The opposition between the government and an important social movement like the student movement is reminiscent of a game of chess. Two organizations face off, each unravelling complex strategies both to confound their adversary and to reach their objectives.
Pregame: building the opposition
In the fall of 2011, the stakes were laid in mobilizing against the $1,625-per-year hike in fees that the government announced a few months earlier. If a strike campaign was to take place in the winter, its way needed to be paved in the fall. The government had the upper hand during the pregame. For many years, an imposing public relations campaign had shouted from every rooftop that the hike was necessary. Public opinion, and more crucially students’ own opinion, was initially far from won over by the idea of a strike against tuition fees.
Pregame is crucial. If one of the two players does not manage to place all their pieces on the board, the game is already lost. To pass the test, the students needed to consolidate their anti-hike sentiment (and to add a pro-strike rumour), but at the same time stage a show of strength. A major-scale demonstration was planned for November 10. Student unions managed to muster 30,000 people energetically mobilized against the hike. On campuses, conferences, workshops and information sessions increased throughout the term, allowing a well-organized antihike militant base to constitute itself. Sitting down to start the game, the student unions were not at a disadvantage, though they had not gained a starting advantage either.
Opening: legitimizing the strike
The opening unravelled in a classical fashion, with little originality on either side. More militant unions were the first to advance, and the government promptly claimed it would not budge. The intelligence of the first organizations on the picket line enabled a more rapid rise of the movement. Rather than immediately organizing actions, the activists instead spread throughout the province to encourage striking by mobilizing and informing their colleagues. This move allowed support for using a strike as leverage to spread like wildfire.
The government answered this first departure from the classical game plan with a strategy uncommon in Québec but very well known in the United States: astroturfing. This tactic, contrasted with “grassroots,” consists in creating fake social movements in the hopes of gaining favourable media coverage. Young Liberals set up an organization, the Mouvement des étudiants socialement responsables du Québec (MESRQ), or Socially Responsible Student Movement of Québec, which opposes the strike and stands in favour of the hike. It was a very effective strategy from a media standpoint, because the handful of students sporting the green square were more visible in front of cameras than in their general meetings.
This simulated “dissent” took place at the exact moment the strike movement was gaining traction. Its legitimacy was therefore contested. The move which ended the opening took place on the set of a very popular program, Tout le monde en parle (Everybody’s talking about it), watched by more than a million viewers. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for the CLASSE (a coalition of unions gathered around the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante [ASSÉ], or Association for Student Union Solidarity) debated with the very “socially responsible” Arielle Grenier. Her claim to fame was to have presented herself in the papers the preceding week as a victim of intimidation. Though the CLASSE’s spokesperson did well, it was mostly Arielle Grenier’s failure that greatly undermined the MESRQ’s credibility, and consequently raised the credibility of the strike.
The heart of the game: shows of strength
After Tout le monde en parle was aired, the student movement had to demonstrate its strength and the efficiency of the strike as leverage whilst the government had to convince, for its part, of its determination not to back down.
The student movement’s gamble paid off. Student unions on strike were increasing in numbers and actions quickly multiplied. The danger within was now that of potential cannibalism of student organizations amongst themselves. In the past, the student federations — less radical — had not shied away from condemning more radical actions often taken by ASSÉ activists. However, it is clear that, in part because of the leadership role that the CLASSE played in the movement, the federations chose not to denounce these actions, but rather to complement them with softer events. Thus the whole of student organizations participated in mobilizing actively for a big demonstration on March 22. It ended up being a huge success, with more than 200,000 participating. In the media, a number of commentators also started to take the side of students and to support their movement.
However, students were not the only ones to hold their ground. The minister of education was certainly not beaten hands-down. She managed to defend her hike with relative success in the media and to show that the government offered financial help to lower income students. Though students showed guts, they did not, as in 2005, force the minister of education out of the cabinet.
Endgame to come
After the March 22 demonstration, the government started showing muddled signs that it could draw back. A move, played by the premier himself (who had so far however avoided exposing himself excessively), implied that upgrading financial aid for students was perhaps conceivable. A few days later, the minister sang to the same tune, insisting that while the hike itself was non-negotiable, she was open to discuss improvements to grants and loans.
On the student movement side, while the strong strikers’ base is routinely renewing its strike mandates, a few peripheral unions have already started abandoning ship, giving the media the traditional opportunity to claim that the movement is losing momentum.
Who will take advantage of the adversary’s unprotected flanks? The student movement, with its tenacity and ingenuity, has so far proven more skilful than the government, but we are very far from a checkmate! In the endgame, as we know, a simple but decisive move is enough to change the outcome of the game.
This article appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (Labour and Austerity).