Commentary | The federations, traitors until the end

Against the co-optation of the student movement

“It’s a new era of collaboration,” proclaimed Martine Desjardins in August, after encouraging students to relinquish their sole effective means of exerting pressure on the state. Following the cancellation of the hikes, the head of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ) – which, combined with the Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec (FECQ), represents over 200,000 students in Quebec – took the stage on behalf of the student movement to accept its victory and outline new boundaries for action. This presumptuous intervention might seem familiar, since it’s one that was made countless times throughout the strike. Students decide on a means of pressure, and the federations reject those means; once a situation escalates to the point where the federations fear losing control, they accept the situation and work to recuperate gains, or they prevent escalation at the expense of effective action. Of course, when students take action regardless and succeed, the FEUQ and the FECQ happily take credit.

This pattern of action by the federations is not coincidental – it comes from a fundamental tension between their practices, and those developed by students last spring. Students made the strike a point of international discussion by pressuring the state. By contrast, the federations are lobbyists, and thus their preferred tactics and attitudes are less disruptive.

The difference between the federations and the students was highlighted in the most continuously disruptive action of all: the act of striking itself. The federations are fundamentally anti-strike. Closely aligned with the Parti Québécois (PQ), FEUQ and FECQ’s preferred means of “pressure” are petitions and letter-writing. The 2012 strike eschewed such means for being ineffectual; unable to exert control, the federations spent most of the strike playing catch-up.

Consider the following: the federations had no plan of action following the  November 10 demonstration aside from organizing another on March 22. The massive turnout at the subsequent demonstration – at which the leaders of FEUQ and FECQ featured prominently, giving speeches and radio interviews – was not due to any initiative on the federations’ part. Rather, the turnout reflected the momentum generated by the strikes, which had begun a month earlier. The federations only grudgingly refrained from dissuading the students from striking, out of fear of losing control, and not a desire to support effectual action.

Similarly treacherous, after publicly condemning ‘violence’ in April, the heads of the FECQ and FEUQ were by May positioning themselves as the leaders of an emergent social movement. This movement was, in no small part, a popular reaction against Bill 78 – a bill triggered by the very expressions of social unrest that the federations had earlier attempted to quell. That the FEUQ pushed to include the Coalition Large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (CLASSE) (a student association typically contrasted with FEUQ and FECQ) in negotiations with the government – and that it was unable to sell out the student movement as it had in 2005 – only reflects their relative weakness vis-a-vis CLASSE this time around.

But, in August, the opportune moment presented itself. Armed with the knowledge that striking students were tired and fearful of losing their semesters, the federations moved to destroy the strike and channel support against the hikes into support for the PQ (which supports indefinite tuition hikes by indexing tuition to inflation). The legitimacy the federations acquired as a result of being more ‘moderate,’ the relative ease with which they were included in negotiations, and the ability of Léo Bureau-Blouin (former president of FECQ) to run as a PQ candidate, are signs the FEUQ and FECQ benefited from the strike. Like all good politicians, they rode the coattails of an opportunity when it proved expedient, and discarded it when it became a drain. In August, the federations extolled their members to ‘get out and vote’; but on August 14, the date of the strike renewal vote at the FECQ-affiliated Cégep Edouard-Montpetit, the FECQ’s absence in helping to mobilize was so significant that the local student association was forced to call the CLASSE executive for support.

With the election of the PQ, the federations have unparalleled access to decision-makers. It may seem that the federations’ leaders will be uniquely situated to influence policy makers and advocate on behalf of students. But the notion that one or two leaders could represent 250,000 students is an utter absurdity, and the very fact that federations’ leaders are willing to use the myth of representation to legitimize their decisions demonstrates that their interest lies not in supporting their members, but in securing their own power. It will be the federations that adopt the policies of the government, and not vice versa.

The federations’ proclamation of “total victory,” and their call for the PQ to revoke the millions in loans and bursaries conceded by the Charest government to striking students shows where the “victory” truly lies for the FEUQ and FECQ: not in the improvement of the material conditions of students, but in their new proximity to power. Yet, this should come as no surprise. The federations, vampire-like, must feed off the blood of a movement to sustain themselves. They are incomparably arrogant, and shamelessly duplicitous – traitors until the end.

Daniel Wolfe can be reached at daniel.wolfe@mail.mcgill.ca.


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