You Do Not Need Ask Permission to Organize a Strike Vote

by Graham H. Cox last modified 2012-08-09T10:46:47-04:00
A response to the Open Letter to the Canadian Federation of Students to organize strike votes outside of Quebec.


There have been a lot of questions raised by the mainstream press on why the scale of action that is going on in Quebec has not been happening in the rest of the country. Responses to this cynical question fall into one of the following broad categories:

  1. There is a crisis of leadership at the federal level in the CFS. The leadership just does not call for the right kind of action with the correct language. The leadership are just not radical, too close to the social democratic line or actually do not believe in a transformative model the way the Quebec student leadership does.
  2. Anglophone students in Canada are apathetic, submissive, think of themselves as privileged, and poor or working class students are either not on college an university campuses or are too busy working to try to pay their tuition fees to engage in mass action. There is just not the level of "natural" militancy in the student movement in Canada because there is no history of resistance and it is not part of the identity of being a student outside of Quebec.
  3. Right-wing, reactionary elements on campus in the rest of Canada are well funded, more organized and argue for the dominant/hegemonic neo-liberal view that tuition fees should actually go up thus balancing-out the CFS's line.
  4. There is a lack of a "real", "radical" political party that presents an alternative students can organize around.
  5. The dominant structures of mass organizations are too attached to the "old" union structure and this does not allow for effective decentralized grass-roots organizing.

It is for another article to explain why some of these explanations are shear nonsense and others are infantile in their explanatory power. However, it is sufficient to say that similar comments were made of pre-uprising Quebec, Chili, France, Czarist Russia, Egypt and any other country that has seen this kind of student resistance. For those on the left who push these lazy analyses do so simply to build straw-men arguments in support their unsophisticated, opportunistic positions. Those that drafted the letter to the CFS are no different.

People who have spent more than two minutes working in the student movement should know that:

  1. English Canada is not monolithic in its objective conditions for student revolt. Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, have extracted positive reforms out of their government. The size of differences between provinces are as large as the difference between Quebec and English-dominated Canada. To suggest a mobilization model like CLASSE there gets you weird looks from even the radicals.
  2. Radical organizing and actions do occur and will continue occur on campuses across the country. All happening without the fanfare enjoyed by the deserving, persistent and heroic actions of the comrades in Quebec. Actions occur with CFS support and organizers include student militants trained through the CFS.
  3. As much as people would like to paint the CFS as monolithic in its politics, or describe its organizing machine and rank-and-file militants, in a way that rivals labour unions in scope, it does not have the reserve army of militants to call on for this kind of action at the drop of hat (or posting of an open letter).
  4. The CFS exists to serve as the united voice for Canadian students and to resource campaigns of the active sections of the student movement. It is far from perfect, but it is what those that came before us built. It has a structure and resources, like our local students' unions, and we need to interface with it appropriately or we are wasting our time.

One should not underestimate the current and historical importance the modern CFS institution has played maintaining the majority-backed, left-wing analysis as hegemonic on at least half of Canadian campuses. However, beware of the sectarian that builds the organization up to something that it is not and then points and says, "see, and what a failure it is at inciting long-standing, sustained militant action." Those that sell this line (and it is a sell) are mostly doing it for their own ends (good as some might think those are).

As for the letter itself, petitioning "The CFS" when you are either a member or even an elected officer is a complete waste of time. The CFS, like most democratic unions, was purposely designed to be completely impervious to lobbying. In fact, its power comes from this democratic nature--that it only takes positions and actions adopted through vote by a majority of its members.

The CFS is guided by a rather gigantic policy manual (available online) that is full of positions on pretty much everything that you could imagine would interest university, college and CEGEP students. Each position that makes it into the manual was voted on and adopted by elected representatives at a general meeting. It is the closest thing the movement has as a book outlining  the positions of the majority of its membership. It is a worthy accomplishment of the movement and not a single one was adopted because of "lobbying" of the leadership.

In addition, and not to speak for militants in the Quebec movement, but the letter is a little insulting to CLASSE. How would you feel if you and your comrades spent well over half a decade designing, mobilizing community support and building a movement just to have a someone not involved point and say, "hey, why don't you just build that, doesn't look that hard."

CLASSE did not start like magic one day and build a militant student movement by issuing a call. CLASSE is a coalition of dedicated student militants that have spent over two years building on a previous foundation to get to this day. It is done student by student, class by class. It takes dedication and hard work by the members and did not require or even request a top-down call for revolution.

The quirk of all this is that the CFS does call for days of action. These are, of course, not just a day of action but part of the continued effort to educate, develop and mobilize members to build the organizational capacity. And yes, it is all very democratic and leads to actions. However, actions like these are clearly not the kind of organizing that folks that signed onto the letter imagine--given that they are looking to CLASSE for inspiration.

So, why then are folks calling for it to happen that way? The call comes from a rather unsophisticated and cynical orientation to the mass of students. In demanding a call for action from the CFS without first organizing at the local level shows that the signers do not actually believe students (or even themselves) have the capacity to organize without permission from the CFS.

And this takes us to the question itself. The question is not, "should we have strike votes?," the question is always, "how do we organize strike votes?"

Elected members at the CFS general meetings discuss in the campaigns forum, how to build the student movement given the current conditions. There are always motions for the campaigns forum, served by locals, that will be debated and amended that deal with actions.

As such, this letter, to call for the CFS to take a position on strike votes, is a step backwards. It re-opens up the already answered question of whether the CFS should support the organizing of strike votes at the local level. This makes the letter, one coming from supposed radicals, not just redundant but very poor strategy.

If you have signed the letter, you are behind the curve and even worse, you are causing an unnecessary distraction.

Two pieces of advice to those seeking to build the militant side of the student movement:

Understand that real democracy takes mobilization and votes. If you have not organized a vote on a position you are trying to get the entire student movement to adopt, then you are skipping a necessary first step for sustained action.

Second, if you want to organize a strike vote on your campus, and here is the punch line, the CFS already has a position supporting this and has dedicated resources to help since the organization's inception.

Waiting for direction from an organization that does what you tell it to do is a strange way to waste one's time. When campuses are calling strike votes and the members are voting to strike, the position of the CFS will be to strike.

The students' movement's resources to organize are already at your disposal, all you need to do is use them.

Document Actions