Quebec: Spread the students' red square everywhere

June 2, 2012
Students protest in Montreal on May 22.

Active solidarity with the Quebec strike movement against fee hikes, which has lasted more than 100 days in the face of Premier Jean Charest's crackdown, is crucial for all struggles against austerity.

The Quebec government is targeting the right to organise collectively.

This means spreading the red square everywhere. The red square is the pervasive symbol of the Quebec student movement, whether pinned to clothing or used as a graphic on signs, leaflets, culture jams or websites.

It was first used during the 2005 student strike, and it cleverly plays on the saying carrement dans la rouge (“squarely in debt”) and militancy (red is associated with radical activism).

It is not the only thing inherited from past student struggles in Quebec. There are also important strategies for effective and democratic mobilisation learned through the history of Quebec student activism since the 1960s.

At the core is the idea of democratic, activist student unionism.

The strike is the ninth general strike by Quebec's student movement since the 1960s. Student activists have made conscious efforts to learn from these experiences of success and failure.

The first was in 1968. It demanded free tuition, the expansion of the francophone university system and democratic administration of educational institutions and policies.

The demand for quality, accessible and democratic public education was connected to Quebecois struggles for national self-determination and French-language rights.

The English-language education system in Quebec was far more extensive and much better funded than the French-language system. The idea of quality, accessible French-language education was part of a broader agenda for liberation.

The student strike also drew strength from the rising wave of labour militancy sweeping Quebec in the late '60s and early '70s. The commitment to student unionism modelled on workplace trade unionism represents an orientation to collective strength through organisation.

Militant activism has played an important role in forming the Quebec student movement. General membership meetings and mobilisation committees are written into the bylaws of many local student unions.

The history of the movement against fees means the idea that education is a public service with an important social role and not a product for sale on the market is strong in Quebec society.

In 2001, the student activists who launched the Association for Student-Union Solidarity (ASSE) studied the history of the Quebec student movement to try to develop a strategic perspective for effective mobilisation. Some had been active in a failed strike mobilization in 1998.

ASSE developed a democratic activist approach to student unionism that proved successful in the 2005 student strike. It has been repeated in this year's struggle, for which ASSE formed a broader coalition, the Broad Coalition of the Association for Student-Union Solidarity (CLASSE).

Indeed, democratic activist unionism has had an important influence even on the more institutional and lobbyist student federations. In 2005, these groups ultimately broke ranks with ASSE to reach a deal with the government, but this year the student unions have stood together.

The strength of the solidarity is partly a response to criticism the more conservative groups faced from their own members.

The core of democratic activist student unionism is the recognition that students, like workers, have collective interests and a potential for collective power that needs to be organised to defend these interests.

Governments and university administrations only pay attention to student unions that have mobilised and knowledgeable memberships willing to take action to back up demands.

The general membership meeting (GMM) plays an important role in this process, as it puts transparent collective and democratic decision-making at the core of the student union. Students gather to debate and pass motions to establish the direction of their union. The GMM also elects and supervises delegates to Quebec-wide congresses that coordinate overall campaigns.

At a GMM, activists must engage their fellow students, listen to counter-arguments and try to persuade others that mobilisation is necessary and possible.

ASSE did not invent the GMM. Rather, it developed mobilising strategies that used the democratic decision-making of the GMM as a key component of campus activism.

The mobilising strategies use longer-term campaigns to build up to general strike votes in GMMs. Before the 2005 strike, for example, there were petitions, local weeks of action, office occupations and Quebec-wide protest actions.

These campaigns mobilise activists and provide an escalating series of protests so people can genuinely try out more moderate approaches to pressuring the government for changes to see if they work.

If the government does not respond to petitions or protests, an eventual step is to work toward strike action.

These campaigns rely on local executive committees as well as mobilisation committees in each local student union. Mobilisation committees gather activists, who learn through reaching out to persuade fellow students to join actions.

The mobilisation committees orient radical students toward building collective power by working to convince other students that activism can make a difference, rather than simply acting on their own.

The mandates of mobilisation committees are developed in GMMs, so activist layers are always connected to the collective power of the whole student body.

This approach has provided a firm basis for CLASSE to work strategically with other student groups. A strong orientation toward solidarity has also led the Quebec student movement to make strong links with others fighting austerity.

The slogan “make the student movement into a social movement” recognises that the struggle for quality, accessible and democratic public education is integrally linked to struggles for worker rights, against poverty, for feminism and for quality public services.

Students have marched in solidarity with locked-out Alcan Rio Tinto workers and made many important connections with others fighting the Charest government. Since the 2005 strike, several labour unions passed motions supporting free education.

The fight against tuition increases must ultimately be a battle to transform post-secondary education, and the radical wing of the Quebec student movement has been working toward a broader agenda for change.

[This is abridged from the New Socialist. Xavier Lafrance was an ASSE spokesperson in the 2005 strike, and is active with the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly. Alan Sears is active with the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly. A leader of CLASSE, Guillaume Legault, will be a feature speaker at the national conference of the socialist youth organisation Resistance, in Adelaide, July 20-22.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.