This text was initially published in CUTE magazine #4. Translation by Jonathan Turcotte-Summers, original text by Louis-Thomas Leguerrier.
After several years of soul-searching and internal reconfiguration, the student movement in Quebec finally seems ready to launch a new offensive and make power tremble once again. As the unlimited general strike of winter 2019 takes shape, student associations and political groups across Quebec are organizing to coordinate what promises to be the climax of the long campaign for paid internships. The interns’ strike, that is to say the collective interruption of the free labour of unpaid internships and the demand for a salary for all interns in all fields of study, are the main axes around which the student movement has reconfigured, leading us to our current situation. In reality, the emergence of this demand on students’ political horizon, far from being just another strategic decision, has caused profound upheavals both in the conception of the movement’s goals and in its internal operation. Thinking back on these upheavals seems a good way to understand what has led us to the struggle we now face and to prepare ourselves to undertake it.
First, making paid internships the main demand for a strike campaign presupposes a re-centering of the student movement around issues usually put aside by the student left, whose strategy for the past fifteen years has been to defend the autonomy of knowledge against the commodification of education. This strategy ignores lived experiences in fields of study where compulsory internships make it impossible to dissociate knowledge from productive work. Demanding the remuneration of internships amounts to solidarity with those students for whom the illusion of knowledge’s autonomy in relation to the market is quickly dispelled by the shameless exploitation they undergo as part and parcel of their studies. Mired as they are in financial precarity, institutional sexism and racism, the multiplication of jobs, and physical and psychological exhaustion, people belonging to the category of unpaid intern represent the visible face of brutally exploited student labour, a phenomenon which nevertheless affects the whole of the student population and not only a part of it. As a result, the increasing importance of the demand for paid internships within the student movement allows this movement to conceive of and position itself as a power exerting itself in the spheres of political economy and class struggle, in association and in solidarity with the exploited. This is in contrast to the political lobby of a presumed student class situated outside the labour market and whose student interns, in times of strike, are almost automatically excluded. Because its economic implications are more direct than those of traditional student strikes, the interns’ strike is the most formidable pressure tactic against the government. However, for the same reason, it is also more difficult to carry out than a strike affecting almost exclusively the social sciences. This is why putting forward the demand that internships be paid and proposing their political interruption represents, for the student movement, an opportunity to both take on new challenges and go further in realizing its political potential.
But the establishment in the last two years of a campaign for paid internships has also caused changes at the very heart of the organizational culture of the student movement. The upcoming winter strike is being prepared and coordinated by regional coalitions of student committees and associations, political groups, and individuals brought together by a strong commitment to paid internships, independently of any national federation. As this happens, the student left seems to be gradually moving away from the democratic centralism that has characterized its operation since the creation of ASSÉ in 2001. Through the development of autonomous committees and regional coalitions in the spirit of decentralization and self-governance, the current campaign marks a break (the effects of which are only just beginning to be felt) with the corporatist and representative logic of the congress delegation system. This break clears the way for a new organizational culture in which activists are responsible only for their work and their engagement in the struggle rather than for their function as delegates in a central organization separate from the base.
In their "Call for the Formation of Student Work Unitary Committees" published in fall 2016, activists from the CUTEs wrote:
To the extent that we wish to bring about a major social change, the usual channels of political activity must necessarily be surpassed by the collective action of mass organizations. However, the latter, by virtue of their internal logic, are led to silence debates between conflicting political tendencies, without which strength in numbers becomes the crushing weight of hegemony and the status quo. This is a very real contradiction that we should face head-on rather than try to dispose of with some feat of mental gymnastics, however clever it may be. The union of potentially conflicting political tendencies around a unifying issue such as student work, and the creation of spaces — the CUTEs — within which these tendencies can intervene on their own behalf independently of any union affiliation, is our provisional proposal to meet this challenge.
It is indeed during a strike that the inner workings of the student movement are truly put to the test. Confronted with the challenges and necessities of struggle as well as political pressures from all sides, a strike movement can easily fall into centralism in order to simplify and expedite the decision-making process, as happened with CLASSE/ASSÉ during the last unlimited general strike in 2012. It can just as easily focus on the control of information and public image by neglecting to make political space for the debates and dissensions that constitute the life of the movement as it exists on a decentralized scale and is never accurately reflected in a national organization. Now, since the ends, contrary to what some say, are not indifferent to the means, the goals that are achieved when the student movement emulates the politics of politicians generally resemble those politics: they are factitious, misleading, and disappointing. Since the strike movement of 2012 has been completely and definitively recovered by political parties and the major trade unions, leaving the student movement and its unique organizational model in total disarray, it would be good, during the next strike, to keep one thing in mind: the decentralized model on which the campaign for paid internships is now being built should, at the moment of action, come to life and fully assert itself rather than give way to the centralist logic of national organizations, be it ASSÉ or another federation.
It is the student interns organized in autonomous committees and regional coalitions who, through their hard work, have laid the groundwork for this campaign and for the upcoming strike. But if this struggle for paid internships and for the recognition of student work reveals the existence and importance of invisible labour in the current economy, if it sheds light on the socially organized concealment of invisible labour, it is still susceptible to a cruel irony. This is because invisible labour also exists in the student movement, and especially in times of strike and centralist temptation. Any centralism, however, involves the concealment of a large amount of work that is visible only at the decentralized scale of the struggle and disappears completely in the speeches of the star spokesperson transmitting to the media the alleged unitary will of the movement. Yet it is our collaboration within decentralized structures that is currently paying off. If the recognition of invisible labour, on the economic scene, requires the obtaining of a salary, then in the student movement it requires instead the possibility for this work to be manifested socially as the content of the strike, to the detriment of the spectacular symbols and idols that usually usurp that content. Against old bureaucratic reflexes, student interns will have to fight on their own terms in order to present themselves as the multiple faces of the strike.