J Bedard: Students almost unanimously reject government deal, willing to lose year if necessary
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.
Thousands of students across Quebec continue their strike. More than 170,000 students are on strike. A deal that was tentatively agreed to by some of the student leadership over the weekend with the government of Quebec does not seem to be something students will agree with.
Now joining us to talk about the state of the approval processâ€”because this deal’s being put to approval to a general assembly, student councils across the province, and not doing very wellâ€”now joining us from Quebec City is JÃ©rÃ©mie BÃ©dard. He’s a student normally based in Montreal, but he’s now working at organizing at Laval University in Quebec City, and he’s a member and organizer for the student organization CLASSE, which is one of the student alliances that’s been leading this struggle. Thanks very much for joining us, Jeremy.
JÃ‰RÃ‰MIE BÃ‰DARD-WIEN, STUDENT ORGANIZER, CLASSE: Thank you.
JAY: So first of all give us just a status update on where things are as of this evening.
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: Right. Well, the strike has begun about three months ago. Three months onwards, we’re still 170,000 students on strike, which represent about 40 percent of the postsecondary student population here in Quebec. So this is momentous. This has never happened in the history of student strikes in Quebec.
Now, we’ve been through several negotiating processes. After a while, after the government ignored us for about two months, he was forced to finally agree to a negotiating table. And on the first negotiating table, we, CLASSE, were shut off from the negotiating table because of a demonstration that was deemed violent from the government and that was associated with CLASSE. Now, two weeks later, as everyone realizes that CLASSE is the legitimate representative of the students on strike, we were invited to a second negotiating table, along with the other student federations, FECQ and FEUQ, as well as trade unions and representatives from the director boards of universities and [seÉªÊ’É›fs]. Now, we, the representatives that were on the negotiating table, reached what the government has deemed to be a tentative agreement to end this conflict, and so far it has been rejected by general assemblies almost unanimously.
JAY: Now, what was the position of CLASSE at that meeting with the government?
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: Well, the negotiators of CLASSE have a very clear mandate. It is to present the demands of CLASSE without agreeing to compromises, basically. We’ve reachedâ€”at this point, we’ve escalated pressure, and we feel as if we truly represent the student movement and that we at this point have the upper hand. So, as such, the negotiators from CLASSE came to that meeting presenting our demands. Now, very quickly the government presented this plan to end the conflict, whichâ€”shall I present the offer?
JAY: Yeah, just give us a short form about what the offer was.
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: Well, the government proposed to create a committee that would recommend to the minister of education several ways to cut into the fat of universities in order to cut down on the student contribution to universities’ funding.
JAY: So the idea is if this counsel could find efficiencies and ways to cut back expenses, that this saving would go to reduce the increase ofâ€”the tuition increase.
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: Well, that’s what we thought, and that was what was originally agreed on the negotiating table. However, after about 24 hours of straight negotiations throughout the night, the government picked negotiators from each of the federations and CLASSE, and took them to a shut room, and told them, look, we have to agree to a deal now, and they presented this new version of the deal, and in effect the committee, as the deal stands, could not ever recommend to lower tuition fees or to affect tuition and fees in any way, only administrative fees.
Now, this is very important, because the tuition free increase that we’ve been fighting against for over three months represents an increase of $1,600 or so. The main issue, you should understand, is that the CLASSE’s demands and every student federation’s demands are about the tuition hike, the $1,600 tuition hike, and so far the government hasn’t touched that hike. They’ve said they would never affect that hike. They offered us all kinds of trade-offs. They offered us more loans and bursaries and so on. But it’s a matter of honor for that government never to touch on the hike.
JAY: But that’s not what’s in the media. The media suggested that there was this deal that, if there were significant savings found, they would come off the tuition. So that’s not true, you’re saying.
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: Well, I’m surprised the media says so, because the deal that has been reached in this weekend specifically states that this committee could never affect tuition, only administrative fees. And these administrative fees go from $70 for UniversitÃ© du QuÃ©bec en Outaouais to $1,000 to McGill universities. So these amounts of money are nowhere near the tuition hike, and this committee could only hope to lower them.
JAY: So what happened in the negotiating process, then? Why did the other student federations agree with this? And I understand some of Quebec’s labor leaders were brought into these negotiations. What kind of role did they play?
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: Well, the labor leaders around the table told the negotiating party, the government, that they would notâ€”that they wouldn’tâ€”that they would let the students speak because it’s not their conflict, it’s ours. Actually, the FÃ©dÃ©ration des travailleurs du QuÃ©bec and the CSN, both big labor unions that were around the table, have no real business being around this negotiating table, as they do not represent any workers that are operating in the university, in universities. So they do not represent teachers, nor employees, except one section of the CSN. So they were there as allies, for sure, because they do demand free educationâ€”for the CSN, at least. But they actually perhaps played a negative role, because in the end they were led to believe that this deal could affect tuition fees, and so they congratulated our negotiators. The negotiators were really confident, were made to be really confident about this deal, and then they were taken to that room and they were made to sign because of pressure, and they didn’t properly read the deal that was presented, that was very slightly different from the one that they agreed to earlier, but, as I said, had this one significant difference that it could not affect the increase.
JAY: Which is what the whole strike was about.
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: That’s right.
JAY: Now, did CLASSE sign that agreement in those meetings or not?
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: Well, no one signed the agreement, per se. They signed to agree to present it to general assemblies. That was the extent of their mandate, and that’s what they signed
JAY: Okay. So it’s been presented to the general assemblies over the last couple of days. And what are the general assemblies saying? How are they responding?
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: Well, they’re almost unanimously rejecting that deal by huge margins. Strikes, assemblies in [seÉªÊ’Ã¦fs], which had been reconducting the strike by very low margins, have rejected the offer by huge margins now, because they feel like they’ve been taken for a ride, they feel flouted, they feel like they’re being mocked. And that’s essentially what they are; they are being mocked.
JAY: And for people that are just tuning into this strike now, they need to understand that the students, in doing this, are likely to lose a semester and maybe more. So there’s some sacrifice here.
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: Well, in the history of student strikes in Quebec, no semester has been lost. However, no strike has lasted as long as this one. And now, yes, semesters are in danger, but it seems the students are prepared to renew the strike, to stay on strike until the government agrees to freeze tuition. And that shows courage, because indeed semesters could be in danger at this point.
JAY: So talk a bit about the demands of CLASSE, ’cause your demands were, one, against this tuition hike, but they also went further, in terms of a vision of what should be the policy towards education in Quebec.
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: That’s right. CLASSE put forward a vision for education, and that’s a vision free of corporate influence and postsecondary education that’s free from tuition fees and free from corporate influence, education for education’s sake. And that’s what we’ve been putting forward so far. We have many demands in the current conflict, of course the first one of which being about this tuition fee increase. But we also object to cuts that have been made to [seÉªÊ’É›f] funding, college funding. And we also demand a postsecondary education that’s free from corporate funding. We’ve seen in the last 20 years this tendency of corporations inviting themselves into universities, having a great deal of influence over the creation of new programs, over research. Research is no longer done for fundamental purposes but for targeted purposes. Universities in Quebec and around the world are now corporations’ laboratories, basically. And, of course, we oppose division of the government, which is an education that’s basically tied to corporate objectives and structures [incompr.] as well.
JAY: And to what extent is this fight within the context of a broader question of cuts to social services, the social safety net, issues that, you know, don’t directly necessarily affect students?
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: Oh, definitely it has become so. Of course, we’ve campaigned on our vision for education, but of course on the question of tuition fees first and foremost. But we’ve seen in the last few weeks this movement has taken another flight entirely, and it’s now made ties with labor unions, it’s made ties with a series of social struggles. We, CLASSE, has called for what we call and journalists call the Printemps Quebecois, the Quebec Springâ€”of course, referencing the Arab spring of last year. And this has shown in a variety of ways. I could perhaps talk about that demo we held, 50,000 citizens of all ages, of all backgrounds, regrouping for this Printemps Quebecois, demanding an end to cuts to both education but also our Medicare, the equivalent of Medicare, and cuts to social services of all kinds.
JAY: And so what’s next? Is thereâ€”now, I guess, if the assemblies are going to reject thisâ€”and you say they are almost unanimouslyâ€”so is there another big protest planned?
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: Well, CLASSE has a big protest planned on Saturday, 26 May. But what we’ve seen in the last few days is one demonstration per day, one huge demonstration, thousands of people showing up for a demo in the eveningâ€””evening demos” they’ve been called. So there’s been one evening demo for the last ten days. And that’s not organized by CLASSE, that’s not organized by any national union. That’s organized by the students themselves. It’s organized in a grassroots manner. And this, of course, adds up to a lot of direct action and several protests that are happening regularly around Liberal Party’s events, for instance.
I could perhaps talk about what happened in in Victoriaville last weekend. There was this Liberal Party congressâ€”the Liberal Party is in power right now, and the Liberal Party is responsible for the tuition hike. So thousands showed up to Victoriaville to disrupt their Congress. And as a result, my good friend, Maxence, has lost an eye. His eye was hit by a rubber bullet.
JAY: They used rubber bullets on the protesters?
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: That’s right. And he can no longer see from his right eye.
JAY: Okay. Well, JÃ©rÃ©mie, we’ll get back to you in the next few days and just keep following the story.
BÃ‰DARD-WIEN: That’s great. Thank you.
JAY: Alright. Well, thanks very much for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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