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Québec's Student Strike: La Lutte Continue, but What Lessons Can We Learn?

Hundreds of thousands of students march in Montréal on May 22. Photo courtesy fatseth via Flickr.

Striking university students in Québec are well into their 15th week of continuous protests. Their strike, which began primarily in opposition to student debt and the proposed 75% tuition hike, has since expanded to encompass wider critiques of both the university system itself and larger issues of austerity and neoliberal economic reform.

Québec’s hardline conservative premier, Jean Charest, several days ago pushed through a series of draconian anti-free-speech laws aimed at breaking the strike. Penalties run in the tens of thousands of dollars and up to 10 years in jail for those participating in or even promoting unpermitted protest actions; and even for protest marches that have been approved by the police, the sponsoring organization will be held liable for any and all illegal actions taken at or near the march.

In a surprise to absolutely no one but Charest, these laws have not only rekindled student participation in the strike, but sparked an even greater outrage among the general population. This past Tuesday -- the hundredth day of the strike -- an astounding number of students and allies marched in Montreal. Estimates range from 300,000 to 500,000 participants, a historic number even for Québec’s activist past. Opinion polls similarly showed a huge 18 point increase in support for students and opposition to the government.

Coop média de Montréal has an excellent run-down of Ten Points Everyone Should Know About the Quebec Student Movement, which gives the best primer I’ve yet seen on what exactly is happening -- and why. You really need to go read that now. I’ll wait.

...Done? Great! Point #3, “The student strike was organized through democratic means and with democratic aims,” is something I’d like to develop a bit further here because it’s a crucial lesson our neighbors to the north have to teach us.

Student unions exist in almost every industrialized nation in the world (except for the United States, whose students are stuck with poor imitations usually called “student governments”), and they are charged with defending and advancing student interests, both on- and off-campus. Most of Québec’s student unions are very different from student unions in the rest of Anglophone Canada: they’re directly democratic, in a way anyone familiar with Occupy Wall Street will immediately recognize:

Among the Francophone schools in Quebec, the leaders are not only elected by the students, but decisions are made through general assemblies, debate and discussion, and through the votes of the actual constituents, the members of the student associations, not just the leaders.

This use of direct, deliberative democracy is a key reason why Québécois student strikes are without exception larger, last longer, and are more successful than those elsewhere in Canada. Because strike resolutions (which happen on every university campus, and in individual academic departments as well for larger schools) can only be passed when a majority of students approve:

  • Strikes rarely happen without considerable student support;
  • Students feel more personally invested in the success of the strike; and
  • Strikes hold more legitimacy in the eyes of the officials and the greater public than protests organized by a small group.

But separate from that, and possibly more important, is the transformative and prefigurativenature of the democratic process. Genuine, grassroots, participatory democracy is uniquely potent in wiping away the patina of legitimacy that coats elected politicians and the injunctions they decree. Student assemblies are held every week, and on some campuses every night, to determine local activities and often to decide whether to continue the strike. Many have moved even further than the official demands of the strike and are calling for a more democratically-run university (a truly dangerous demand for those in power).

There are relatively few Anglophone universities in Québec, and for the most part students have more culturally and socially in common with their counterparts in other provinces than the schools down the street from them. However, for the first time in history, the Anglophone student associations at Concordia and McGill have joined the strike, an act arriving on the heels of their recent adoption of democratic decision-making structures (instead of solely elected representatives).

The strike has also spread past what we in the U.S. would think of as the university. Québec’s education system has a third institution between high school and university -- the CEGEP, which is a two-year school combining our senior year of high school and our college freshman year. Most CEGEPs and high schools also have student unions, and many of the strike’s most dedicated and energetic organizers come from their ranks. Student organizing in Québec offers lessons for American students in every grade.

In the face of increasingly brutal and authoritarian suppression on the part of the government -- to the point of one leading official explicitly endorsing fascist tactics from the 1920s and ‘30s to harm his fellow citizens -- this Québécois model of student unionism is more important than ever. These hundreds of tiny bastions of direct democracy, like so many seeds strewn on a field, may just yet blossom into a freer, more just, and more democratic Canada. And no matter the outcome of this particular strike, I hope this example inspires us to pick up our own watering cans and start growing democracy here in the United States -- a land not unfamiliar with that particular crop.

(Cross-posted in EdWeek)

Québec Education Minister Resigns, Says Not Because of Strike, Everyone Laughs

Québécois student strikers roll deep. The months-long strike is down to around one third of all students (still numbering more than 150,000), but it hasn't lost its potency.

Students at dozens of universities continue to picket campus buildings to prevent classes from being held — standing firm often in the face of police intimidation and violence. For example, strikers are out right now at College Lionel Groulx, arms linked and symbolic red fabric squares flapping on their clothes, preparing for a police assault against their blockade of the main entrance to their CEGEP.

During last month's ultimately fruitless negotiations between the major student union federations and the provincial government, the most radical group, CLASSE, was kicked out due to their inability to magically stop any strike action or vandalism on the part of their member students for a 48-hour period. This after they already required CLASSE to issue a statement repudiating acts of violence (which they ultimately issued, noting quite correctly that property damage is not violence). When the government used this flimsy excuse to boot CLASSE during the previous strike campaign several years ago, the two smaller reformist student unions, FECQ and FEUQ, were more than happy to sell out their erstwhile "comrades" and stay at the negotiating table. This transparent opportunism and sycophancy decimated their ranks as students flocked to CLASSE. Come 2012, the reformists knew better, and quit the negotiating table in protest of and in solidarity with CLASSE's ejection.

Québec Premier Jean Charest's "six-point plan," which negotiators originally tried to strongarm student union leaders to accept behind closed doors, has been almost unanimously rejected by students in their local assemblies. The message to Charest is clear: low-interest loans won't cut it. Tuition hikes spread out over a few years won't cut it. 

Despite mass media's dogged attempts to pigeonhole the strike movement to be simply kneejerk anti-tuition hikes (granted, one of my favorite kinds of kneejerk protests), CLASSE-affiliated unions have some pretty solid suggestions for how to rearrange university finances:

  • Cut the percentage of university funding directed toward private for-profit research
  • Cut the practice of universities advertising to attract students, saving $18 million a year
  • Freeze the salaries and hiring of university administrators, which they have exploded over the past several years
  • Halt the construction of satellite campuses far from university main campuses
  • Add a 0.7% tax on banks and financial institutions to ensure tuition-free education

And now we have the resignation of Québec's Minister of Education, Line Beauchamp. Beauchamp, in her desperation to avoid it being framed as the huge student victory it is, said she was not resigning because of the student strike. Right. Let's get real here:

“I am resigning because I no longer believe I’m part of the solution.”

She said she had spoken to student groups about letting a parliamentary committee study the issue of university funding.

Beauchamp, who was also the deputy premier, said she asked the students whether they trusted the people’s elected representatives to study the question — and that on Monday they had refused.

This leaves the ruling Liberal party with an even more tenuous hold on a majority in the provincial Parliament, holding 63 out of 125 seats with the balance of power potentially decided by 3 current vacancies. Beauchamp will be replaced by her predecessor Michelle Courchesne — the very person who spearheaded the push for the current proposed tuition hike in the first place.

Protests continue every single evening, often drawing thousands of students and other Québecers in solidarity, leading up to the next massive demonstration on May 26th. Beauchamp's telling farewell confession, “I am resigning because I no longer believe I’m part of the solution,” is something we can't wait for the rest of the politicians to realize. We've got to show them, and that's exactly what Québec's student strikers are doing.

This printemps québécois is teaching activists and organizers across the continent how important it is to avoid falling in line behind milquetoast compromise — especially when the wind is at your back — and the combined voices of 150,000 students mean that such a lesson won't soon be forgotten.


BREAKING: American University's adjunct faculty vote to unionize!

I just received an email that was sent from American University's Provost Scott A. Bass to the AU community. This is amazing news -- not only because of the vote itself, but the fact that it was successful, and most amazingly is not being challenged by AU's Administration. I'll post more as it arrives, but here's the contents of the memo: 

American University


February 16, 2012

TO: American University Community
FROM: Scott A. Bass, Provost

RE: Results of the Union Election

Today, the ballots were counted to determine whether adjunct faculty will be represented by the Service Employees International Union, Local 500. I would like to thank the adjunct faculty who voted in the election for expressing their choice in this important matter.

Of the 1,672 eligible votes, 379 were cast in favor of union representation and 284 were cast in opposition. The university respects the choice of its adjunct faculty to have union representation and, therefore, will not file any legal challenges to the election’s results. Instead, we look forward to beginning the collective bargaining process and engaging in a constructive dialogue with the union regarding issues related to adjunct faculty employment.

The Washington Post blog offers a bit more context:

Adjunct faculty at American University voted to unionize Thursday, following the lead of their peers at George Washington University and Montgomery College.

Adjuncts are the temps of higher education. They make up more than half of all college faculty nationwide, but most work part-time “for very low wages with no benefits, job security, administrative support or academic rights,” the labor union SEIU said in a release. (I should note that those characterizations are for adjuncts everywhere, not just at AU.)

Adjuncts are typically paid by the class and are considered relatively cheap labor. At AU, according to the union, an adjunct with a doctorate teaching three classes a semester could make as little as $18,000 in a year.

More from Washington City Paper:

At AU and elsewhere, many adjuncts complain about inadequate wages, poor job security, and a lack of respect on campus; some see unionization as a way to address their grievances.

“Universities recruit adjuncts to cut costs, even as admissions are up, tuition is up, administrative overhead is way up, building construction is up, everything is up except pay for instructors,” says Mark Plane, a part-time anthropology professor at AU and a supporter of SEIU. “This is a moment in which people are saying ‘enough is enough.’”

Also worth checking out is SEIU 500's release, in which it mentions having 10,000 adjunct faculty members in its union. Impressive.

But let's be clear: as anyone at all interested in workplace democracy will tell you, SEIU is not a good union. It's incredibly top-heavy and autocratic, undemocratic, and is willing to spend tens of millions of their members' dollars to squash internal dissent, like they did with California nurses a few years ago.

I'm glad that more adjunct professors are unionizing, and hopefully this trend will continue. But more than that, I hope once professors get their first contract, they'll vote to affiliate with a better union.

Obama's "Fighting for Scraps: Higher Ed Edition!" (Updated)

Obama and Arne DuncanAs anyone with an eye on the world of electoral politics has seen, because this is an election year we've been seeing "Candidate Obama" much more often. The Candidate Obama stage is about the only time the Democrats' liberal base gets a few bones thrown to it (it's a shame he wasn't up for re-election in 2010 - we might have gotten a halfway decent healthcare bill). 

In a bid to re-energize the university student vote, President Obama made quite a few pledges and proposals around higher ed in his State of the Union Address. The crux

Join me in a national commitment to train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job. My Administration has already lined up more companies that want to help. Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, Orlando, and Louisville are up and running. Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers – places that teach people skills that local businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing. [...]

When kids do graduate, the most daunting challenge can be the cost of college. At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July. Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves middle-class families thousands of dollars. And give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.

Of course, it's not enough for us to increase student aid. We can't just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we'll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down. Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who've done just that. Some schools re-design courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it's possible. So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can't be a luxury – it's an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.

A few thoughts.

Review of DEFAULT: The Student Loan Documentary

I left higher ed with roughly $50,000 in student loans. That debt, by way of the sometimes staggering monthly payments, has restricted where I can live, what I can do as a career (and specifically what kind of jobs I can afford to take), and what I can do with my free time.

That particular $50k was thanks to one single year of law school. One.

I was one of the lucky few as I left college -- I had zero student loan debt, a combination of commuting from home and tuition remission thanks to my father's faculty position. I had grand visions of walking in the footsteps of other radical lawyers, who eschewed the limousines and corner offices (and 100-hour work weeks) and instead used the law to at best help (at worst, mitigate the harm to) those most beaten down by the powers-that-be.

July 5: an Important Anniversary for Youth and Student Organizing

Today, July 5, contains two auspicious anniversaries that speak to the power of people, especially youth, to effect change.

Voting in the Ballot Box - 40 Years Ago Today

18-year-old voting rightsThe second key anniversary today is President Nixon's 1971 signing of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees voting rights to all citizens over the age of 18. Previously, for federal elections the age had been set at 21, with several states setting 18 as the cut-off age for state and local elections.

The ugly hypocrisy of sending 18-year-olds off to die in foreign lands but not allowing them to vote at home -- and the effective organizing and campaigning around it -- was a key factor in getting the Constitutional amendment passed. Electoral rights are not the pinnacle of political power for individuals and groups, but only the baseline. And today, even this bare minimum is under attackCampus Progress reminds us:

Rutgers Student Occupation Day 2

For background information about the occupation, and a summary of its first day, check out my previous blogpost here.

UPDATE: 9:00PM: The student occupiers have left the building without arrest or (as of yet) any university disciplinary action.

The students made it through the night in the President's office in Old Queens, an administration building.

Eleven stayed the night, locked in by the police, and under constant threat of arrest and removal. Students were unable to get food, water, of medicine from the outside. Thankfully late at night via a makeshift pulley using an extension cord, students were able to get provisions (possibly including a pizza that UW students phoned in in solidarity!). 

This morning the sit-in students were officially allowed food by the administration, after many chants by protesters of "let them eat!"

At noon today the students held a press conference. Check out newly-released video from the first day of the occupation:

Rutgers Students Occupying President's Office!

For even newer info, check out the blog post for Day 2 of the occupation.

UPDATE: 4:44pm: I just talked to a student in the office - she said it looks like they're about to be arrested. Anyone near New Brunswick should get their ass to campus, to stand up against this!

UPDATE: 5:06PM: The Rutgers VP of Student Affairs told students that after the building closes at 5:00, the students will be "trespassing". It's six minutes past 5:00 now. RU's General Counsel was just seen walking in the building. Word is that some students will be leaving voluntarily, and others will refuse. Media is present: NBC4 has a camera on scene, and the AP has done at least one interview.

UPDATE: 5:13PM: This is actually one of several sit-ins over the past week, including at William & Mary, Emory, Tulane, and of course, the University of Wisconsin.

UPDATE: 5:58PM: No arrests yet. However, USAS has a page where you can email or call Rutgers Prez McCormick to give him a piece of your mind.

BIG UPDATE: 6:40PM: Rutgers students will NOT be arrested tonight! They'll be staying overnight, apparently with 2 cops present in the building. EPIC WIN.

UPDATE: 8:20PM: Students are now getting mixed signals about whether they can stay in overnight or not. Only time - and the size of crowds outside - will tell.

UPDATE: 8:30PM: Scroll down to the bottom for video of the sit-in!

UPDATE: 10:12PM: Via twitter, 11 students are inside, still no food or toiletries allowed in.

Administration Strategies Against Student Activism and Organizing

Student organizers have a wealth of strategic analysis and history to pull from when we start any campaign. Everything from power mapping to the classic Tactic Star, I'm sure we've all been to our share of workshops to hone our activism. However, the point I want to make today is that college and university administrations across the country do the same thing. As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals:

Once a specific tactic is used, it ceases to be outside the experience of the enemy. Before long he devises countermeasures that void the previous effective tactic.

Since the explosion of innovative (and successful) student organizing and protest in the 1960s, administrators have sought to understand our tactics and strategy so as to work out the most effective ways to defuse our campaigns and actions.

Just as we have trainings and conferences, so do administrators: conferences with exciting names like the "Conference on Legal Issues in Higher Education", and "International Conference on Learning and Administration in Higher Education". There are also journals, magazines, and conference calls all devoted to the job of subjugating administering your campus.

Students and Youth in the Egyptian Revolution

Egyptian Youth in Revolt

The Middle East and North Africa are currently in the midst of a surge in youth population: a baby boom started in the late '70s through the 1980s means that a huge proportion of these countries' populations are under the age of 30. As we saw in Iran in 2005, in Egypt in 2008 (the April 6 general strike) and across the North African nations this past month, youth are a destabilizing influence on the sclerotic and brittle institutions of authoritarian political and economic rule. Almost two-thirds of the Egyptian population are under the age of 30.

Beyond their numerical presence, other factors in the region have been threatening to light this powder keg for years. Youth unemployment across Arab nations is much higher than in other regions; even in the relatively calm economic waters of 2005, average unemployment among youth was 26%. Unemployment among 18-29 year-olds in Egypt right now stands at 25%.

As the population grows, so do those attending higher education in Egypt. While there are expensive private institutions, public universities in Egypt are largely free, save for registration fees. Egypt's largest universities are truly staggering in size: Alexandria University boasts 175,000 undergrads; Cairo University has 200,000; and Mansoura University in Mansoura City has over 300,000 students.

This combination of a well-educated and economically disadvantaged population means trouble for autocrats everywhere.

Unfortunately, English-language sources of information of what's going on at the Egyptian universities are very hard to come across. One article that stands out is a report from a professor at the American University in Cairo, via Al Jazeera:

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