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The (CL)ASSE is ascendent: Quebec student movement realigns in wake of strike

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"The times, they are a changin'" sang Bob Dylan, and nowhere is that more true than in the Quebec student movement.

Lost amid the celebration of the victories of this year's Maple Spring is a different consequence of the longest strike in Quebec history, one which has gone largely unnoticed outside student circles.

There is a fundamental realignment going on within the student movement in this province, one which promises to have far reaching repercussions. CLASSE, the temporary coalition formed to fight the tuition hike, may have dissolved, but its mother organization, the ASSE (Association for Syndical Solidarity among Students) is ascendent.

Since the conclusion of the strike, during which CLASSE represented roughly seventy percent of striking students, ASSE has seen its membership grow by leaps and bounds. It seems at least once a week the organization's Facebook page proudly announces that a new student association has joined their ranks, and the numbers back up the impression of unbridled growth. ASSE's membership has grown from 45,000 to 70,000 since January, and appears set to increase further in the months ahead.

Most of these new members are independent student associations, some of whom were part of CLASSE and are now putting their money where their mouth is, so to speak, by choosing to join, and pay dues to, ASSE. But some of the growth has also been at the expense of their fellow student federations, the FEUQ and FECQ (Quebec Federation of University Students, and Quebec Federation of College Students).

In fact, that trend promises to increase sharply as two referendums to disaffiliate from the FECQ are currently scheduled, another two are imminent, and more appear likely in light of an open letter sent to that organization's leadership by twenty-nine current and former members denouncing it for "A profound lack of transparency, inadequate value placed on democracy and a flagrant disrespect for democratic decisions of the congress or member student associations".

The open letter, whose signatories hail from at least twelve different CEGEPs, also referred to the current disaffiliation campaign as "the largest wave of disaffiliation attempts in such a short period of time in the history of the Federation".

Jérémie Bédard-Wien, a spokesperson for ASSE, told rabble that the disaffiliations are local initiatives based on a desire to leave the Federation, and that ASSE is not involved. That said, "we would love to work with these and any other student associations in this new movement for free education, if they are prepared to be part of our democratic process".

Several student associations who were members of the FECQ took the unusual step of joining CLASSE during the strike, including CEGEP André Laurendeau and St -Félicien and a number of departments at the University of Montreal, and have now left FECQ and joined ASSE.

"Many associations joined CLASSE at the beginning because the federations were not inclined to work towards the strike," said Bédard-Wien. "They saw CLASSE as a truly democratic association, which was to be the main vehicle for the strike and whose practices of direct democracy and combativeness ultimately made the strike a success. The federations also made some curious choices, such as demanding the abolition of tax credits on tuition without consulting their members, and these sort of democratic faux pas forced many students to question their membership".

Vincent-Olivier Bastien, the Vice President of the FECQ told rabble that the disaffiliations are normal, and every year the FECQ sees referendums to leave, but also to join, pointing out that FECQ has seen the CEGEPs of Ahuntsic and St-Foy join in the last number of years, adding 15,000 members to its rolls.

Bastien added that the FECQ does not acknowledge the disaffiliations of CEGEP André Laurendeau, St -Félicien and Shawinigan because those schools did not hold referendums to disaffiliate which complied with the FECQ's rules. rabble was unable to reach the student associations at these schools for comment by press time, but it is believed that they chose to disaffiliate at General Assemblies, which are the supreme decision making body for most, if not all, Quebec CEGEPs and universities.

Bastien argues that because these disaffiliations are not recognized, the membership of the FECQ remains what it was before the strike, 80,000. That would drop to roughly 73,000 if those schools were not counted, and the FECQ stands to lose almost another 5,000 members in the two upcoming disaffiliation referendums, bringing it to around 68,000 members.

Some members of the student movement challenge these numbers however, arguing that they are inflated. A student association source speaking off the record asserted that the province wide CEGEP distance learning program, which is administered out of CEGEP de Rosemont, but whose students are not considered students of that CEGEP, was annexed into the FECQ without its over 15,000 students being consulted. This was done by a decision of the student association at Rosemont, who do not represent these students.

According to Bastien, the complaints of the FECQ dissidents amount to sour grapes, being aired by members who lost democratic votes at FECQ congresses and are unable to accept that their position was not supported by the majority of FECQ members.

"Some of the people who signed that letter never came to a single FECQ congress, they don't know the structure, they don't understand it and they don't like how it works. In the FECQ, it's always students who decide, not the Executive. Sometimes we have debates, and vote on certain issues, but we always try to be as close as possible to consensus.

Our structure is exactly like the CLASSE, or ASSE. People say it isn't, but it's the same way of working. Some people are mad about this spring, because we weren't all on strike, but some of our schools are not as militant. We never obliged people to go on strike. We left the decision up to students. We look at other ways of doing things, not just striking but research, lobbying politicians and we win victories for students every day."

In response to the accusation of a lack of transparency, Bastien argued that the decision to keep tactical information secret was a decision made democratically by the members at a congress.

The assertion that the federation's structure is every bit as democratic as that of the ASSE did not sit well with the ASSE's Bédard-Wien.

"The structure of the student federations is a far cry from the direct democracy that ASSE members live daily. To say the federations have similar structures of direct democracy, which allow students to have a direct say in every aspect of their association, be it local or national, is quite frankly, very far from the truth.

The record of both the 2005 and 2012 strikes eloquently demonstrates the differences between the power balances in both models. The claims of dissatisfied FECQ members, and the many unions who joined CLASSE and are now joining ASSE after long periods as federation members makes that point clear".

In addition to the points raised regarding democracy and transparency, many critics of the federations point to their opposition to free education and seeming disdain for protests and pressure tactics since the PQ government came to power as evidence that the federations are too moderate, and too close to the PQ.

rabble asked Bastien why the federation favoured a freeze over the project of free education advanced by the ASSE.

"Our position is that we want a tuition freeze. With a freeze, the cost of education will diminish over time as a result of inflation. So education will eventually become free. We want a freeze as a step towards free education. We believe a freeze will bring all Quebeckers to see the value of education, and in time everyone will agree with the value of accessibility and support a move towards free education".

Both the FECQ and FEUQ denounced an ASSE organized protest this past Thursday which drew between five and ten thousand people into the streets to call for free education and oppose the commercialization of education. Bastien rejects the argument that pressure must be maintained on the government to ensure a good outcome from the education summit.

"The protest was not for a freeze. It was for free education, for Palestine, for many things. We think a demonstration on many subjects loses the impact that you can have with a demo on one subject. Our priority is preparing the best research possible, and preparing for the summit. A freeze is feasible, and the best option for Quebec. We will bring that argument to the summit and we believe our arguments will be able to change people's minds. We will also be pushing for an increase to financial aid and better management of schools. Through our research and our arguments we will be able to accomplish these goals".

Although the criticisms of the federations appear to be mostly ideological and tactical, there is also a discrepancy in the fees charged by the different groups which strengthens the argument of dissidents who are arguing that ASSE would provide more bang for their buck.

While the ASSE levies dues at the rate of three dollars per year per student, the FECQ charges five dollars, and is seeking to double their dues to ten dollars per student per year in the near future.

In many ways, the ascendancy of the ASSE is not solely a result of the strike, but has been building since the last strike in 2005. At that time the ASSE backed coalition, the CASSEE, was the smaller partner in a strike marked by the bitter infighting between CASSEE and the federations, which often dwarfed the struggle against the government.

Over the intervening years ASSE worked diligently to recruit new members and increase the size, strength and credibility of their organization. Without shedding any of their radical principles, they modernized their media relations and tactics and spent the two years between the announcement of impending tuition increases and the beginning of the strike tirelessly working the ground in member schools and non-member schools alike.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois often cites this lengthy ground campaign as the decisive factor in the success of the strike. According to him, when they began scarcely ten to fifteen percent of students were even opposed to the tuition increase, let alone prepared to go on strike.

Two years of popular education and mobilization led to the unprecedented strike we saw this year.

Whereas in 2005 the federations were only too happy to distance themselves from the CASSEE, and allow the student movement to be divided, this year the federations, who only represented thirty percent of striking students, had no choice but to line up behind CLASSE.

In the popular imagination, and largely in reality, the strike was led by the militant CLASSE and their intensely charismatic public face, Nadeau-Dubois, with the federations reluctantly dragged along for the ride.

Had the strike failed, CLASSE would have taken the brunt of the blame. But with its success, which is seen as a vindication of the militancy of CLASSE, it seems only natural that students would ask themselves why they aren't members of the association which largely led them into battle this year.

The victory of the strike also makes ASSE's demand for free education seem much more like an achievable objective, and less like a pipe dream, than it did before.

The FECQ's problems are doubtless not helped by the election of their former President, Leo Bureau-Blouin, to the National Assembly as a PQ MNA. While there would no doubt have been grumbling from some sectors of the student movement had a leader sought election with Quebec Solidaire, I think it would have been largely accepted. But the PQ is a bridge too far, and Bureau-Blouin is widely regarded as a traitor within the student movement.

The position of the FEUQ seems more solid, as only a handful of their members, largely at the departmental level, are considering disaffiliation. However, the news that the University of Sherbrooke and their 14,000 members plan to hold a disaffiliation referendum in the winter semester will no doubt cause some gnashing of teeth in their offices. But the FECQ seem to be in trouble, and I would not be surprised to see increasing numbers of CEGEPs seeking to disaffiliate over the course of the next year.

Another key difference between the ASSE and the federations is that while the federations claim to be neither left nor right, but an apolitical vehicle for expression of their members wishes, ASSE has always been clear on where it situates itself in the larger struggle against austerity and neo-liberalism.

For the ASSE, the struggle for accessible education does not happen in a vacuum. Therefore they have always been proactive in joining larger fights, such as the coalition against privatization and user fees (red hand coalition), which played a critical role in mobilizing the general population to support the student cause this year.

By reaching out and building reciprocal alliances with other parts of civil society, ASSE was able to reach out to allies and partners and transform a student movement into a full fledged social movement.

Current and former executives of CLASSE have also been working diligently, and traveling constantly, to build alliances with progressive organizations in the rest of Canada. They have succeeded in building bridges of solidarity between Quebec and the rest of Canada which activist Judy Rebick says are the strongest she has seen in thirty years of trying to bridge the two solitudes to build a unified cross-country social movement.

Where the federations are determined to fight a limited battle, largely by lobbying the PQ government, ASSE are as concerned with climate change, gender equality, and class struggle as they are with education. They see themselves as a powerful wing of a larger social movement fighting for nothing less than systemic changes to a badly broken system.

For that they should be applauded by progressives across this country. They are our strongest allies and our most potent inspiration. And they are changing the face of civil society in Quebec, injecting an urgency and a radicalism which is desperately needed in these dark times.

Follow @EthanCoxMTL on twitter for all the latest on Quebec, and progressive politics in general

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