CLASSE leader speaks on Quebec’s student struggle
Guillaume Legault is a leading member of Quebec’s CLASSE — the Broad Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity — a radical student organisation at the forefront of a months-long student strike against tuition fee hikes.
Quebec’s student movement is still locked in struggle with the ruling Liberal government over the new fees. The government has responded with police repression and harassment of students. It also passed a new law that bans protests of more than 50 people unless police have given prior approval.
Legault is a keynote speaker at Resistance’s Time of Revolution conference, which takes place in Adelaide over July 20 to 22. After the conference he will speak at forums in other Australian cities before continuing his tour in New Zealand. Green Left Weekly’s Duncan Roden spoke to Legault about Quebec’s student struggle and what he hopes to achieve on his tour.
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What organisations do you belong to in Quebec?
I am from Montreal and I am a student at the Masters in political science at UQAM, Quebec’s University in Montreal. My research is directly related to the theories of the social movements and organisations, more precisely about the Quebec union movement.
Besides my studies, I work part time to be able to pay for these studies and my own accommodation.
Besides that, I have been involved in the student movement for a little bit more than seven years. The first student mobilisation I was involved in was the great student strike of 2005, which ended more than eight weeks after it started with a small, but still [important] victory for the student movement.
Back then, [the student strike] was the first attempt of [the ruling] Liberal government to attack the right to education at the beginning of its first term.
After these first militant implications, I have been involved in the local union at the work I had back then, plus I started to get involved in some anti-globalisation organisations a year before the G20 summit that was held in June 2010 in Toronto, Canada.
Since then, I have been involved most directly in ASSE [student association] structures, which eventually lead to the creation of the CLASSE, a coalition of student associations that gathered around ASSE for the time of the struggle.
In 2011, I was elected coordination secretary for the executive’s council of ASSE, and then CLASSE. I just ended my [role] on the executive’s council about three weeks ago.
ASSE is a student association of more than 55.000 members from across Quebec. It unites 27 local associations from universities and cegeps, the local colleges for general and professional formation. ASSE has existed since 2001 and was born out of the necessity to create a more radical student association than the one that existed at that time.
ASSE’s first struggles touched most directly upon the anti-globalisation protests the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.
Since then, ASSE kept on getting stronger, dramatically changing the face and practice of the student movement in Quebec.
Last October, as a general strike was being prepared, the student association members of
ASSE voted at its Congress for a temporary enlargement and modification of its structures to accommodate, in certain ways, lots of new members.
From the creation of CLASSE to now, the organisation gained more than 50,000 new members, now reaching more than 100,000 members: a historical high for our organisation.
CLASSE, as ASSE before it, claims itself from a unique but interesting union practice: Le Syndicalisme de Combat — Combative Syndicalism — which has been theorized mostly by Professor Jean-Marc Piotte, an unorthodox Marxist teacher in Montreal.
This theoretical and practical posture led CLASSE to great clashes with the current order. It led us to make the confrontation with the state rise to a level we had not seen in Canada since the G20 summit in 2010.
CLASSE has been able to rise and become such a leader in the actual conflict that we can now proudly say that we may have changed more than we really expected. We now have been able to influence the way the struggles to come will be organised and structured.
What caused the student strike in Quebec and what are the students’ demands?
In 2010, the student associations, university administrations, big trade unions and actors from the economic elites were invited to a “forum” where the main point for discussion was how to carry out a tuition hike without harm. At that time, ASSE had decided to boycott this meeting, saying that it was [not interested in discussing] how to carry out such an illegitimate attack on students.
The discussions took place with the collaboration of the other invited [student] groups and actors, who finally walked out of the meeting before its end and joined ASSE members [protesting] in the street in freezing cold temperatures.
Since then it has been clear to everybody: this government had political intentions and reasons to ask for that tuition hike. No matter what [the students] said, it was not a question of public investment in education anymore [for the government].
In the spring after that [meeting], the provincial budget included a special measure for students — a [fee rise] of #1625.00. Divided over five years, the tuition fee hike represented [a new charge] of $325.00 a year.
From this very moment, [the government] declared war on the student movement. ASSE organised a big rally in Montreal, together with multiple occupations in business and government offices to demand this measure to be taken off the provincial budget.
The protests met without success.
After that, everything became clear: we had to start the mobilisations to be able to face this attack from the government. We did not have much choice. We had to start early to plan for an eventual general student strike.
How has the government responded to your demands?
The government systematically refused all of our demands. They even refused to meet our representatives until the eleventh week of he general strike. In fact, they refused to negotiate directly with us so they could, with the complicity of big corporate press, try to make us lose support in the “public opinion”.
Once students finally met [with the government], they kicked CLASSE out of the negotiation rounds twice. On one hand, it claimed our demands were too high. On the other hand, it said we were dangerous, violent and too radical. They finally invited us to [negotiations] again, facing the fact that they couldn’t even think solving this without us.
After that, the government finally decided to introduce new measures. It included no diminution of the fee hike, but a new scale [whereby the cuts would be introduced over] seven years instead of five.
Since this is far from being a deal, we left the negotiations. There has been only one other negotiation round since, in which the government finally slammed the door, saying we face an impasse. That was in May, and it was the last time we met.
What are the students’ plans for the future?
Since the student campaign isn’t done yet, our plans for the future are still pretty hypothetical. These plans depend a lot on the issue of the actual struggle. With Quebec’s elections probable this fall, we cannot say we are eager to see what is going to happen with the mobilisation.
Otherwise, we are starting a national popular campaign of mobilising about the social strike with some allied groups from popular, community and union organisations. Information is the key to success: we hope to be able to organise some popular public assemblies to talk directly to people without the interference of the mass media.
What do you hope to get from touring Australia and New Zealand?
By travelling to Australia and New Zealand, I have great hope that we can start to have greater international networks with student associations around the world. With the strike going on, spotlights are turned on us, we hope to be able to help others as much as we can in the future to help mobilising and explaining why and how it has been possible in Quebec.
By travelling to Australia and New Zealand, we also hope to be able to make great exchanges of tactics and practices that structure the work of our organisations.
We have learned a lot this year and we would love to share that knowledge, but we still have a lot to learn from organisations and people throughout the world. We believe that some of the things that helped our movement to grow this big might help, in different contexts, to build similar struggles against neoliberal economic and social measures.
Finally, on a personal basis, I hope to meet great people, with who we can discuss about the rise of struggle all around the world. I am eager to meet with lots of unknown people that will make this experience a great way to exchange between organisations, but also between people who share a common goal.