The Strike of the General Assembly

An Interview with Nicolas Phebus

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.