Lessons of the Quebec Student Movement

As we go to press, a large majority of students in Quebec are voting to return to class. After months of struggle, the movement is faltering as students are grudgingly voting to end the strike. This is a decisive turning point for the movement and it is vital that we learn the lessons going forward.

qstudents1Students in Quebec have shown unprecedented dedication and perseverance. They have resisted the proposed tuition increase of $1,625 with a huge show of determination. The post-secondary education system has essentially been shut down; we have seen demonstrations of record size every month, and nightly demonstrations with tens of thousands participating for weeks on end. In spite of the sheer size and resilience of the student movement, it has still failed to force a single concrete concession from the Liberal government of Jean Charest. The vast majority of students (and the majority of the population) have been actively supporting the strike in one way or another. But, such a level of mobilization cannot last forever. Students do not live on picket lines and if they do not see a clear proposal of how to win, they will grudgingly return to classes. At the end of the day, the failure to show a clear route to victory is what has led us to where we are now.

It was clear that for a period of a few months leading up to, and shortly after, the big demonstration on March 22, that the movement was filled with a great amount of élan and confidence. Over 300,000 were on strike with approximately the same number demonstrating that day. People asked themselves, “With such numbers, how can we lose?” This was the largest student mobilization in Quebec history. But in the following days and weeks, students were shocked that not only did the government not offer concessions, it actually continued to refuse to negotiate, and hardened its stance.

This struggle is different from all other postwar student struggles. This struggle comes in a new epoch of capitalist crisis and austerity. The bosses are attempting to put the burden of their crisis on the back of workers, the youth, and all sections of the oppressed. This is not “neoliberalism”, but instead a crisis of the system itself that affects all classes. Therefore, to win, the student struggle has to spread it to the wider working class that is the real target of austerity.

The reality is that students have very limited power in a capitalist society. When students strike and demonstrate, there is an amazing explosion of youthful indignation, but from the perspective of the capitalist class, it does not significantly affect their ability to exploit and make profits. The real power in society that can shut the system down is the working class. If one looks at the history of student struggles over the last century it is clear that the successful struggles were those that either spread to the workers, or were in the process of spreading to the workers.

France 1968 is the classic example of this. When faced with the prospect of a student movement igniting a wider workers’ movement, the capitalists move to meet the (comparatively cheap) demands of the students.

Youth are traditionally a much more sensitive barometer of the undercurrents of discontent in society and frequently are the first to move into struggle. It is easier for young people to enter into struggle as they feel injustice more acutely, are not as held down by routine, and have fewer ties and obligations. We have seen this with the Occupy movement and the Arab revolutions, where youth have played a key role. It is symptomatic of a wider malaise in society that is a harbinger of a wider workers’ struggle in the near future. The real power of the students lies not so much in their direct impact, but in the ability of their struggle to spread to the workers. This tendency must be encouraged at all costs, and that is why any notion of student elitism that separates the students from the workers is the absolute death of the movement.

What was necessary was for students to engage in a dialogue with workers—to win their sympathy and encourage them to come out in support of the students and the wider struggle against austerity. At every school, a worker-student solidarity committee should have been set up which would have drawn up a list of the major local workplaces and initiated a plan to visit each. These committees would mobilize people to go to these workplaces at the start of shift, to explain that the students were just the thin edge of the wedge, and that a defeat for the students would mean that the government and the bosses would come down on the workers twice as hard.

The fact that “we are the children of workers” could be used to gain sympathy. Attempts should be made to involve sympathetic union stewards in discussing with workers. And finally, if the students are able to win the support of the workers, the solidarity committee could turn itself into a picket line for a spontaneous wildcat over both the students’ demands and those of the workers themselves.

It is unfortunate that great opportunities have been lost. The huge momentum that the movement once enjoyed created tremendous pressure within the trade unions. Unionized workers came out in significant numbers for the demos in April and May. A few key unions even passed resolutions in favor of a general strike, but this failed to grow into a broader movement at the rank-and-file level. Had the students organized to actively penetrate the workers’ movement with the idea of a 24-hour general strike, we would have likely seen a general walkout by the workers in April or May.

The current task for all student and worker militants must be to absorb the lessons from the strike, make sure that we do not make the same mistakes again, and build a revolutionary organization that can play a decisive role in the next round of struggle. Students and workers—unite and fight!

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