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The lessons of the Quebec student strike: Where now for the student movement?

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As this article is being written, defeated strike votes from Quebec’s universities and colleges are rolling in. The push to block the start of classes, imposed by the Liberal government, appears to be failing. Most of the strike votes have failed with a large majority voting to return to class. The movement is faltering as students are grudgingly voting to end the strike. However, while grim, all is not yet lost. This is a decisive turning point for the movement and it is vital that we learn the lessons going forward.

Classe banner Photo: Justin LingThe secondary causes, which culminated to produce the no votes, are clear to everyone. The fear of Bill 78 (now Law 12), the loss of the session, the timing of the elections, and the untimely resignation of popular CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, are all having negative effects. However, it would be an error to mistake these factors (which are largely manoeuvres of the Liberal government) as the primary causes of the movement petering out.

Students in Quebec have shown unprecedented dedication and perseverance. They have resisted the proposed tuition increase of $1,625 with a huge show of determination. The post-secondary education system has essentially been shut down; we have seen demonstrations of record size every month, and nightly demonstrations with tens of thousands participating for weeks on end. In spite of the sheer size and resilience of the student movement, it has still failed to force a single concrete concession from the Liberal government of Jean Charest. The vast majority of students (and the majority of the population) have been actively supporting the strike in one way or another. But, such a level of mobilization cannot last forever. Students do not live on picket lines and if they do not see a clear proposal of how to win, they will grudgingly return to classes. At the end of the day, the failure to show a clear route to victory is what has led us to where we are now.

Why is the movement faltering?

It was clear that for a period of a few months leading up to, and shortly after, the big demonstration on 22nd March, that the movement was filled with a great amount of élan and confidence. Over 300,000 were on strike with approximately the same number demonstrating that day. People asked themselves, “With such numbers, how can we lose?” This was the largest student mobilization in Quebec history. But in the following days and weeks, students were shocked that not only did the government not offer concessions, it actually continued to refuse to negotiate, and hardened its stance.

This struggle is different from all other post-war student struggles. This struggle comes in a new epoch of capitalist crisis and austerity. The bosses are attempting to put the burden of their crisis on the back of workers, the youth, and all sections of the oppressed. This is not “neo-liberalism”, but instead a crisis of the system itself that affects all classes. Therefore, to win, the student struggle would have had to spread to the wider working class that is the real target of austerity.

The reality is that students have very limited power in a capitalist society. When students strike and demonstrate there is an amazing explosion of youthful indignation, but from the perspective of the capitalist class, it does not significantly affect their ability to exploit and make profits. The real power in society that can shut the system down is the working class. If one looks at the history of student struggles over the last century you will see that the successful struggles were those that either spread to the workers, or were in the process of spreading to the workers. France 1968 is the classic example of this. When faced with the prospect of a student movement igniting a wider workers’ movement, then will the capitalists move to meet the (comparatively cheap) demands of the students.

Youth are traditionally a much more sensitive barometer of the undercurrents of discontent in society and frequently are the first to move into struggle. It is easier for young people to enter into struggle as they feel injustice more acutely, are not as held down by routine, and have fewer ties and obligations. We have seen this with the Occupy movement and the Arab revolutions, where youth have played a key role. It is symptomatic of a wider malaise in society that is a harbinger of a wider workers’ struggle in the near future. The real power of the students lies not so much in their direct impact, but in the ability of their struggle to spread to the workers. This tendency must be encouraged at all costs, and that is why any notion of student elitism that separates the students from the workers is the absolute death of the movement.

The most basic explanation of why the Quebec student strike is entering an impasse is that after more than six months of constant mobilization, the movement has yet to move to the working class in an organized way. The tragic aspect of this is that pretty much everybody in the movement has been in favour of the movement spreading to the workers. There have been repeated calls for a “Social Strike”, and yet it has not materialized. Why is this so?

The CLASSE student union rightly prides itself on its democratic mode of organizing through general assemblies and the control of elected representatives. These democratic organs are a genuine conquest of the movement and give the rank-and-file students much more power to control the direction of their organizations. Numerous general assemblies passed resolutions for a general strike, and to organize delegations to go to the workers. And yet, it did not happen. Did it not happen because the students were opposed? No; as explained above, there was widespread support for this idea. Did it not spread because the workers did not support the students? No; even the biased polls of the corporate media revealed massive support for the students (especially in Montreal). The casserole protests, which were overwhelmingly working-class in composition with young mothers pushing strollers and old grannies participating, showed that workers were behind the anti-austerity struggle. The main reason why there were no solidarity strikes by workers was that nobody actually went out and organized and coordinated such actions.

What was necessary was for students to engage in a dialogue with workers — to win their sympathy and encourage them to come out in support of the students and the wider struggle against austerity. At every school, a worker-student solidarity committee should have been set up which would have drawn up a list of the major local workplaces and initiated a plan to visit each. These committees would mobilize people to go to these workplaces at the start of shift, to explain that the students were just the thin edge of the wedge, and that a defeat for the students would mean that the government and the bosses would come down on the workers twice as hard. The fact that, “We are the children of workers,” could be used to gain sympathy. If possible, attempts should be made to involve sympathetic union stewards in discussing with workers. And finally, if the students are able to win the support of the workers, the solidarity committee could turn itself into a picket line for a spontaneous wildcat over both the students’ demands and those of the workers themselves.

The above can sound unrealistic to people who do not communicate with workers on a regular basis. However, we should not forget that the workers have been in struggle, too. Canada Post was legislated back to work; CP Rail was legislated back; AVEOS was shut down prompting militant protests; Air Canada was legislated back prompting wildcat strike action and sick-ins. Some unions even voted for solidarity strike action but nobody contacted the union militants to coordinate the sending of students to their workplaces. A worker-student solidarity picket at any of these locations could have had an electrifying effect. Once one set of workers goes out, the movement can quickly spread. Roving “flying-pickets” could be initiated, going workplace to workplace, before legal injunctions can be prepared. The call to “Take the casseroles into the workplaces,” could have gained widespread support. In the past, movements like these have been able to spread like wildfire.

Who could have organized these committees? The fact that they did not materialize, despite the widespread support for going to the workers, shows that this could not have been organized by any of the small left wing groups involved in the strike. It certainly would have been very difficult for any individual student to organize this, or for it to spontaneously occur. Indeed, many resolutions were passed in favour of this, but it still did not happen. The only group realistically capable of organizing, coordinating, and prioritizing the formation of worker-student solidarity committees was the elected leadership of the student unions themselves. Marxists frequently talk about a crisis of leadership; in this we do not just mean a pro-capitalist leadership that actively holds back the movement (such as the leadership of many of the major workers’ organizations).  We also mean a leadership that means well, and even considers itself revolutionary, but at the vital moment either vacillates or sets the wrong priorities. If the CLASSE leadership had prioritized going to the workers, it could have had a massive response. In turn, wildcats would have put pressure on the union leaderships to organize a one-day general strike for free education, for freedom of association, against Bill 78, and against austerity. Instead of the potential defeat of the student movement we would see a growing united worker-student movement against capitalist austerity.

What was actually done? The economic disturbances proposed on March 22 by the CLASSE, while targeting in the right direction, proved ineffective and in many cases played into the hands of the government. The Quebec Liberals were eager to prove that these “annoying students” were just small groups of agitators who needed to be dealt with in a more brutal fashion. The FEUQ/FECQ really had no plan of action other than to grudgingly continue mobilizations and defy government injunctions. The main thing that spurred on the movement at this point was the government’s overestimation of its strength and support, which led to the vicious suppression of the pickets and the mass arrests. This all served to spread the movement and give it a united focus of indignation.

The tabling of Bill 78 in the National Assembly on 17th May caused indignation and sympathy with the students to spread deeper in society than it ever had previously. The demonstration on 22nd May again broke the record with an estimated 400,000 marching through the streets of Montreal defying the anti-democratic law. Then, a day later, the spontaneous “casserole protests” erupted in a reported 40 neighbourhoods in Montreal. Thousands of workers marched through the streets banging pots and pans in defiance of the law. Tens of thousands more showed their solidarity for nights on end by clanging pots and pans from the balconies of every apartment building. There was a great opportunity here to actively go to these workers and talk about a united struggle, and the need for a general strike to be brought up in their unions. But without this, this as well could only bring people out for so long. Without a clear plan of how to broaden the movement to the rest of society the loss of momentum was inevitable.

Now we have the Quebec provincial election, which has played a contributing role in demobilizing the student movement. The responsibility for this also lies upon the ideas leading the movement. With the correct approach the election could be used as a springboard to invigorate the movement and not as a complicating factor. Quebec premier Jean Charest has said that this is an election over who governs Quebec — is it “the street” or is it the state? In this, we agree with Charest. This election is, in many ways, a referendum on the student struggle. A victory for the Quebec Liberals will be seen as a defeat for the students and the anti-austerity struggle. A defeat for the Liberals, combined with increased support for the only party in favour of free education, Quebec Solidaire, will be seen as a victory for the students. Everybody sees this — everybody except some of the anarchist leaders of the student movement that are promoting the slogan that the elections provide no solution. In the abstract sense this is true, in that no single election provides a “solution” while capitalism still exists.  But, people do not live in abstractions. The black-or-white “elections are no solution” demand fails to understand the concept that stepwise progression is possible and it does not correspond to where the majority of students and workers are currently at. Students and workers brought into political consciousness desperately want to defeat the hated Charest. A passive electoral boycott does not seem credible and those who propose it are just seen as failing to give advice and leadership.

In the absence of the student leaders giving advice on how to utilize the elections, the Parti Québécois (PQ) and other bureaucratic elements step forward. They say that if we want to defeat Charest, we must end the strike. This idea can be seductive when there is no other alternative given. Instead, a far more useful policy would be the following: “Yes, let’s defeat Charest! However, we cannot trust the PQ who will only adopt the same austerity. The only party fighting for free education is Quebec Solidaire. The best way to ensure the defeat of the Liberals and a victory for the free education party is not to get off the streets. Let us continue the mobilization as the only way to win in both the election and the wider struggle! Let us get active and turn QS into the political voice of the mass movement of the youth.”

Drawing the lessons from France 1968

It has become common to talk of the revolution in May 1968 in France.  France 1968 is a good example of what the students should be doing to bring the workers in. This historic movement, which started as a student movement, ended up turning into the largest general strike in history (at the time) with over 10-million workers on strike. The president at the time, Charles de Gaulle, even fled the country and proclaimed that the Communists would soon be in power!

How did the French students spread their struggle to the working class? The students formed “student-worker action committees” which went with fliers to every factory, talking to the workers, and agitating at the base for the workers to come out on strike as well. This created massive pressure on the bureaucracy of the trade unions to call a 24-hour general strike, which ended up by giving the workers a taste of their own power.  The workers then refused to return to work. More than ever, this is what is required in the movement in Quebec. What is needed is to mobilize a rank-and-file movement in every factory, every unionized shop, for a 24-hour general strike.

It is unfortunate that great opportunities have been lost. The huge momentum that the movement once enjoyed created a massive amount of pressure within the trade unions. Unionized workers came out in a significant fashion for the demos in April and May.  A few key unions even passed resolutions in favour of a general strike, but this failed to grow into a broader movement at the rank-and-file level.  Had the students organized to actively penetrate the workers’ movement with the idea for a 24-hour general strike, we would have likely seen a general walkout by the workers in April or May.

It is a common thing, especially within left-circles, to extol the CLASSE’s organizational structures.  Indeed, we need to promote grassroots democracy and participation from rank-and-file students.  But, structures are not enough if clear ideas and politics are not there.  An organization is simply an empty vessel, and it can be filled with all sorts of ideas and tendencies.  Unfortunately, what was missing from CLASSE and from the student movement, in general, were the ideas and methods from previous successful student mobilizations — ideas and methods that could have led CLASSE to reach out to the Quebec workers’ movement in an organized fashion.

The International Marxist Tendency in Quebec has always believed that Marxism provides the method that leads to successful action by students, workers, and other oppressed layers of society.  For the ongoing struggle, it is necessary to build a Marxist tendency that can assist workers and youth in adopting these correct ideas.  We need to be clear that the end of the current student strike is not the end of the Quebec student movement, or the movement against capitalist austerity.  There will be more struggles in the future, especially emanating from the working class.  Throughout history, student struggles have tended to be a harbinger of the workers joining the struggle.  In Europe, for example, the student movements in countries like Greece and Spain foreshadowed the current explosion of the working class in those countries.  The current task for all student and worker militants must be to absorb the lessons from the strike, make sure that we do not make the same mistakes again, and build a revolutionary organization that can play a decisive role in the next round of struggle.

Students and workers — unite and fight!

Joel Bergman is a member of the editorial board of La Riposte; Alex Grant is a member of the editorial board of Fightback.

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