Québec Students Strike for Free Higher Education: Interview with Jérémie Bédard-Wien

Québec student leader Jérémie Bédard-Wien attended the recent Young Democratic Socialists student conference in New York city as an official representative of the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), formerly CLASSE, the national student organization formed to stop tuition hikes in Québec. Jérémie has acted as treasurer, co-spokesperson, and member of the executive committee of ASSÉ, and he sat down after the plenary session for an interview with Democratic Left.


Maria Svart, DSA: We just got out of a great panel where you discussed the student strike in Québec, and we think there are a lot of parallels but also a lot of lessons and contrasts with the student movement here in the US and with some of the work that YDS is doing even. So can you start by telling us a little bit about the history of the strike, what sparked it, and how you ultimately were able to win.

Jérémie BédardWien: Well, it starts in 1969. I will spare you the 40 years of syndicalist history in Québec, which is rather important because we were able to draw from these past experiences to mobilize for the strike, how past strikes succeeded, what they were like, so on and so forth. Very extensive archives for the student movements.

But the preparations for the current strike started in 2010 when the tuition hike was first announced. It was going to start being put into effect two years later, so we were given two years’ warning, thankfully, which we were able to use to properly mobilize. So we went on several one-day strikes, at least four or five during that time to allow for an escalation of some kind – starting small toward a general strike. It requires a lot of time, a lot of mobilization. And mobilization was indeed our focus for those two years. There were mobilization committees at every union where people could come in, learn about these issues, and in turn mobilize others, hand out propaganda over a long period of time. Constant mobilization rather than periodic mobilization – when you have nothing to mobilize for you just mobilize over information regarding the tuition hikes, their effects, and so on.

From the get-go, we used systemic analysis to get our point across, and our analysis of the tuition hikes encompassed not just the economics of it, the number ($1,625) but also drew the tuition hike into a broader analysis of politics, of this being part of a systematic neoliberal shift in public services in Québec, which used to be entirely free and accessible to all (except education, which always had rather low tuition fees). We contrasted this with our vision for education – which is for it to be free to all, funded by the taxpayers, and accessible to everyone including international students and free of corporate influence, which we see as a very subtle influence on the politics of higher education – how we perceive higher education, where funds are invested, this is also something we sought to denounce

So two years. Two years where we also held general assemblies which we always do to decide what the union should do and bring more and more people into those methods of decision making, which are hallmarks of our model of direct democracy. We all knew that we were going to have to go on a general strike to defeat the tuition hike because governments don’t move that easily in the history of Québec. But this was something that we could establish only after a fair amount of mobilization and action had been done already. And so in November 2011 we did a protest, and 30,000 people showed up. We did it in collaboration with other national student unions that are less radical than ASSÉ, and at that point we created CLASSE as a coalition to quickly get other unions to join on the premise of defeating the tuition hike from the perspective of free education and also on the premise of participatory democracy.

In January and February 2012, we mobilized quickly for the general strike. At that point we had done our own work for the tuition hike itself, people were convinced that this was a bad measure and that we had to attack it, now we just had to make the case for this ultimate method of action. It’s important to say that the general strike is not only a way of getting people out to demonstrations. It has its own economic effects, and the most economically threatening part of that movement, much more so than the demonstrations or anything because you still have to pay teachers, you still have to pay staff at the university and other colleges all throughout the strike, and every day that you strike adds up through the semester, which when the strike ends will have to be retaken. So the strike cost $3 million for the government per day at some points. And more problematically, it threatens the cancellation of the semester. At some point, you can only cancel the semester and start the next one, which means that everyone who would graduate this semester will go on for another semester and will keep his or her place at the university or the college which means someone else will not take that place. So it delays the entry of an entire graduating class into the job market. That creates untold amounts of economic damage because the job market expects a number of graduates every year. So that’s what the effects of the strike were. We started getting mandates early on in February, as I mentioned in my talk the first one when I was in college I had never gone on strike very tight vote, but then you know you mount up momentum. It’s an unstoppable momentum and the government has to react to the strike for it to stop. It is renewed every week, but there is no reason to renew it if the government has not reacted to it, and in fact it did not really react until late March, March 22nd after the weekend of the big demonstrations.

Matt Porter, YDS: I may take this in a slightly different direction, but you mentioned in your talk that in 2007 you worked on a campaign for free higher education. You had to take time to rebuild because the campaign had some issues. Clearly you went from a low point to pulling off a highly successful strike, so how did you rebuild as an organization and do something so fantastic and complicated?

Jérémie: 2007 came hot on the heels of another strike in 2005, which was incredibly successful and lasted for two months, which at the time was the longest strike we had ever gone on. It didn’t have as much international resonance as this one, but it was in protest of a shift of $103 million from the bursaries program to the loans program. It was pretty brutal and uncalled for, so we went on strike over that. It was less successful for our own organization. We were smaller at the time, but still this reignited our confidence. In 2007 a tuition hike was announced, a smaller one, a test for the one that was to come so we said “OK, we’ll just go on an offensive campaign to demand free education” but that failed completely. The strike votes weren’t successful. The most radical students (?) voted against. At that point, we couldn’t get it up and running again.

But the structures remained. The unions kept running, they retained their funding, they kept doing political action, maybe not coordinated nationally but they were still doing stuff locally. Political action at a national level was pretty much dormant, the only thing we did in 2008 was I think one protest or something. But as you have those structures, and as people don’t stay in university or college that long, you’re able to conveniently move past failures and move on to better things. We never talked about the failed attempt at a strike when we mobilized for this one. We only used carefully chosen points of reference which showed that student movements succeed. You have to craft your own history in a way. And I hope that right-wing media in Québec will not quote that , because they have been quoting me in interviews that I did for Belgian media six months ago!

Matt: The point you keep raising is that the structures allow you to bounce back from failures, whereas things like Occupy Wall Street didn’t have that.

Maria: And you mention 40 years of syndicalist history in Québec. So what kind of foundation existed in Québec that can be contrasted with here? The second question is what kind of organizing tactics did you use? You mentioned in your talk that it wasn’t just social media – you went out at 6 in the morning every day to leaflet and talk to every single student.

Jérémie: When I say “syndicalist history,” I mean student syndicalism. There wasn’t much union/labor syndicalism anywhere in Québec either. It started in the 1960s, as most of those movements did. In 1969 we had our first general strike on the issue of – there were a number of movements happening all at once, this was the height of the sovereigntist movement as well, so there was a campaign to make McGill into a Francophone university – there was a crippling lack of accessibility to higher education at the time. We had colleges that had just been created, but they weren’t prepared to accept many students. So this general strike demanded loans and bursaries and better accessibility to higher education, and in response to that the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) network, which is kind of like the UC system in California was created, the first victory of the student movement in Quebec. These structures kept running, and we had nine general strikes to further and defend accessibility, defeat tuition hikes, defeat reforms, privatization and so on on different issues. It keeps on continuing even through the 1990s, which were a dark time for the left everywhere. The big hegemonic student organization at the time which was in every student organization in the province, which had been going strong in the 1970s stumbled in the 1980s and became a bureaucratic monster with very little political ambition, and it was finally killed off in the 1990s. That gave rise to new corporatist unions founded on the premise of not going on strike, which we have to deal with to this day. But things picked up again on syndicalist foundations and ASSÉ was created in 2001 to draw on the failures of past organizations and the successes of a certain brand of combative syndicalism.

To build an organization like ASSÉ, you need to draw people in. Draw them in through meetings, draw them in through general assemblies, draw people in through political spaces of organization. And that’s done through intense mobilization though this print culture that we developed. We printed newspapers, we printed tracts, leaflets, fliers, and gave them out in record numbers every day. We have a printer that never stops. We’re terrible environmentally that way, but I think it’s worthwhile. You just have to get a piece of paper in someone’s hands, and that becomes a way to strike up a conversation to confront them on their received ideas and challenge their conceptions of education and political action and make them move over to your side. That takes a lot of time, but that’s what we did over two years, we talked to people. It’s a lost habit, really.

Maria: The fliers themselves weren’t doing the convincing.

Jérémie: You hope people read them, but it’s much more effective to talk to people than to just flier people. It puts a human face on those political ideas. I don’t mean to diminish the great work done by our newspaper committee but yeah.

Maria: You engaged with students, and you created general assemblies and brought people in that way. Can you contrast your general assemblies and how they run with what you observed in Occupy Wall Street? How were they a way to get students to support student democracy?

Jérémie: Because it’s a collective decision taken by a large group of people at the same time. You get people into the same space, and suddenly they aren’t an individual in a larger society, they’re part of a collective, part of a student class for a moment in time, and that moment allows them to vote on a collective action. The more people vote for a strike, the less consequences it has, as opposed to a boycott on Bud (?) for instance. Because it involves such a large number of people. That’s the difference between individual political action or affinity organizing and these mass general assemblies that involve a lot of political tendencies and even non-political students voting against a tuition hike.

It’s about getting people into the same space, and that space is nothing like Occupy Wall Street general assemblies. It’s extremely formalized. Every member of the union has the right to vote, to propose motions, and to speak during those general assemblies, but that’s it. Non-members do not even have the right to speak. There is a chair, there is a note-taker, it’s all regulated by a very formal code of procedures and the association’s bylaws. It’s very hard to chair one of these meetings, you need to know the rules very well. You have to keep order, and so on. And votes are taken for the most part by majority. The strike was taken by majority, there was no consensus. Consensus is not really democratic – it allows a small group of people to block the process for hours on end if they want to, and you cannot vote a strike by consensus, obviously.

Matt: There’s been a lot of talk about trying to organize a critical mass of students in the US to refuse payment of their student loans at a huge personal risk. I’ve been wary of this concept and I think a lot of people in YDS have thought of it as a bad idea, and I was curious to get your opinion on this strategy.

Jérémie: Yeah, it’s never really worked. We tried a boycott in the 1980s, a boycott of tuition fees, and less than one percent of students did it.

Maria: Not to mention that your fees are much lower than here.

Jérémie: Yes! We’re not even talking about defaulting on debt, we’re talking about not paying low tuition fees. So the personal cost is so great, and it’s such an individual action in the end even though it’s dreamed up collectively, that in my perspective it’s bound to fail. A strike is a collective action. We’ve seen those at the UC universities. That’s the kind of action that should be done rather than individual boycotts.

Maria: And the strike was not just about tuition hikes, but also about democracy and ultimately about free higher education. You characterized stopping the tuition hikes as a necessary compromise, but it’s not the end. In this country, we have a few public university systems that had historically been free, and were sent down the slippery slope by chancellors and other decision makers explicitly saying that they’ll begin only by charging a small fee but increase that fee over time. Can you talk about this broader goal of free higher education?

Jérémie: A small fee, even though it may be small, still represents a commodification of higher education. It means that you have to pay for a product. Education is not to be conceived as a product in my opinion, and as such should be free like health care. Is health care a product? Do you buy yourself a new kidney? Education is a right for all, so is health care, and it should be funded collectively.

I was in the Czech Republic a few months ago, and they recently started charging 3,000 crowns, which is less than $100 I think, for a year in the university. Even those amounts represent a worrying shift that should be reversed. For us, this was part of a broader neoliberal program sponsored by this government – a cultural revolution of sorts – and we wanted to defeat it as a whole. We worked with other groups to defeat other measures of the same kind in other public services, and we always had a wide, overarching rhetoric that bordered on revolutionary at times. In fact, at the end of the strike when it became extremely big, many were hoping it would transform into some revolutionary struggle. Of course that did not materialize. This was relying on general assembly votes after all, and many students were still opposed to the tuition hike but not opposed to capitalism. This was something that was never bridged, but at the same time our analysis encompassed elements of anti-capitalist analysis and of challenging more than simply tuition hikes and more than simply education. And this was very successful as a way of radicalizing and politicizing students. Other organizations will have to take that and make it something more radical.

Maria: To what extent did your political ideas helped to stop the tuition hike and defeat Bill 78?

Jérémie: If we were only going to talk about the tuition hike itself and the $1,625 it would have lasted for three weeks. The government would have offered us something insignificant and students would have accepted it because they would not have any kind of further analysis than just the numbers. “Let’s just have a smaller increase, that’s totally fine.” When you challenge the idea of paying for education itself, it creates a lot of resolve among the student body. Some even took on mandates to go on strike indefinitely until we had free education, and these were in general assemblies of thousands. It made our strike much stronger. Even though we had many offers on the table, they were repeatedly rejected. The freeze was the minimal compromise we could have done to end the strike. This radicalism was not only expressed by student leaders, it was expressed in general assemblies. It was expressed by single mothers, by those who came in the streets to support us but weren’t students. It was not only a rhetoric belonging to the enlightened leaders but in the general student body you encountered it fairly often. It did more for radical anti-capitalist movements than most of what these organizations do themselves.

But then again, the strike doesn’t belong to one organization. It’s an opportunity, it’s a platform. Once you go on strike you’re liberated from the constraints of traditional political thought and the constraints of being occupied with school, so you can do a lot more than simply challenge the tuition hike.

Within days of this interview, ASSÉ had mobilized ten thousand students to protest the new government’s education summit, breaking with their more moderate colleagues in the student federations who participated in the summit while still pushing for a tuition freeze.

Matt Porter is YDS national co-chair and a member of Metro Washington, D.C. DSA. Maria Svart is DSA’s national director. Photo credit: Mario Jean. Our thanks to the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung for bringing Jérémie to NYC.