“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
In 2012, Québec students managed to reverse a major tuition hike and a draconian anti-protest law through the practice of direct democracy, creative tactics, and mass demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people. The student strike, symbolized by the *carré rouge* (red squares) that supporters pinned to their jackets, represented a critical juncture in contemporary student movement history, and also stands as an important example of the opportunities for collective action against austerity.
In a grassroots process, starting in 2010 and extending over a couple of years, Québec student unions, specifically the anarcho-syndicalist-inspired Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), began publicly organizing toward an unlimited general strike to oppose rising tuition. In parallel, the ruling Liberal Party was pushing an unprecedented 80 percent tuition fee hike. The strike was rooted in a fundamental clash between these two political visions: hundreds of thousands of students organizing for fully accessible post-secondary education squaring off against Québec’s political and corporate class, which was backed by the full force of the police and pushing a massive tuition hike as part of a broader austerity-driven framework.
In fall 2011, major protests began, with tens of thousands joining demonstrations against the proposed tuition hike and neoliberal policies more generally. Critically, these demonstrations were rooted in a process of direct democracy, as student general assemblies became the mobilization hubs of the strike.
As momentum towards the strike grew, the governing Liberals blindly and arrogantly pushed ahead, refusing to open any real negotiations with students around pending tuition hikes, a miscalculation that helped to galvanize support for the student movement. As the 2012 winter semester began, student general assembly after student general assembly voted to support a *grève générale* illimitée (an indefinite general strike).
On March 22, 2012, hundreds of thousands took the streets, marking the first of what would become monthly mass demonstrations backing the strike, all calling for *la gratuité scolaire,* the total abolition of post-secondary tuition.
Strategically, ASSÉ moved to create an open, non-sectarian assembly process, gathering representatives from student unions across Québec, members of ASSÉ and beyond. These gatherings, called CLASSÉ *(Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante),* would help chart the direction of the strike. CLASSÉ also included many members of the two more mainstream federations, the *Fédération étudiante collégiale du Québec* (FECQ) and *Fédération Etudiante Universitaire du Québec* (FEUQ), which were being pushed by their members to actively join the strike movement (see PRINCIPLE: Shift the spectrum of allies).
A key turning point in the strike was the imposition of Bill 78 by the governing Liberals in May, after months of student demonstrations. This “special law” drastically undermined the fundamental right to protest, declaring all future protests in Québec illegal unless pre-approved by police. Fortunately for the student movement, the special law backfired (see PRINCIPLE: The real action is your target’s reaction) and actually worked to invigorate greater non-student participation in the strike, including growing nightly casseroles demonstrations where thousands of sympathizers took to the streets banging pots and pans (see TACTIC: Cacerolazo).
Direct action became a key tactic for sustaining political momentum around the strike. ASSÉ created a public online calendar for the strike that quickly filled with autonomous actions, including many demonstrations carried out by decentralized networks of student activists and community members.
In the end, the political momentum behind the strike proved unstoppable, driving the governing Liberals from office in the September 2012 election. Though the election results certainly didn’t reflect the systemic critique of ASSÉ, they ushered in a Parti Québécois minority government that was forced by circumstances to cancel the proposed tuition hike and repeal Bill 78.
Three factors stand out as critical to the strike’s success: one, it built off of a long history of struggle; two, it was driven by direct democracy and horizontal organizing; and three, it boldly challenged the politics of austerity. The mobilization was strongly rooted in Québec’s longstanding student movement, which had pushed for the total abolition of post-secondary tuition in important student strikes in 1968, 1974, 1978, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1996 and 2005, all of which helped build the student union infrastructure for the strike. Overshadowing even the winning of free tuition, the most important legacy of the strike was the student-driven process of direct democracy and horizontal organizing that fueled the victory. A truly wide range of action tactics was embraced and refined, from mass protests to targeted direct actions. Finally, the strike resonated far and wide because the focus was not just the proposed tuition hike, but on combating neoliberal austerity economics more broadly.
Autonomous nightly protests in different neighborhoods of Montréal and beyond were key to building momentum for the strike. These protests sustained political momentum and gave a clear space for many members of the broader community to participate in the strike movement.
On multiple occasions student activists and allies organized human blockades at the doors of the institutions holding political and economic power in Québec. Using the element of surprise, activists would arrive early in the morning and lock down outside multiple entrances to government buildings and the offices of corporations and banks that backed the tuition hikes.
Forms of street theatre were also key modes of inspiring action within the strike movement. One key example is la ligne rouge (the red line), an early morning action where students dressed head to toe in red and stood in long lines across different metro platforms in the city. As a subway car would pass the action a human red line would blur across the platform as the metro car slowed, arriving to find students dressed in full on carré rouge gear.
Student general assemblies played an essential role in the incredible outpouring of energy and mass participation in the strike. Because major policy-related decisions concerning the future of the strike couldn’t be taken exclusively by the ASSÉ elected executive council, proposals were seriously and openly debated in regular general assemblies which included representatives from the various member associations of the ASSÉ-driven coalition.
Student organizers understood that politicians holding state power would not back away from their agenda through negotiations alone. By unleashing the autonomous power of people on the streets, and prioritizing street action over political debate, organizers allowed independent political momentum to develop far outside the halls of power. This drove the politicians crazy, but in the end was integral in shaping the outcome of the strike.
An essential visual element of the Québec student strike was the carré rouge, the red fabric square that countless thousands pinned on their jackets throughout the strike. Simple and easy-to-make, the red square proliferated quickly, providing a clear signifier of public support for the strike. The red spoke both to the indebtedness of the students (being “in the red”) and at the same time broadly signified a radical resistance to austerity. As a symbol, it “floated” — it was both clear enough to be about something specific, and open enough that it could attract a wide circle of solidarity.