalized through the strike of 1996 and then, in the
absence of any meaningful and living mass movement, ended up as isolated
and sectarian radicals amongst themselves. We’re still trying to figure
out how people lost contact with reality.

UTA: What was your sense of the role played by far left organizations in
the strike, your own and others?

Nicolas: I don’t think any far left organization played any meaningful
role in the struggle although I do think that far left activists that
are not linked to organizations and some that are (for example people
from the NEFAC and the Maoists) were deeply involved, but as individual
activists. I think that if there’s an organization that played a role it
is ASSÉ which is kind of a “party” itself. They learned a lot and I
think they’re the ones that did a lot of the work. The political groups
were not particularly present or effective.

The funny thing is that people changed a lot. It’s really a new
generation. The symbol of the strike that people would wear was a small
red square. At the first big national demonstration that I got into in
Québec City I saw tons of red flags and was like “Oh my God, we’re
really losing ground.” I was really distressed at how big the Maoists
had become until I started asking people why they were carrying those
red flags. It was the red square that was the symbol of the student
strike. People had changed. Ten years ago the red flag could not be used
in the middle of a strike. That would have been impossible. There are a
lot of people who are looking around for ideas, but none of the far left
groups really have the structure to organize and intervene very
effectively or even to handle a significant influx of people.

UTA: What about ASSÉ? Do you feel like they might have been strengthened?

Nicolas: We will have to see. I know that a few new colleges joined as
members just after the strike. There are some universities who are
talking about joining. Concordia University pulled out before the
strike, but the financial loss was filled by the new members from the
colleges, and the colleges will probably generate more activists and
deepen the movement. But then I don’t know if people have learned from
the mistakes. They’ve done their best to not have their strike stolen
but at the same time it happens.

People often have loyalty to a movement and not to an organization. And
most people don’t know why it’s important to organize over the long
term. We had this huge strike and instead of building an organization
that could compete for legitimacy with the FECQ and the FEUQ the normal
way of looking at things for most leftists tends to be more about simply
destroying the conservative federations and less about building
alternatives. You can see that right now with a wave of decertification
votes involving FEUQ members. For exemple, the Université Laval student
movement, with some 40 000 dues paying members, just pulled out of FEUQ
after a close decertification vote. But I fear that ASSÉ may have
limited success. Another problem that ASSÉ has to face is that a lot of
people are confused by their political analysis of the student movement
and the role of FECQ and FEUQ, which I think tends to come off as a
little bit sectarian to newer people.

UTA: Do you have any final thoughts? What is NEFAC’s outlook in Québec?
How do you think revolutionaries should approach this window of opportunity?

Nicolas: The thing that I think is important to remember and try to
understand is that the upsurge of the student movement is the tip of the
iceberg in Québec right now. There are important things going on around
the labour and ecology movements and it definitely seems like people are
in motion. This is helped along by the fact that there is a Liberal
government and so the leaderships of the mass organizations are not
putting on the brakes as heavily as usual. There’s some momentum right
now and a real opportunity for something to develop. There’s a window of
opportunity, but what we will do about that and how it will translate in
the long run I don’t know.

Our own strategy is based on the fact that, on the one hand, we think
that revolutionaries should recruit and organize and build their
political groups. It’s easy, in the enthusiasm of an emerging mass
movement and in the heat of the social struggle, to put all of your eggs
in the mass movement. I’ve seen this happen in the past where anarchist
groups disappeared because their members became so deeply involved in a
struggle that they did not have time to do anything else. It’s always
disappointing to see other political tendencies reap the fruit of a
struggle that is organized and led by anti-authoritarians simply because
there’s no functioning anarchist group around that radicalizing people
can relate to.

We’re not going to lose the organization for a mass movement again. We
think it’s important to build a political organization and political
networks with tools to intervene in mass movements. On the other hand,
we also think that we should all fight as much as possible for a
full-fledged autonomy of the social movements. We work to radicalize the
struggles, but we don’t want to mistake radicalization of means for
radicalization of ends and perspectives.

We work to build the autonomy and the capacity of the movements we are
involved in, which means that we don’t necessarily fight for positions
of power. While we do have positions, roles, and responsibilities within
movements the goal is not to have somebody elected somewhere. We think
our role is to understand and analyze what’s going on and share our
understanding of revolutionary politics and some of the history with
others, along with generating anarchist propaganda. One of the most
important roles of revolutionaries is to try to make links between
struggles because every struggle is radical in a sense. The problem is
that nobody knows their neighbor is also struggling.

Nicolas Phebus is a member of the Collectif Anarchiste la Nuit-NEFAC and
works for a community group based in Québec City. He is thankfully no
longer a student, but was involved in the MDE during the general strike
of 1996.

"Upping the Anti" Volume 2. http://auto_sol.tao.ca

* A&S - Autonomy & Solidarity is an anticapitalist antiauthoritarian
revolutionary network in Canada.
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