Students Mobilize Against the Elites and Demand: “Make the Rich Pay Their Fair Share”
On April 3rd of this year, several thousand students filled the streets in downtown Montreal. The one-day strike received little media attention, but it was the largest student demonstration in Quebec since the general student strike of 2012 that defeated a 75% tuition hike. Both strikes were organized largely by the Association for Solidarity among Student Unions – known by its French acronym, ASSÉ – and neither strike was simply about tuition. Instead, these massive student strikes were aimed at the Quebec government’s continued advance of austerity policies that continue to make social services like public education more expensive, all while giving tax breaks and benefits to private corporations and the rich.
ASSÉ – a union of student unions boasting a membership of over 80,000 students in Quebec – has earned a reputation as one of the most militant student groups in North America. Through a sophisticated structure of grassroots, direct democracy, it has created a sustained student movement on campuses across Quebec with a culture of what is known as “confrontational syndicalism” – a political orientation that acknowledges that political elites and university administrations alike have interests that are often opposed to average people or students and that building power to directly challenge those institutions is a requisite for maintaining and advancing their rights.
This orientation is at the root of last month’s strike – ASSÉ and its students have consistently taken a stance against austerity politics pushed by Quebec’s political elite because they know that, while austerity is packaged as an inevitable policy solution that has long-term benefits to the public, it is in fact benefitting the rich and the elites to gut the social services that they and other Quebecois rely on. It is what has led the students and youth of Quebec to take their fights off campus, beyond student issues, and into the streets to deliver a clearly articulated message in solidarity with other sectors of Quebecois society – “make the rich pay their fair share”.
Justin Arcand is a student in Quebec who serves as Coordinator on the Executive Board of ASSÉ and is its Co-spokesperson, and he sat down with Popular Resistance to help bring more awareness to what happened in last month in Montreal.
Tell me about the April 3rd strike. What brought ASSÉ back to the streets?
Justin Arcand: Every year, ASSÉ calls a province-wide campaign and concentrates on a specific political issue, and this year we chose to work on an anti-austerity campaign. It started by spending time educating our members and students in Quebec about the austerity measures being planned by the Canadian and Quebec and government. For example, we’re still facing tuition hikes, the electricity fees are increasing, there is a new health tax of $200 per adult to have access to the health care system that used to be free in Quebec, and there have been large cuts to other social programs in Quebec. We are mainly calling for tax reform as part of addressing these issues.
What we were saying in this strike, basically, is that the government has to stop asking the poor and working classes to tighten their belts, and we have to demand that rich people, banks, and big companies to pay more in taxes. A similar tax in Quebec used to bring something like $500-600 million to the government every year, but it was progressively abolished between 2008 and 2011 during the financial crisis. So we’re asking the government to bring back that tax.
We’re trying to make sure financial institutions pay their fair share in society. We’re also asking the government to reform the tax system for individuals so that richer individuals pay more. This would bring more money in for the government, and at the same time, we’re asking that the government use that money to prevent austerity plans from being put into their budgets because they hurt the middle class and the poor by asking everyone to pay more for each service.
There was a policy shift in Quebec in the ’60s where we were able to change most of our systems so that the public services would be almost free and very accessible, but now we’re coming back to a pay-for-use system. It’s becoming more the norm in Western countries now to ask people to pay for each service they use, so we’re asking for rich people to pay their fair share and stop asking the middle and poorer class to pay for every public service they want to use.
So the student strike isn’t about just about tuition or student issues, but broader economic policy in Quebec?
JA: Yeah, that’s right. Many local student organizations decided to propose a one-day strike in their general assemblies so that they could increase the pressure on the government and increase the credibility of the fight against austerity. But it also created the opportunity for their members who usually wouldn’t be able to attend a state-wide protest to do so without missing courses.
It is actually pretty common in student organizations in Quebec to ask their different general assemblies to go on strike when there is a state-wide event. It doesn’t mean it’s accepted in every general assembly, it doesn’t mean that every student organization that asks for it gets it, but we still managed to get 60,000 students on strike that day, so it’s quite significant.
How broadly was this strike supported by Quebec students?
JA: We had 60,000 people on strike on April 3rd. It’s quite a lot considering that last year, the year right after the 2012 strike, we tried to do a day or two of strikes because the government held a “summit” about studying the future of higher education, but it was more like a public relations event than a real decision making event. So ASSÉ organized a protest on that day, and most of the votes for the strike on that day were rejected by the student organizations, mostly because people were just getting out of the 6 month strike, so they didn’t want to go back again right away. So this year, we didn’t think that as many people would vote for the strike as they did, so we were a bit surprised.
When we’re on strike – whether it’s for a day, a week, or unlimited – students usually form picket lines in the morning just before courses start. That’s the way we call on the different administrations of our institutions to shut down the classes. For most colleges that go on strike, people picket in front of their schools, and administrations cancel their classes for the day, and people take buses to Montreal for the protest.
As for how many students out of the 60,000 on strike were part of the demonstration in Montreal, it’s hard to say, especially because some students came from colleges that weren’t on strike. But we were still almost 15,000 people strong during the protest on that day, so that was quite impressive. It was ASSÉ’s biggest protest ever outside of a general strike movement.
There have been reports that the demonstration was met with police repression, arrests, and even violence on their part. What was the actual demonstration in Montreal like that day?
JA: Since the 2012 student strike, we’ve been living with a lot of police repression in Quebec. In Montreal, for example, there is a law that says that protests have to provide their itineraries to the authorities before they begin and that we’re not allowed to wear masks. In ASSÉ, we have a tradition of defying this law by not providing our itineraries. But this means that when we have smaller protests of only a few hundred people, protesters often get kettled by the police who use that law to stop and arrest everybody. They do it because it frightens people and makes it hard to get protests back in the street because people know unless there are a lot of people, they’re more likely to get kettled.
But when we have thousands like on the 3rd, it’s really hard for the police to do that. Still, there were a considerable amount of police present that day. The level of police presence is something new since the strike in 2012, and it’s problematic.
Students started gathering in a park in Montreal at 2pm. usually, we start with different speeches from student leaders, and then we march around the city, ending in the financial district of downtown Montreal. We were over 15,000 strong that day, so the march had a pretty big impact on the city and created a lot of traffic. But the police presence caused a lot of problems.
What happened was that we had our sound truck driving with us in front of the march, but the driver wanted to get to the end point before the march arrived. When he tried to do that, the police didn’t want him to get there. They tried threatening him by saying that if he got to the park, he would be towed, and so on, but he tried to go anyway, and he got arrested by the police before the march arrived. He was given a $3,000 fine, but that got cancelled a couple weeks later.
So we were supposed to end at the park with two other speeches saying that the protest was done, but the sound truck with speakers to amplify the speeches never got there. So we technically ended the protest, but some people continued marching and demonstrating because there were so many who couldn’t hear that they thought the protest was still going. So because the police took our sound truck, some people thought it was over, and some people thought it was still on.
But as people left, less and less people were part of the march, so the police started trying to stop people from walking in the street, and things got agitated a bit. There was actually a 71 year old man who was seriously hurt. He was in the protest on a bike trying to take pictures when the riot police charged people in the street. He was in the way when they charged, and they just knocked him over, and he fell and hit his head. He sustained cuts all over the top of his head and was bleeding and he also sustained a concussion when he fell. He was still in the hospital a couple weeks later, in fact.
Aside from his injuries, there were six other people arrested by the end. I’m not sure of the exact charges. But six people is really not that much for our events – every March 15th, we have a protest against police brutality, and this year there were four or five hundred people there, and almost everyone was kettled and arrested. So we’re used to policemen kettling people, but it’s a problem because students are more and more scared to take action except when we can bring thousands into the streets.
What effect did the strike have? How did the government react to the demonstrations?
JA: So this strike and protest actually happened during the general elections in Quebec, which started in early March and ended on April 7th. We chose the date for the protest before knowing there would be general elections then in Quebec, so it wasn’t meant to be during the elections. But I think it helped for the mobilization to have our message get to the political elite at that time.
Our demonstration was a clear warning for the next government that would be elected. We didn’t know who would win the elections, but what we asked for was clear, and it shows is that students’ organizations around the province are still very dynamic and still very mobilized. And if the new government continues with the same austerity plan and neoliberal ideology, we’re going to continue to increase the pressure. The students will have to decide in their general assemblies where it will lead, but we’re still going to continue in that way.
But the political elites pretty much acted like the strike didn’t happen. Our issue wasn’t really in their campaign plans, so I think they wanted to just put us aside. On TV all day on the 3rd, the news ran stories that the protests happened, and I think that the fact that we had so many students come out had an important impact on the media and on the public in general.
ASSÉ and the organizing it does in Quebec is unlike almost anything else happening in North America. What do you think that US students could learn from what ASSÉ is doing and adapt from it in their contexts? What advice would you give to them?
JA: Because of the way things are right now, and since it’s so different from our situation in Quebec, I don’t think it’s possible to think that things in the US will become like things here in Quebec in one step. A lot of things are going to have to happen first for it to become more like our situation.
One important thing is to stick with a grassroots strategy and structure – not just keeping it in mind and discussing it, but putting it into practice. Learning to do politics and speak about the theory of it is fun, but it really has an impact when you put it into practice. Trying to organize people in a grassroots structure is probably one of the best things that could happen, I think, for US students to move toward organizing like we do here.
Trying to get students in the different campuses to realize that they have power and can have an impact on the decision making is probably the most important thing to building a strong, combative movement that would be able to create important leverage against the government or the administration of the university or the college, probably starting at a local level.
One thing in ASSÉ that’s very different from the US is that we are not really big on lobbying – we usually don’t work with the different governments or representatives from the government because we try to build leverage from our own bases. Like I said, I think that trying to build structures and power inside the different campuses to show the students that they themselves are agents – demonstrating the fact that they can and should take part in the decision making – is probably one of the most important things to do. That sort of thing is going to have an important effect on the political education of students on campus and will lead to them taking an action on what’s happening there, whether it’s student debt or different aspects of the privatization of universities or other issues.
There are a lot of things that could be touched on, but I think that forming solid grassroots structures is probably one of the most interesting things that could happen in the US. Getting a general strike organized wouldn’t be the most strategic thing to do, especially not at first, as there isn’t much of a past built on that kind of mobilization in the US.
The continued mobilization of students in Quebec and their willingness to take to the streets to fight tuition hikes and austerity stands in stark contrast to the situation on US campuses. Students, while increasingly burdened and outraged, have not yet mobilized in comparable ways to fight against their collective $1.2 trillion in student debt.
But there is hope that Quebec students’ confrontational syndicalism could soon be migrating south in more palpable ways, as different Quebec students organizations, including ASSÉ members, build toward the Montreal Student Movement Convention this June. The gathering is aimed at spreading lessons learned from past Quebec student struggles – especially the 2012 student strike – to other North American student organizers in hopes that broadening the fight against austerity and the commercialization of education can create the leverage to mount more effective struggles against them.
The Montreal gathering, in conjunction with a gathering of teacher and student activists from Mexico, Canada, and the US known as the Trinational Conference to Defend Public Education, could make this summer a pivotal moment in building great unity and solidarity between the student and youth movements happening across North America.
The gatherings invoke the sentiments of critical pedagogue and democracy theorist Henry Giroux, who remarks that “This generation of young people [who are engaging in education struggles across the world] represent the best hope we have for refusing a life ruled by debt collection agencies, reclaiming education as the practice of freedom, and a recognition that the majority of commanding institutions under neoliberalism no longer serve the needs of most young people or the larger public.”
They most certainly do. And that is why everyone interested in a more just world should be on the side of the students.
More visit: http://www.manif3avril.org/en/
Roshan Bliss is a student organizer, inclusivity & anti-oppression trainer, and democratic process specialist with a passion for empowering young people to defend their futures and democratize their schools. Bliss, a former occupy activist, serves as Assistant Secretary of Education for Higher Education for the Green Shadow Cabinet.