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(en) Anarkismo.net: The history of the Quebec student movement and combative unionism by Jerome Raza jerome
Sun, 25 Nov 2012 11:42:02 +0200
In September 2012, shortly after the end of the largest unlimited general student strike
in the history of Quebec, several class-struggle anarchist organisations in Canada along
with a few local chapters of the IWW put together a cross-country tour to bring the
history and experiences of the Quebec student movement to students and activists outside
the province. Stopping in over a dozen cities from Toronto, Ontario to Victoria, BC, the
tour brought a participant in the 2012 student strike to audiences in colleges and
universities as well as union halls and various cooperatives. The article that follows is
based on this conference. Special thanks to Jonathan from Zabalaza for editing help!
Promotional poster for the 2012 cross-Canada tour on the Quebec student movement
The student movement in Quebec has recently written an important chapter in its history.
The strike that was launched back in February 2012, against the latest hike in university
tuition turned into one of the largest social movements in the province's, and perhaps
even Canada's, entire histories.
Of course, one of the interesting side-effects of the events of the last few months has
been that news of the strike has spread outside the province, and many students and
activists have taken notice.
We're not only happy that our struggle has inspired hope among the left about the ability
of social movements to fight back in this difficult context where the state and business
leaders seem to reign unchallenged. But we're especially excited to witness the fact that
the strike in Quebec has sparked debates across borders about charting a way forward for
the student movement.
Birth and early history of the student movement
The strike in Quebec didn't happen because we “just do things differently”. It didn't
happen because there's anything inherently specific to francophone culture. If we want to
help students and activists outside Quebec learn from our movement, we need to start by
addressing the fog of “Quebec exceptionalism”. One way to do that is to talk history. It's
an interesting starting point because right there, we've got something in common.
We're all surrounded by the history of Kings, Queens, conquests and statesmanship. The
elite's history. Quebec isn't any different in that respect. History of popular movement
and resistance is overlooked unless it plays into the nationalist narrative of dominant
political discourse. What the Quebecois student movement does have, however, is a strong
tradition of sharing the legacy of student struggles.
The birth of the student movement can be traced back to the mid-forties, not in Quebec,
but in France.
At the outset of World War II, a number of students, some with links to the anti-fascist
resistance, sought to give a new direction to the national student organisation. The
apolitical / corporatist attitudes prevalent among student groups at the time gave rise to
an ambiguous relationship with the Nazi occupiers during the war and so as a response,
these students took on the task of transforming the student associations of the time into
real student unions, modeled after labor unions.
In 1946, the National Union of French Students, or UNEF by its French acronym, adopted a
founding document: the Charter of Student Syndicalism, later known as the “Charte de
Grenoble”. It defines the student as a young intellectual worker with specific rights and
responsibilities which ensue from this particular status.
• Article 4: “As a worker, the student has a right to work and rest in the best of
conditions and in material independence, both personal and social, guaranteed by the free
exercise of syndicalist rights.”
• Article 7: “As an intellectual, the student has a responsibility – to seek out,
propagate and defend Truth which entails sharing and advancing culture as well as drawing
the meaning of history – to defend liberty against all oppression, which constitutes, for
the intellectual, his most sacred mission.”
In its beginnings, French student syndicalism took off around concrete issues of
decolonisation and the Cold War. Those who upheld apolitical student associations were
Back in Quebec, the notion of student syndicalism didn’t catch on until the early sixties.
At that time, student associations in the province were still apolitical and centred
mostly around organising parties and providing student services. But in 1961, students in
Université de Montréal, wanting to break with that tradition, wrote their own charter of
student rights and responsibilities, inspired by the Charte de Grenoble.
It was a new ideological paradigm. Students, as young intellectual workers, developed a
new awareness of their role in society as a whole. They were no longer content to concern
themselves with student issues. They started getting involved in worker's struggles and
identifying with the working class. As a result, more and more student activists
subscribed to the idea of building student unions that could not only provide services but
also organise struggles and thus take an active role in shaping society.
At the time, society was going through secularisation and the education system which was
previously under the control of religious authorities came into the hands of the state.
The old authoritarian reflexes of administrators and faculty weighed down on students' new
sense of duty and responsibility. They wanted to participate in the important decisions
that affected their institutions. The watchword became “student power”.
Another important factor is that there was only one francophone university in Montreal,
the Université de Montréal. It was elitist, expensive, and being perched up Mount Royal,
was far removed from French-speaking working class boroughs in the city. Combined with the
fact that the much smaller English community could count on two prestigious universities
(Concordia and McGill), the sentiment of injustice would become gradually stronger.
So around this fight to democratise access to higher education, students coalesced around
new, militant student unions and helped drive the development of the syndicalist tendency.
Combined with a general uproar in labour, feminist and nationalist struggles in society,
the student movement quickly became a force to be reckoned with.
In 1964, conscious of the need to co-ordinate the struggle, conscious of the need to build
the financial and organisational tools required to maintain a permanent balance of power
vis-à-vis the state, syndicalist students created the General Quebec Students’ Union, or
UGEQ by its French acronym.
Just a few years later, in 1968, as major students protest enflamed Europe, the upheaval
crossed the Atlantic and reached Quebec. A huge wave of turmoil swept across the province
and the fledgling student movement stepped in with the first unlimited general student
strike in Quebec's history. Even though, in the aftermath of the strike, the government
created a new public francophone university in Montreal, UQAM, along with the University
of Quebec network and a brand new student financial aid program, the strike action was
perceived as a failure. It was perceived as a failure simply because the result didn't
come close to the huge expectations. Even though the revolt spread across countries and
started to look like revolution in a few places, the social outburst eventually died down.
That sentiment, shared widely among student militants, was about to have pretty dire
consequences. In the following years, many local student unions were disbanded. The UGEQ,
whose membership was based in the student unions, also disappeared.
It's not that student activists were massively abandoning the struggle, but because they
saw student unions as too bureaucratic. They felt unions held back student's militancy and
the potential for radicalisation. In disbanding student unions and reorganising in
smaller, radical political groups, they hoped to be able to build a truly revolutionary
movement. Even though these critiques weren't entirely baseless, the decision to kill off
student unions was made rashly and without hindsight. Unsurprisingly, the loss of the only
structures and resources that could mobilise a mass movement led to a collapse of the
entire student movement. As an added consequence, whole areas of student life on campus,
which were built and under the control of student unions, fell into the hands of
administrations. Obviously not everyone in the student movement saw all this in a positive
light. It sparked a big debate in the student movement about which forms of organisation
were needed. Only 6 years later would the movement recover.
In 1974 the government announced plans to introduce university entry tests for francophone
students. In response, a co-ordination of syndicalist student unions started organising
for a new general strike. But the Liberal government wanted to prevent any reoccurrence of
the events of 1968, especially on an issue it didn’t consider very important. Difficult
negotiations with public sector unions made the prospect of a confrontation with students
even less appealing. So it quietly retired its plans to introduce the tests, before the
students got far ahead in the preparation of the strike.
Since the government's reversal was announced as temporary, students decided to press on.
The feeling of empowerment from an easy victory inspired them to expand the platform of
demands of the strike to include improvements to the student financial aid program. The
strike got going with just a handful of student unions, but it quickly got much larger. In
total, forty institutions, Cegeps and universities, participated in the strike. Four weeks
into the struggle, the government announced an important set of concessions and the strike
came to a close.
The success of that strike lead, the next year, in 1975, to the creation of a new,
permanent, Quebec-wide, syndicalist student organisation: the National Association of
Quebec Students, or ANEEQ. For the next twenty years, the debate between syndicalist
unions and affinity groups was put to rest. By the time of the next large student
mobilisation in 1978, ANEEQ eventually grew not into the main student union, but in fact
the only student union and quite literally representative of the entire student movement.
Most importantly, however, it remained true to its origins by actively promoting and
developing rank-and–file control of student unions and combative militancy.
The Parti Quebecois era
The Parti Quebecois won the elections in 1976. At the time it was definitively a
progressive party. Most importantly for the student movement, its political platform
promised to abolish student debt, enact free tuition and implement a “pre-salary”
programme. It's no surprise: lots of activists in ANEEQ, and activists that experienced
and organised the strikes in 1968 and 1974, were involved in the party. The election of
the PQ to the government created a wave of enthusiasm among the entire left.
Unsurprisingly, however, this enthusiasm was short-lived : the party's progessive platform
was quickly shelved.
By 1978, there was a rift within ANEEQ. On the one hand, the more radical activists wanted
to start organising a general strike to try and force the PQ into implementing its own
program. While on the other, you had activists loyal to the party, which defended a much
more conciliatory stance towards the government, hoping to make progress on the issues by
way of negotiation and dialogue.
Though both factions were about equal in numbers, the radicals, mostly Cegep students, won
a crucial leadership election. Just a few days later, a single rural Cegep student union
launched a general strike. Their demands: the PQ's own elections platform on accessibility
to higher education. The strike gradually expanded, though not as fast as the previous
one. After about three weeks, thirty Cegeps and a handful of university faculties were on
strike. As the mobilisation seemed to start dying down, the large UQAM student union
entered the strike. Again, the government was forced into concessions during the strike.
After two distinct announcements of improvements to student financial aid, the strike
ended. As students started going back to class however, ANEEQ launched a campaign of
occupations of MP offices. In a single day, six offices were occupied.
With the positive results from the third general strike, a renewed feeling of empowerment
helped consolidate ANEEQ's radical leadership. It remained as a symbol of radicalism and
mass mobilisation until its very end. Advocates of conciliation and negotiation eventually
formed their own, separate organisations.
In 1981, that happened when RAEU and the FAECQ were born. As brainchildren of PQ activists
whose party held power, the new student unions were rapidly integrated in to the state's
apparatus. Amazingly, they were also hostile to any form of mass mobilisation. Their
rallying cry was “the strike, never again!”.
The 80's opened a gloomier chapter in the history not just of the student movement, but
for the left in general. It was the era of the post-referendum, crisis inside the PQ, the
worst economic recession since the Great Depression, the dissolution of revolutionary
groups and difficult battles between the labour movement and the PQ's Rene Levesque
Internationally, Reagan and Thatcher ushered in the age neoliberalism. The welfare state
was on its way out and policies of privatisation and massive cuts in social spending
became the order of the day.
The austere eighties and the downfall of ANEEQ
In Quebec, the Liberal Party succeeded the PQ in 1985. Under pressure from their youth
wing, however, the Liberals promised to maintain the freeze on tuition fees. This regime
change was bad news for the RAEU and the FAECQ, whose bodies were entirely controlled by
PQ activists. Both organisations eventually collapsed into irrelevance. The next year, in
1986, the education minister declared that the tuition freeze should be abandoned. He went
as far as saying there were “twice too many university students in Quebec”.
A few months later, ANEEQ, after a campaign of general assemblies and a 5000-strong
demonstration on parliament hill, launched a general strike. The main demands, issued by
GA's and adopted in a congress of ANEEQ members and non-members, were to force the
government to promise to maintain the freeze, to dump university ancillary fees and again
to improve student financial aid. Just two weeks into the strike in which about 25 unions
participated, the education minister came out with a promise to maintain the freeze until
the next election and temporarily abandon ancillary fees at UQAM. On the issue of student
financial aid, he promised a series of meetings with students, in which the demands would
While the student unions decided to stop the strike, at least temporarily, a number of
occupations of government buildings were organised the following year to keep up the
pressure. Months went by and the negotiation meetings promised by the government didn’t
produce any results for the students. So as a response, ANEEQ launched a call for a new
general strike to try and materialise their demands for improvements to student financial
aid. Unfortunately, the 1988 student strike never took off.
The Liberal party went on to be reelected, and in 1990 they announced a huge tuition fee
hike, bringing them from $500 per year to more than $1200. At the same time, it gave
universities the power to increase these fees by up to 10%.
Once again, ANEEQ's student unions set off plans for a general strike. During the strike
campaign, the government hammered its justification for the hike by saying that better
financial aid (bigger loans available) would compensate the effects of the hike on poorer
students. At the same time, the student right got organised. A group of Cegep student
unions opposed to the strike formed the FECQ and allied themselves with another recently
formed university student federation, the FEUQ. As the successors of the pro-PQ, RAEU and
FAECQ the two organisations promoted an essentially lobbyist strategy. Their hostility to
mass mobilisation marked a new break with the student movement's legacy of syndicalism.
Unfortunately, the 1990 attempt to build a general student strike was a big failure. Three
years later, pulled down by intense internal strife, ANEEQ was disbanded.
For the next six years, FECQ and FEUQ would have free reign over the student movement,
allowing them ample time and space to enrol a sizeable chunk of local student unions. The
student left would only get reorganised around opposition to the federal Axworthy reforms
in 1994. The reforms proposed would see transfers to provinces for health and education
Renewal of student syndicalism
Common initiatives between a few local student unions (protest organising, a mobilisation
committee and a radical student newspaper) eventually lead to the formation of the
Mouvement pour le droit à l'éducation (Movement for the right to education), or MDE.
In 1996, Pauline Marois, the PQ education minister at the time, announced a hike in
university tuition fees and Cegep ancillary fees. The MDE spearheaded a general strike
movement which unions affiliated with FECQ and the FEUQ eventually joined. After about
three weeks of strike, Marois announced she would scrap plans to hike the fees, but with a
catch. She would implement a new “failure tax” on college students, (a form of taxation on
students that fail classes) a measure proposed to her by the leadership of the FECQ! That
move was immediately considered as treason by the radical activists and rank-and–file who
helped build the movement that stopped the hike in tuition fees. A lot of people were
convinced that the strength of the mobilisation could have gotten rid of the tuition fee
hike, and that the trade-off was a move deliberately made to abort the strike quickly and
help the FECQ get more credibility in the eyes of the government.
Even though this bittersweet victory consolidated the motivation of the student left to
keep organising, the MDE had a difficult time escaping marginality and gaining a
significant membership. It died off in 2000.
However, despite its relatively small membership, the MDE kept alive radical ideas and
practices. Its whole existence relied on the need to distrust leaders, on rank-and-file
syndicalism and direct action. For example, in the year following the 1996 strike and the
FECQ-FEUQ's leaders sellout agreement with the PQ government, the MDE would continue to
organise protests and occupations, demanding a substantial increase of minimum wage, a
32-hour work week as well as free and quality health and education systems. As such, MDE
contributed to preserve combative syndicalism and to oppose FECQ-FEUQ's lobbyist corporatism.
The prospective that the FECQ and the FEUQ would once again dominate the scene and that
the student movement would gradually distance itself from its heritage as a combative and
democratic force was too just hard to accept for many activists involved in the 1996
strike and the anti-globalisation movement at the turn of the century. So in the hopes of
helping the student movement return to its former glory, in 2001, several historically
radical local student unions decided to unite under the banner of the Association pour une
Solidarité Syndicale, which translates roughly to Association for Solidarity Among Student
Unions. (Incidentally, the acronym, ASSÉ, in French is a play on words for “enough”.)
This overview of the birth of the student movement in Quebec, 1968, the first syndicalist
student unions, the battles of the '70s, '80 and '90 should give a feel for where the 2012
strike comes from. At this point, it's probably clear that there's a lot more to the
origins of the strike in Quebec than mere spontaneity.
Furthermore, it's relevant to note that every student strike has been a major turning
point in the development of the student movement. After '68 student unions were destroyed,
the one in '74 gave rise to ANEEQ, in '78 we saw a new rift between radicals and
lobbyists, after the success in '86 the lobbyists lost ground, the failure of '88 divided
ANEEQ and the aftermath of another failed strike in '90 helped lobbyist student
federations establish themselves permanently.
Quebec's student movement as it exists today was essentially shaped by mass, collective
and syndicalist-type politics and action.
And yet, the student movement isn't homogenous, far from it. This vast general strike of
last spring in Quebec gave an impression of a united front of the three main student
unions : ASSÉ, FECQ and FEUQ. Underneath the media hype, the relationship between these
organisation is a lot more complex – and caustic – than images of unitary student protests
led on. But it isn't a parochial conflict : it's a question of fundamental disagreements
on elements of both practices and political outlook.
Before adressing this aspect, it's worth looking more closely at ASSÉ's history. (ASSÉ is
the Quebec-wide student union that created CLASSE by opening itself to unaffiliated unions
to join temporarily). Those who followed the strike more closely already know that it's
been the main force, the main protagonist of that struggle. Getting an understanding of
ASSÉ's history is key to better understanding the origins of the strike.
A brief history of ASSÉ
On with 2001. The “failure tax”, inherited from the dealings of FECQ during the 1996
strike, was taking it's toll on college students. A coalition of independent local student
unions formed around the project to launch a campaign to abolish that tax. Here, a few
things started working in favour of creating a new syndicalist student union.
First, it quickly became obvious how working outside of the formal structures of an
organisation weighed down on the organising efforts of the campaign. How are the costs to
be shared? How can the resources of each association be pooled? Who will track general
progress between meetings? etc.
Second, while the student unions were confident they would be able to stir up a sizeable
opposition movement (the failure tax was really hated), there was specific concern
regarding the FECQ. As the group that agreed to the failure tax in the first place, the
unions worried that it might appropriate the movement as its own and use it to negotiate
another rotten outcome against the wishes of the rank-and-file.
Eventually, those preoccupations were confirmed when FECQ, who wasn’t taking part in
mobilisations at all, negotiated “student performance contracts” in exchange for dumping
the failure tax. Outside the student movement, there was the broader political context. In
the 1990's the first half of the decade was dominated by the question of sovereignty,
leading up to the 1995 referendum.
But the second half of that decade really set the tone. The PQ's obsession with
zero-deficit resulted in cuts of nearly 2 billion dollars in education alone. In 2000,
during a “Quebec Youth Summit”, the government agreed to re-inject public funds into
education but under conditions to implement a series of reforms inspired by neoliberal,
free-market policies. It was baptised “plan Legault” after the PQ's minister of education.
On a global level, negotiations by states for a multitude of international trade
agreements on capital and services pointed to a new era in the globalisation of
capitalism. Reports and investigations into these negotiations showed how far western
states were ready to go to empower capital against people. At the same time, the WTO
summit in Seattle revealed the extent of popular resistance.
Similar events happened in Washington, Genoa and Quebec city with the Summit of the
Americas in 2001. ASSÉ's first activists were immersed in the anti-globalisation movement.
In the first months of ASSÉ, it renamed its campaign against the “plan Legault” as a
campaign “against the steering of education by market laws”. In doing so, it manifested a
rejection of narrow and piecemeal understanding of state education policies. Instead by
highlighting the role of “market laws”, it sought to tie together the various reforms
being implemented in Cegeps and universities and it also linked those changes to the
dynamics of international trade agreements and capitalist globalisation.
Even though it was off to a good start, the campaign ran out of steam. At this point ASSÉ
was rather small and had only about a dozen member unions. It then decided to focus on
opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The campaign rallied
students all across the student movement. As it did, it forced the federations, FECQ and
FEUQ to respond with their own campaign surrounding NAFTA. But they couldn’t bring
themselves to get with a radical anti-NAFTA agenda, so they settled on a corporatist and
responsible demand of “No to the inclusion of education in NAFTA”.
At a large meeting of local student unions from all affiliations, only a tiny fraction
decided to follow the student federations' campaign while the vast majority rallied behind
ASSÉ and a clear rejection of NAFTA. On October 31st 2002, 10 000 participated in a
Montreal march against NAFTA.
In the first few years of ASSÉ's existence, its struggles were about global dynamics on
which the student movement had very little grab. The fight against NAFTA wasn’t able to
spark a mobilisation outside the student movement. While the 2003 antiwar movement against
the intervention in Iraq had a popular character from its inception, the student unions
weren’t able to underline any specific political objectives it could work towards. When it
tackled the phenomenon of the “steering of education by market laws”, it was campaigning
against nothing less than the vast neoliberal restructuring of education, which, at the
same time, was fast becoming a fact.
Nonetheless, ASSÉ was still able to build its base of support among students. In the
context of wide opposition to international summits (NAFTA, WTO, G8, G20...), the student
body responded enthusiastically to calls for mobilisation. Through the experience of these
first struggles, ASSÉ's activists were able to develop an open political vision and a deeper
understanding of issues.
A new frame of thinking made its way into the student movement: the roots of our
day-to-day problems, including in education, could be found in the international economy –
more specifically in the relationship that builds between human populations and capital.
In 2003, however, the focus went from international to local with the election of a new
Liberal government and its plans for “state reengineering”. It was a shock for the labor
and community groups used to the PQ's smooth approach of concertation. The Liberals wasted
no time in implementing anti-social reforms, including in education. ASSÉ put out a call
for a general strike in 2003 against a hike in ancillary fees, but it ultimately failed to
get more than a few unions on board.
The lessons learned through that campaign came in handy when the next year, in 2004, the
government announced a reform of student financial aid, converting 103 million dollars
from bursaries into loans. ASSÉ reacted by organising a wide consultation of student
general assemblies in order to build a platform of demands and start building up momentum
towards a strike action.
Tours of Cegeps and universities were organised, as well as massive distribution of
material calling for the strike, demonstrations and even occupations of MP offices.
Because it was conscious that a successful strike movement would necessarily need to
include other unaffiliated student unions, ASSÉ began planning for a student strike
coalition. The student federations, FECQ and FEUQ, adopted a wait-and-see approach to the
strike. While ASSÉ activists were busy working at mobilising students on campuses across
the province, FECQ and FEUQ were content with “representing” student interests at Liberal
Party meetings and the “Generations Summit” orchestrated by the government.
To add insult to injury, the day the general strike was launched in February 2005, they
went on the record declaring that it wasn't the appropriate time for student mobilisation
and that they had no plans to join the strike. In fact, since the education minister had
been replaced just a few weeks earlier, they wanted to “give him a chance”.
Well, the student movement didn’t concur. Within two weeks over 70 000 student were on
strike in Quebec, including some from student unions affiliated with FECQ and FEUQ. The
two federations were forced to join the strike or risk having some serious representation
That about-face turned out to be a mixed blessing. While the strike kept expanding in the
following weeks, the issue of negotiations came up. After one meeting of the ASSÉ strike
coalition negotiations committee, the education minister declared he wouldn't pursue
further negotiations with the student group before it renounced “violence”.
Of course, what he wanted the student unions to renounce was in fact occupation of
offices, rowdy protests and blockades. In other words, the only tools at the disposal of
students to effectively disrupt business as usual and force the government into
negotiations. The issue was to create lots of debate among general assemblies and meetings
of the strike coalition, but in the end, in part because of the involvement of anarchists
and other radical student activists, the coalition maintained its commitment to combative
The student federations, on the other hand, immediately renounced violence and began
closed negotiations with the government. At that time, the strike coalition represented
about a third of the movement but also the longest striking unions, so the move created a
lot of discontent, even among the rank-and-file of the student federations, some of whom
launched a plea with their leadership to stop negotiating in the absence of delegates from
the strike coalition.
Five weeks into the strike, the leaderships of FECQ and FEUQ announced an agreement to end
the conflict. That agreement would see the cuts reversed, but only partially for a few
years, with the full amount being reinvested later. By undermining the unity and
determination of the movement, the move succeeded in putting an end to the strike, with
the most resilient unions ending the strike after the seventh week. In a large part
because of the insistence of ASSÉ, however, that in the interest of maintaining democratic
control of the movement, any outcome of negotiations be put to a vote, a huge number of
general assemblies rejected the agreement while at the same time voting off the strike.
There was a lot of anger at FECQ and FEUQ's leaderships during and after the strike. A lot
of students from all quarters of the student movement felt they squandered the movement's
largest mobilisation ever. Not only that, but the struggle made the political divide
between the two poles of the movement obvious.
FEUQ eventually payed a high price. Between 2005 and 2007, three significant campus unions
left the federation, including the huge McGill undergraduate student union. As is often
the case when chapters of struggle come to a close, the 2005 strike left mixed feelings of
victory and defeat. Victory, for one, because the strike happened, because it grew into
the biggest student strike in history and because its power was enough to force the
government into making a concession, however small. But defeat also, because the strike
coalition built around ASSÉ wasn't strong enough to prevent FECQ and FEUQ from
appropriating the movement and squandering the mobilisation in exchange for tiny concessions.
Even though the Liberals reluctantly agreed to reinvest some amount into financial aid,
their next step couldn’t be more clear: a hike in university tuition fees. They didn’t
wait five years, until 2012, to do it, though... They dropped the official announcement in
2007: a hike of 30%, spread over five years, with a further hike down the road in 2012.
Unfortunately, 2007 was a much less glorious chapter than 2005. ASSÉ took a bold stand to
launch a general strike with the main demand of free tuition, no less. No more than just a
handful of student unions got a strike mandate. The failure to block the hike in 2007 was
a big blow, but as the student movement in Quebec has shown, it's got an ability to
evolve, learn from its mistakes and do better.
Lots of different things were highlighted as having contributed to the failure. Bad
internal dynamics in ASSÉ, not enough mobilisation done on campuses, material not having
been solid enough... The most significant element however, might have been the political
miscalculation of having called for a general student strike on the basis of free tuition.
In a way this was a break we can't help but notice that the largest and most successful
struggles were given sets of realistic, immediate goals. In '68 you had the demand for
democratisation of higher education, in the '70s and '80s students fought for adequate
financial aid and against hikes in tuition fees, and so forth. It's through these kinds of
objectives that the movement is able to mobilise and grow.
Part of the success of the student movement in Quebec is based on an ability to relate to
the concerns of regular students, to speak to their day-to-day experience, while at the
same time being able to articulate all this to a wider political analysis that seeks to
address the issues at their root.
Student unions are relevant
All through the history of the student movement in Quebec, the syndicalist tendency
maintained that students need to organise into unions. It was true then, and it's still
For sure, students don't form a homogenous class in the same way workers do. In any given
campus, students with a really wealthy background might rub shoulders with others who can
barely make ends meets. But despite different socio-economic backgrounds, students do form
a community and they do have a certain set of common interests, independently of their
political, philosophical or religious opinions.
Chiefly there's the issue of accessibility to education. With tuition constantly
increasing, students being pushed deeper and deeper into debt, being forced into
precarious jobs to survive, the dream of higher education is fast becoming a nightmare.
The gap between the myth of equality of chances and the reality of this lie is getting
deeper. There's also matters of the quality of education, in terms of student-teacher
ratio for example. Access to appropriate study equipment: good libraries, study space, etc.
There's also concern about corporate influence over the content of courses and how
programs are structured, not to mention the orientation of research more and more towards
the needs of big business while fundamental research (which doesn't serve industry
profits) is gradually being abandoned. These are all issues that can cement support for
At the same time, lots of students are really deeply involved in different kinds of groups
on campuses such as Public Interest Research Groups. They do a lot of hard work and they
address important issues. But that kind of organising isn't a substitute for student
unions. Political groups alone can't hope to build a movement of the same nature that
we've seen in Quebec because their aim simply isn't to build unity among students.
Now, of course most campuses these days already have some kind of student-led structure.
So obviously, it's not enough for students to organise into unions. There are different
types of unions and there's different unionisms too.
The success of the student strike is a product of a certain kind of unionism that's called
“combative unionism”. In the context of Quebec, it's not something imagined by academics
or dreamed up by industrial relations students. Combative unionism is the explicit
strategy, and set of practices, promoted by the syndicalist tendency in the student
movement. In a nutshell, it calls for democratic, combative and autonomous unions. This is
what CLASSE is made of.
First, combative unionism says a union should be run by its members, for its members, and
the only way to do that is to practice direct democracy. It's a clear rejection of
representative democracy. When disagreements and struggles are mediated by leaders who can
act without grassroots support or consultation, it's inevitably the interests of
authorities that are served, not the members.
The fundamental tool of direct democracy is the general assembly. Only in general
assemblies can everyone voice their ideas on equal footing, and where these voices can
produce collective decisions which are then binding on the whole union. These meetings are
important because they allow students to engage each other and develop capacities for
debate and critical thinking.
The power of executive boards is explicitly limited to implementing the decisions of the
assemblies and running the day-to-day operations of the union. Unions which practice
combative unionism also have minimal bureaucracy. Paid employees aren’t a substitute for
anemic participation in the structures of a union and instead of fixing the problem, it
merely makes it permanent (ASSÉ has always had one employee). Dealings with
administrations or higher authorities isn't based on the power of representation, but on
delegation. Delegates have a clear mandate of which positions to defend and have no
authority to accept any compromise.
Information is also key to a healthy democracy, so combative unions rely on alternative
and autonomous media to inform their members. Whether its through posters, leaflets or
newspapers, a combative union will use the means at its disposal to make relevant news
available to students and use those as opportunities to directly engage with them and get
them involved. In the same vein, transparency, on all levels of organisation is made as
real as possible.
The second core idea of combative unionism, is, well, combativeness. Its militant tactics
stem from an understanding that contrary to what the dominant ideology makes us think, the
state isn't a neutral institution where all sectors of society have equal standing. In
reality, the state is a tool in the hands of private business interests and completely
submitted by the power of finance. As a result, we can't ever hope to shame or convince
the government into accepting student demands.
That's why combative unionism, through mass mobilisation and the power in numbers, seeks
to build itself as a permanent counter-power that can force the satisfaction of student
The type of tactics it puts forth are a reflection of the unions themselves: by their
members and for their members. In other words, direct action.
We have to reject the notion that direct action is necessarily violent or destructive. At
its core, direct action is about the rank-and-file being at the forefront of all aspects,
and not representatives or politicians. In the spirit of combative unionism, though,
direct actions also need to be mass actions. The only way to do that is by taking into
account the general state of consciousness among members of the unions and their
commitment to the movement. In that sense, general assemblies need to have the larger role
in debating and orienting tactics.
Combative unionism is also a refusal of confining methods of protest to the limits of
legality. This flows from its ideas about the nature of the state. If the state is a tool
in the hands of the few, it's only logical that the laws of the state are also designed to
protect them. But it doesn't make illegality into a dogma either, only that different
types of actions available to the movement should be judged based on their own merit and
their usefulness to the cause, not whether or not they're sanctioned by the legal system.
As a result of all this, a movement based on combative unionism will ally both common
methods of protest like rallies, marches and strikes, with more vigorous actions such as
occupations and blockades.
The third core idea of combative unionism is about autonomy.
In the interest of preventing alienation from its own organising by and for its members,
combative unions need to promote and materialise their autonomy with regard to the state
and political groups. Autonomy with regard to state structures because students don't
stand to gain anything significant by participating, especially when the nature of their
demands contradict the interests that control the state.
This also translates into a rejection of participation in summits and consultations, not
least because these events are always used to legitimise future government decisions that
run counter to the politics of the student movement.
Autonomy also with regard to political groups and political parties. Any political party
which includes as part of its program certain demands of the student movement, once in
power would inevitably have to face the politics of compromise which are often
characteristic of the parliamentary system. As such, a party's political stance issued
from demands of the student movement is always subject to be abandoned in the name of
political realism. A number of historical examples confirm this.
Those are the three core ideas of combative unionism, which have been part of the student
movement since the very beginning.
Hopefully, through the decades these ideas have been enriched and one of the ways they
have been is by the incorporation of feminist thought and practices.
It's often apparent, whether it’s in radical groups or mass organisations such as unions,
that the voices of women are not heard as much as the men's or that more men tend to get
involved in ways that bring them under the spotlight, while the involvement of women is
often much more invisible.
Feminist women activists in the student movement have worked relentlessly through the
years, often under much criticism of their men comrades, to integrate feminist analysis of
student issues and to institutionalise feminist practices in the movement.
Today, that work is most visible, for example, by the existence of women's committees in
ASSÉ and some student unions, the common rule of alternation between women and men
speakers in all types of meetings, and the integration of a team of “vibe checkers” that
keep tabs on tensions and hostilities and call out participants when they use stereotyped
Obviously, despite the best my efforts at synthesis, of more remains to be said about the
issues raised in this article.
Many important periods in the history of the student movement, such as the year 1982 when
unions fought back against legalislation framing student unions, are relevant in
understanding the challenges facing student unions today.
This history of the 2012 strike itself, which isn't adressed at all, also remains to be
And lastly, much more can be said regarding the the principles and day-to-day practices of
combative unionism in Quebec student unions. Though these were adressed during the
conference tour with audiences, this crucial part is missing for the written record.
My hope is that an upcoming website which I'm working on along with several comrades of
the 2012 student strike, titled “How we won the tuition fight”, will adress these aspects
in a more satisfying manner. Stay tuned, it will be officially announced in the comment
section of this article soon!
Benoit Lacoursière, Le Mouvement étudiant au Québec de 1983 à 2006 Montréal, Sabotart Éd.,
coll. « Mémoire & Luttes », 2007, 179 p. (link)
Jean-Philippe Warren, Une douce anarchie - Les années 68 au Québec, Montréal, Boréal,
2008, 311 p. (link)
Pierre Bélanger, Le mouvement étudiant québécois : son passé, ses revendications et ses
luttes, Montréal, ANEQ, 1984
Benoit Marsan, Pourquoi le syndicalisme étudiant? (link)
Recueil de textes sur l'histoire du mouvement étudiant (link)
Le syndicalisme étudiant de combat (link)
This conference tour was made possible by the work of :
Praire Struggle* http://www.prairiestruggle.org/
Common Cause* http://linchpin.ca/
Union communiste libertaire* http://www.causecommune.net/
Edmonton IWW http://edmonton.iww.ca/
* Anarkismo member groups
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