May 24, 2012

Five thoughts from Quebec on organizing student strikes

McGill student holds up a red square.

by Jamie Burnett
Special to Rebel Youth

Jamie Burnett is an undergraduate student at McGill university in Montreal, a founding member of Free Education Montreal, and a former Student Society of McGill University Director. When McGill refused to accept student referendum that voted 65% in support of continued funding for the Quebec Public Interest Research Group, students occupied the 6th floor of the James Administration building for a week in February to demand that the administration uphold the results. Jamie helped lead the occupation and then fought hard to win a General Assembly at McGill where he helped present a strike vote on behalf of the students. Although the vote did not pass, ten other student associations did go on strike at McGill. Jamie has been actively involved in the major student strike of 2012 and an student activist since he was in high school.

I thought I'd put together a few ideas about how to organize strikes in English Canada, specifically Ontario. I'm basing this on my own experiences doing student strike organizing at McGill, as well as conversations I've had with close friends and comrades involved with strike organization at Concordia, UQAM, several CEGEPs and elsewhere. I don't want to suggest that social movements can't be predicated on creativity and new ideas, but there are a lot of really good ideas and a lot of really terrible ideas that make the difference between a movement that can be effective, and one that can't be. I've tried to be as concise as possible while still providing background information.

1. Don't reinvent the wheel. An incredible amount of time and energy was wasted at McGill with the assumption that “McGill is different”, and that the methods of organizing which work everywhere else in Quebec will not work at McGill. McGill is different, comparable with the most conservative of English Canada's universities. But the methods that worked everywhere else in Quebec worked consistently at McGill where they were carefully and attentively tried. Not perfectly, but they don't work perfectly anywhere, and nothing else has worked at all. I'm sure the same applies to Queen's or McMaster.
     One common mistake at McGill was the holding of “soft pickets” where activists allowed classes to happen despite their strike mandate. Strikes are not about an individual decision to skip class, facing whatever consequences might follow. They're about the collective action of students preventing classes from happening and disrupting “business as usual”. Students at McGill failed their semesters because of improperly enforced strikes. Letting the members of your student association flunk out of school because you feel uncomfortable with conflict isn't okay. Enforcing strikes is difficult to do, at least at first, but it's a lot less difficult than failing a semester. And people eventually come around, building a culture of solidarity and confrontational politics in the process.
2. General assemblies need to make all the real and important decisions. They need to be well-attended. This happens only if people think they're relevant. They need to be used to make the most important decisions, which are then actually respected and implemented. Consensus doesn't work when you have hundreds of people making difficult, controversial decisions like strikes. People will just be frustrated because nothing will actually be accomplished.
     Online voting is a dead end too, don't do it. It encourages lazy, individualized “activism”, where each person spends all of thirty seconds, alone, to choose option A or B. Democratic social movements are about bringing people into every phase of decision-making. General assemblies help create a culture where people get personally and physically and meaningfully implicated in politics, which is an essential basis for effective strikes. Finally, one of the main points of protest movements is to change people's minds, which you can do with the careful argument and debate at GA's; you can't do it with online voting, where uninformed decisions are often made based on irrational prejudices.
3. Mobilize extremely broadly. To hold strikes a huge number of people must be involved. Real majorities are needed, or at very least active pluralities, not of whoever shows up but of the whole association. The difference between the level of support that a lot of anglosphere activists are envisioning, and what you actually need, is around an order of magnitude. At one of the more mobilized CEGEPs, 63% of the student body crammed into two gyms for the first strike assembly. The vote passed 70%.    This is totally possible, but it does require a change in how we do things. You need demonstrations and sit-ins, workshops, concerts and street art and culture; you need an incredible amount of one-on-one flyering, conversations with strangers and assholes, as well as people who are ecstatic to meet you and get involved. It's hard work but it needs to get done, even when it doesn't look like it's working. Also, you need to publicize things really intensively; one of the most destructive things to a strike movement is the realistic perception that decisions were made in secret without proper notice. Petitions don't work at all, ever, except as an excuse to talk to people one-on-one (which is super important), or when they're required to hold general assemblies according to a student association's bylaws.
     One consequence of this sort of mass mobilization is that there are a lot of sexist, racist and homophobic chants at student protests in Quebec, something virtually unheard of in Ontario. Obviously, this presents a problem. On the other hand, it represents a massive number of people being politicized and brought into contact with an opportunity to change their views. If you structure your movement in such a way that only people who already have amazing politics can be involved, not only will your movements be tiny and ineffective, they will fail to fight these very real social problems at their source.
4. Department by department. If the student movement in Quebec didn't focus on small, easy-to-mobilize units like CEGEPs, departments, and faculties, it simply would not work. Period. Think about mobilizing a few hundred students in geography at one university, or a few thousand in social sciences at another. Not 80 000 students for a “University of Toronto” strike, or 300 000 students for a CFS Ontario strike. If you think of it that way, getting involved is a lot less terrifying. It's basically impossible to mobilize a strike for business students, med students, or all of McMaster. But it's fairly easy to mobilize a few hundred students here and there, especially in welcoming programs. You can start where it's easy and move out. For a while, every philosophy student on the island of Montreal was on strike with the exception of a handful of CEGEPs. But only one university was ever entirely on strike, for one day in November.     You need to mobilize department by department whether or not department-level associations are active, or even exist. The Arts Undergraduate Society at McGill held its first three general assemblies in history because of this strike. Unaccredited departmental associations held weeks-long strikes with no legal standing or history of mobilization. Relying on ineffective associations just because they exist isn't going to be effective.
     One final note, and this is really important. You simply can't have an organization like the CFS “declare” a general strike. A general strike will happen if each association, mobilizing on their own, makes it happen on their own campus, with support and solidarity from outside. Federations like the CFS can provide logistical and material support, a negotiations front, networking capacity etc., but they're simply not designed to mobilize for strikes. They make decisions far too slowly (the CFS has general meetings twice a year – the CLASSE has general meetings once a week), and they don't have the extensive networks of close personal contacts that are needed to mobilize for strikes. Mobilize on your own campus and get the CFS to do what it's good at.
5. The student movement is a protest movement. We need a student movement, and we need protest more broadly, because the world is really messed up and needs to be changed. In the process of social change, we do actually have to fight people in power to get what we want. The media is going to be against us. The police are going to be against us. In some cases, we don't even have popular opinion on our side (although often we do). Witness the black civil rights movement, or attacks on early Vietnam War protests, or virtually the entire history of the feminist movement.
     Social protest on the side of justice and human progress is legitimate whether or not it has a majority of popular support. What's important is that movements are both internally democratic, and committed to expanding to wider and wider sectors of society. This takes time and doesn't happen automatically, and you will receive no help from the media or police. Don't count on receiving it. Of course, sometimes this is a tricky balance – there are a whole lot of tactical choices which are unpopular but effective, and knowing what to do and when to do it isn't easy. But, if you let the state set the terms of your protest, your protest can't fight the state.

Creating a real mass student movement in English Canada is totally possible. Certainly there are cultural differences between Quebec and Canada that make this sort of organization more challenging, but a lot of these differences are differences in organizing tactics, and these can change. The tactics used in Quebec work and the tactics used in Ontario simply don't.

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