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In this episode, Kat and Felix discuss the Quebec student strike, with interviews from two strikers. We spend a lot of time on General Assemblies and the democratic practices of CLASSE and the impact of such on the level of commitment and militancy of students.
Produced by Common Cause, an anarchist communist organization in Ontario, Canada. For more about Common Cause, see http://linchpin.ca
Full show notes with multimedia, links and formatting available here:
Before going on further I am going to say that there interviews were both recorded in May 2012, and now it’s October. So the story has changed and developed since Jamie and I spoke.
The students of Quebec know how to strike
Not only do they know how to strike, like setting up a picket line, making fliers and all that jazz. No. What is going on here is that students are learning how to work democratically to make decisions, strategize, plan effective actions, take risks and throw the fuck down. That is fucking amazing. And it’s not just the lefty students who are already pre-disposed to this sort of thing. It’s all kinds of folks in all kinds of departments.
Now all this just made me so curious. How did this come to be? From Ontario it all looks very spontaneous, like it came out of nowhere. But if you organize, you know that spontaneity isn’t really a thing. Well, people do things spontaneously, but the ability to strategically coordinate large and effective actions seemingly on the fly is something that needs to be built by many people working for ages to make it happen.
We know that a huge outbust of passion like this is something that is cultivated by militants.
A cat clawing to get out of a cage
Kat’s new feline companion.
But those things almost never work, and they are often where social movements, labour and community groups stop tactically. And economic disruption doesn’t just have to *work* to be effective, lots of people on the Left and otherwise have used economic disruption to varying degrees of acceptance from within their movements.
I had never heard the phrase combat syndicalism before, but I love it. But combat syndicalism is not just the logical conclusion of failed appeals to power, because failed appeals to power are frequent and combat syndicalism is rare.
So the reason shitty, boring, fight-to-lose symbolic actions were abandoned has to be more than “they didn’t work.” I have been trying to figure out what was really, really going on. I found a lead when a friend facebook shared a post by Jamie, Five Thoughts from Quebec on Organizing Student Strikes, a striker in Quebec. I sent Jamie a message, and he agreed to speak with me by phone.
The surprising power of General Assemblies
So the other day I called Jamie up after work. He was at a buddy’s house talking about a workshop they are considering running on Ontario, about mistakes that were made and victories that were had.
Right away we got to this question of democracy, and the importance of GAs. I asked Jamie where the GA mode came from and he told me a bit about their roots in the Quebec labour movement.
Here I thought I would talk a little bit from a Recomposition piece on the student movement. Recomposition is a website where some really great organizers write about their work. It’s at recomposition.info, you can find a link in the show notes. This piece is written by someone going as Phinneas Gage, a wobbly and class A shit disturber from out West who recently visited Montreal where he met up with student organizers to get the low down. The piece is called “Snapshots of the Student Movement in Montreal.”
In his article, Phinneas describes the importance of votes at GAs being taken by a show of hands. That the mandates for strikes in this situation are really strong, often over 80%. Why? Because when you vote by a show of hands, you can look around you during the vote and see everyone, it’s like a sense of solidarity. You can see other people who are passionate and willing to take a risk. Versus if you are all by yourself in the voting booth, where it’s hard to visualize yourself as part of a group, which is what’s at the core of a union. Secret ballots are isolating, shows of hands are empowering for the group.
Another key point Phinneas points out is “the floor”. The floor was a way for a specific small group of students to vote in favour of a strike, with some caveat that the decision only comes into effect if a certain other number do as well. This lets you take a risk and show your cuts without the feeling that your small group will be the only one. Which obviously is a terrifying idea.
BASIC’s Quebec Student Strike blog has a good piece on the functioning of General Assemblies. An important point, for folks familiar with Occupy GAs is that these are not run on any kind of consensus framework. The first fellow I interviewed for this episode mentioned off tape that they were using Robert’s Rules. It could be the case in the English campuses, I’m not sure, but this article mentions Le code Morin, which according to Wikipedia (English translation | original French) is based on Robert’s Rules. Looking through this CEGEP guide to Le code Morin (original French), it seems similar.
The “coalition large” of ASSÉ that enabled students to work together in huge groups
After this we discuss the very interesting difference between ASSÉ and CLASS, another clever innovation in the student movement.
Don’t stop here
Jamie points out that listening to Francophone voices is very important to get a full version of the story. The two folks interviewed here were both Anglos.
Some other resources and info
A really well-made video regarding the strike background, general assemblies, strategy and tactics:
Quebec’s Truncheon Law Rebounds as Student Strike Spreads – A Guardian “Comment is Free” explaining the situation from basics.
On the subject of racism, I came across some comments also posted on Facebook by Will, who works with Montréal-Nord Républik. You can read the text here.