Quebec student strike: hot summer of protest ahead; Interview with CLASSE leaders

"Pots and pans" protests -- casseroles -- have erupted in neighbourhoods across Quebec and are spreading in the rest of Canada.

For more analysis of the Quebec students' struggle, click HERE.

By Roger Annis

June 4, 2012 -- Rabble -- On Saturday, June 2, several tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Montreal in answer to the Quebec government breaking off negotiations two days earlier with the province's striking student movement.

According to the CLASSE student association (Coalition large de l'association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity), which called the march and is the largest of the four student groups that were involved in talks, the march began with 5000 or so people rallying at Parc Jeanne Mance and then swelled to 25,000 as it wound its way through city streets. A banner at the front of the march read, "This isn't a student strike, it's the awakening of society."

Prior to the march departing, CLASSE co-leaders Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Jeanne Reynolds explained to journalists that protesters would not bow to the province's draconian Bill 78 which requires organisers of public protests to submit their intentions and route of march to police eight hours in advance. (The law also threatens student leaders and organisations with a host of other obligations to control the actions of their members.) "We are going up against Bill 78 and we're very proud of that, " said Nadeau-Dubois.

He was asked by the Quebec City daily Le Soleil of CLASSE's plans now that classes are over. On May 18, the Quebec government suspended the school year at striking post-secondary institutions; it will resume in mid-August. "It will be a challenge to maintain the mobilisations at the same level during the summer", he said. "I think we will see a regionalisation of the struggle, given that students will be returning to their families. The demonstrations will be smaller, but there will be more of them, all across Quebec."

Nadeau-Dubois said CLASSE would soon announce several more large events in Montreal.

CLASSE met in its annual convention June 3 in the city of Valleyfield, just outside of Montreal. It elected a new executive council and members of the nine committees of the group, and it adopted a plan of mobilisation for the summer, including calls to action on June 22 and July 22. It is planning for the period following the resumption of the school year at strike-bound institutions in August, and is proposing to the burgeoning anti-privatisation movement in Quebec the idea of an across the province "social strike" that would include the trade union movement.

Le Soleil reports that several plainclothes police walked in the Saturday march. They said they were there to improve "communication" with the student movement and "calm the waters". For example, they told the newspaper that if they saw someone wearing a mask, they would inform the person that it could be a violation of the law and could lead to an arrest. Montreal city council rushed in a new municipal regulation last month which bans the wearing of a mask at an event declared "illegal" by police or other authorities. (The Canadian government is considering adding such a proscription to the federal criminal code.)

Radio Canada broadcast an exclusive report June 3 that the Division des enquêtes sur la menace extrémiste (Office of Inquiry into Extremist Threats) of the Quebec provincial police (SQ) conducted an 80-minute interview with Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois on April 27. The police asked to meet him because it said it had discovered a threat against his life. But he says the meeting quickly became a probe into his private life as well as the functioning of CLASSE.

The interview came at a time when the government was accusing CLASSE of fomenting violent protest. The SQ has refused to talk to media about the story and the police agent who conducted the interview told Radio Canada that she has no recollection of the meeting. Nadeau-Dubois told the broadcaster that he was given the clear impression during the meeting that the request for the interview came from minister of public security Robert Dutil.

Tensions in Quebec are high as the government and corporate interests are getting spooked over student demonstrations to take place during the busy summer tourist festival season. They are issuing dire warnings of "security" concerns, urging students to put demonstrations on hold in the interests of the Quebec economy. Quebec Premier Jean Charest has issued subtle warnings of consequences should demonstrations become too forceful.

The Hotel Association of Greater Montreal says hotel booking are down 25 per cent this summer compared to last. The Montreal comedy festival says ticket sales to French language events dropped 50 per cent in the past 10 days as negotiations between the government and student associations became front page news and then collapsed.

The Montreal Grand Prix car race, set to run this coming weekend, has cancelled its traditional "open door" event on June 7 in which spectators are permitted to wander the grounds of the race, see the racing cars up close and meet the drivers.

The director of the Just For Laughs comedy festival is urging student leaders to keep issues of public education away from his event. He has asked to meet with several of them to make his case. CLASSE says it was not invited.

For their part, CLASSE leaders say they have no intention of preventing people from attending summer events. But they say they have every right and duty to take the case for public education to them. Nadeau-Dubois says the summer events will be "tribunes" for students to get their message across.

While businesses in the province are unhappy with the effect of protests on their bottom line, they are apparently are firmly in support of the government's effort to crush the student movement. The Conseil du patronat du Québec (Employers Council of Quebec) issued the results of a survey of its members on June 1 showing 95 per cent support for the government's proposed hike in tuition fees that sparked the student strike last February and 68 per cent support for Bill 78, which was adopted on May 18 and has led to the mushrooming of support for the student cause.

Another unhappy voice is that of former governor general of Canada Michaëlle Jean. She told a graduation ceremony at the University of Ottawa on June 2 that students in Quebec should be happy with their lot in life and suggested they should get back to class.

One of the expressions of the broadening support for students has been the "pots and pans" movement that has erupted in neighbourhoods across the province and is now spreading in the rest of Canada. In Quebec, that movement is beginning to take a more organised form. Montreal-based writer Marc Bonhomme has reported on a first meeting of 100 people in the Montreal neighbourhood of Hochelaga-Maissoneuve.

Many participants took up the call of CLASSE and of many trade union activists to organise a "social (general) strike" against the entirely of the Quebec government's anti-social and anti-environmental policies. One of the five committees formed at the meeting is dedicated to this proposal.

'They created a monster that will haunt them'

June 4, 2012 -- Socialist Worker (USA) -- Students have been on strike for months in the Canadian province of Québec 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, Québec's government, led by Premier Jean Charest of the Liberal Party, has attempted to repress the movement with mass arrests and escalating legal restrictions. Québec'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 Québec -- and solidarity actions have spread to the rest of Canada.

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

* * *

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, CLASSÉ, 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.

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 organisations 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 CLASSÉ, 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. 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 organised, 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 criminalises organising. 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 paralyse the strike.

Second, the law gave the cops the right to ban a protest of 50 or more people if the organisers 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 cheque to go after activists. But CLASSÉ 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. Some student organisations 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 Québec.

Legault: Ever since the passage of the law and especially since May 22, 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 organisation, 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 2000 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 Québec.

Vézina: Last year's biggest demonstration was on March 31. It was the biggest event of last year's campaign -- I was arrested there -- and we had between 5000 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 strongG is the strike across Québec?

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 organised. 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 CLASSÉ 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 C$100 dollars each year over five years, and the mobilisations 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 Québec. I think this year, one of the main differences is the size of CLASSÉ and the place that ASSÉ had in this whole struggle.

We built a huge national team of volunteers, organised 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 organising, 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 Québec. But with this strike, I mean we just completely broke all historical records of student militancy.

How is CLASSÉ organised, 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 organisation, we never wanted to tell people what to do, but we wanted people to tell us what to do. We just don't organise an entire campus in one union. We organise 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 organisations are definitely principles and actions. ASSÉ and CLASSÉ proclaim ourselves as part of combative syndicalism. This main principle of our organisation 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. CLASSÉ 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 CLASSÉ, 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.

How do you coordinate this grassroots democratic unionism across the whole of Québec?

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 organise things throughout Québec. These people are really committed, risking their jobs, taking time away from their families, girlfriends and boyfriends. They go throughout Québec just trying to keep the strike going on and helping people organise actions.

Has CLASSÉ 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. CLASSÉ has grown to about 100,000 members. We've grown because CLASSÉ was the major leader of the strike. In fact, CLASSÉ 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 organisations. The other two unions were intimidated by Charest and were not friendly toward CLASSÉ 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 CLASSÉ 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 organisations. 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 Québec 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 Québec, to organise 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 organised in a completely different manner. They have big unions organised across the whole campus. In most cases, CLASSÉ is organised department by department. We had to work a lot to organise to get their departments on strike, to join CLASSÉ 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 organising 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 organisations established in the departments are more effective. For example, if you have a 2000-student department and, let's say, 1200 people who vote for the strike, the strikers will be able mobilise stronger and bigger picket lines.

On the other hand, if you have a campus general assembly that represents 40,000 students and 5000 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 Québec 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 trade 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 CLASSÉ'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 favour of a social strike. One of the three big unions in Québec, Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux, took a position in favour 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 Privatisation 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 Québec 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 mobilisation the start of something that could somehow grow bigger.

Where does the struggle go from here?

Legault: After the discussions we had in the CLASSE 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 organising 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.