In 2012 in Quebec , a quarter of a million students went on “strike”. By all walking out of class (as well as holding militant street protests and occupations), they paralysed the education system and forced their local government to back-track on planned fee rises. This movement was possible because of the way they organised – from the bottom-up.
Inspired by the radical student union “ASSE”, students held regular “general assemblies” in each department of their universities. Because these meetings were on behalf of a smaller number of people than usual (a department or faculty rather than a whole campus), it was possible for everyone to be directly involved. This in turn meant that when they made decisions (like calling a strike), people could be confident that the majority would be behind them. Meetings used “direct democracy”, voting on each issue rather than electing representatives. This meant that people felt in control of their movement, and there were no leaders for the government to pressure into selling out.
This chapter, written by people involved in the movement, explains how to replicate what happened in Quebec – how to start and run a general assembly in your own department or faculty.
(used with permission, based on the original “Creating Departmental or Faculty Associations”, version 1.0.1 by Rushdia Mehreen and Matthew Brett. Published on Organise 2013 – http://organise2013.wordpress.com/ – and written for Free Education Montreal as part of the Strike Documentation Project. October, 2012)
In addition to covering how to create a student association, this document includes how to build a core team (mob squad) that can do outreach and mobilize for the creation of an association and/or to hold a general assembly.
An ideal situation would be to have a couple of people who can organize the first general assembly (taking care of the logistics and such) and the rest doing the mobilization work.
You will find a brief overview of each of these aspects in this document.
At the core of this document is the departmental or faculty-level student general assembly (GA). The GA is democratic for several reasons:
A general assembly is also important because the discussion and debate helps students to consider new opinions and solutions, and to decide what can be done collectively.
(Adapted from ASSÉ/CLASSE’s Ultimatum Newspaper, May 2012)
Rushdia Mehreen is a Master’s candidate in the department of Geography Planning and Environment at Concordia University, Montreal, a member of the Social Struggles Committee of ASSÉ/CLASSE, and a coordinating member of Free Education Montreal (FEM). In addition to mobilizing students since 2010 around accessibility of education as part of FEM, and Concordia mobilization and strike committees, Rushdia worked on creating association of her department and worked with other campus activists to revive, radicalize and create their own departmental associations. Contact Rushdia at rushdia[at]riseup.net or @rushmew.
Matthew Brett is a writer and activist from Montréal, Québec. Matthew was active mobilising against the centralised student union at Concordia University in Québec, working with student activists to organise at the department or faculty level along combative syndicalist lines prior to the largest student strike in Québec history. He is a member of the Canadian Dimension magazine editorial collective and the Society for Socialist Studies. Matthew is currently based in London, England, and is an active organiser in the UK student movement. Matthew can be reached at brett.matthew[at]yahoo.ca or @mattbrett_1984.
Sections 3 and 4 of this document were presented at workshops given by Rushdia Mehreen (with Irmak Bahar and Alain Savard respectively) at the Ontario Strike Training Camp, Toronto, July 2012.
Creating departmental or faculty associations is more effective, democratic and participatory than centralized structures. Departments are where people spend most of their time, working and meeting with people in their discipline. The formation of mobilized and ideally militant departmental associations built upon structures of direct democracy insures that people come together to make decisions collectively.
Collective decisions in turn have higher chances of being implemented because all students implicated in taking decisions feel responsible to carry out actions (going on strike or showing up to a demonstration, for instance). The general assembly structure empowers all members giving them more power — shifting power dynamics, from the hands of the few executives to the members at large — to decide on the direction of the association as a whole as well as to have a say in the way the association functions, the events it organizes and campaigns in which it takes part. Holding executives responsible becomes more feasible when the decision making process is transparent via general assemblies.
An association would also cater to various needs of all of its student body (membership). Ideally, students should be able to bring any issue that is of interest to them to a general assembly and engage in collective discussion and decision making. Special general assemblies, such as strike GA would have a specific agenda, otherwise the agenda would be open so that students can bring any issue to the table.
An association can be made within a department as small as 10-20 students or a faculty as large as 4,000 people. The key to determining the best scale is identifying the level of cohesion within a faculty or department. In general, it is preferable to organize at the departmental level. This is a more manageable scale, and people have an easier time playing an active role in the decision-making process. We encourage readers of this document to adapt this model to their needs and particularities. What we suggest here, by no means, is a final word or the only way of organizing.
The first critical step is forming a core group of committed activists (2 or 3 people at least) in your department. Find people who want to organize a department or faculty-wide general assembly and exchange contacts (email and phone). This will form the base of your mobilization or “mob squad.”
Mob Squads would meet at least on a weekly basis during times of significant mobilization. Make these meetings inclusive so that your mob squad can grow. Advertise the meetings and have a sign-up sheet for the departmental mob squad and try to get more people to join the team. Having meetings with food (a pizza, for instance, before or after the meeting) makes meetings less intimidating and allows new members to join and integrate easily.
At least three ways can be followed for creating an association! The purpose of making a departmental association is to make the association relevant to its members. If at the time of creating the association, the members do not care about austerity, choosing a different issue that students are concerned about (ex. something campus or department related) could help mobilize the members. For example, at McGill University in Québec, students were mobilized around the issue of a student-run cafeteria that administration was closing down because of a contract with a multinational supplier on campus. The three methods of creating a departmental association are outlined below…
The mob squad drafts a set of by-laws, which could be fairly extensive or quite basic (The terms constitution and by-laws are used interchangeably in Quebec. No matter what they are called, only one document is used as a master guideline for the way associations are run). For a detailed example see Geograds by laws – http://geograds.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/geograds-by-laws.pdf During the drafting process, the growing association membership should be invited to give feedback on the draft by-laws. A few iterations would be required to make the by-law writing process inclusive and to insure that no aspect of your constituency is forgotten.
Once the by-laws are revised and ready, they are ratified in a general assembly of the department (some minor revisions could come up in the ratification GA). Make sure the quorum you set out in your by-laws (to be ratified in this GA) is met in the GA itself. The key to having enough people in the GA is to do proper outreach (see mobilization section below).
During the mobilization, make sure certain members of the association (department or faculty) are willing to take up the responsibility of being on committees (executive and otherwise) and to be accountable to the membership. It is preferable to have an executive structure without hierarchy. For an example of student association and its structures, see http://www.sogeecom.org/page/instances
If the creation of the association and its elections are well advertised, the election of the executives and other committee members can be held at the GA itself. It could also take place during a GA at a later date.
The GA is called by the mob squad and it is made very clear (in the mobilization material as well as in class visits, etc.) that the association structure will be created in the GA, along with other business.
A committee is voted on to write the by-laws and present at the next GA. An interim executive (a group of people) is also voted into place in order to follow up on the tasks adopted during the GA until by-laws are created and a formal association is in place. In this case, it is the GA that mandates the creation of an association via a by-law committee.
This process is interesting (as long as you can hold a GA with, say, from 1% to 5% of the membership) because the initiative to create the by-laws and the association comes from the members themselves and not only from the few people in the mob squad. This way, members take higher ownership and are more involved in the process as well as in the association itself.
This method is mostly used for calling a GA when an association already exists but when they are so-called “party associations” – that is, either apolitical and not actively defending the rights of their membership or overly politicized to the detriment of the broader membership. Thus, this method is more to revive an existing association. Note, however, that this method can also be used to call a GA and then create an association as discussed in the above section.
Petitions are good for a number of reasons, whether it be to call a general assembly or to demand an action. They allow students to get involved in an active way from the moment a member of the mob squad gets in touch with them. By signing their name onto the petition, a member is implicitly committing to action. For a GA, this is what you need, so the petition approach for a GA can be a good means of insuring well-attended GAs! Evidently, signing the petition does not mean they will automatically attend the GA. Dedicated mobilization is still important (see the section on mobilization below).
Write a petition explaining the situation (austerity, for example) and why you would like to create an association. Depending on the existing by-laws or other rules, a certain number of members (quorum) need to sign a petition to make it valid or have value. Normally, a quorum or a slightly higher number of signatures is required. In the absence of a set quorum, aim for 1% to 5% of the membership.
The petition is a golden chance to stop a passer-by in the hallways or to enter a classroom to talk to students. Refrain from putting petitions on a website to get signatures, as it increases the chance of passivity. The online option could work only in the situation when only aim is to collect signatures and ascertain the symbolic support. The petition method is effective, particularly if there is an active and eager mob squad to get the numbers and do the talking.
It is important to create flyers/pamphlets/posters with all of the relevant GA information; however, no need to spend much time on making the information material (most of the time and resources should ideally be spent in talking to people!). Resources exist that allow anyone without expertise in design software to put together information material. Posters and flyers can be downloaded from this sharing based Quebec students’ website http://www.latotale.info/ and modified as per your need. The site can also serve as a source of inspiration! For other samples, also see http://www.stopthehike.ca/materiel-dinformation-2/depliants/
Collect background information from existing resources or research basic information so that you can distribute leaflets/pamphlets to people for an in depth understanding of issues.
One-on-one mobilization: this is THE MOST important way to mobilize! Sit or stand patiently with people in your department. Discuss the context and importance of the political conjuncture, austerity measures and the upcoming GA. Listen to their personal concerns and interests. Encourage them to take an active role in organizing their GA and creating their association. Only in rare cases is mobilization a numbers game. Meeting with less people is preferable if meaningful and empowering discussion is held. Encourage people to talk to others!
Flyering: make sure you say a phrase or two about why you are holding the event (the GA, a speaking event, a meeting, etc.) as you give out the flyer. This is another occasion to have a one-on-one chat about the issue at hand!
CLASS visits! This is one of the most important aspects of mobilization, as you can speak to a class full of people at once. Here is one suggested way of proceeding:
Poster: put them up everywhere! Most importantly, put them in places where students remain and wait for long time, such as areas around elevators, near queues for meals, inside bathrooms, etc. Cluttered spaces or spaces of transition are not likely to grab your attention.
Tabling: tabling can be very useful, particularly during times of high campus mobilization. You want a table placed prominently on campus or in the department with a large and clear sign identifying the table. Things to have at a table: Sign-up sheets and a pen, key information and dates, flyers, tape, string, etc. All of these materials can be put in a “tabling box” readily available for any mob squad member to table.
The table can be the hub for class visits! The class schedules can be placed at the table where people can sign up for speaking at a class. The person tabling can, thus, coordinate the class visit.
Flash mobs: creative flash mobs are a great way to attract attention! While one group engages in the flash mob, have a few individuals designated to engage in conversation with people passing by and to hand out flyers.
Make a video: make a video that can be shared on facebook or other media depending on what your constituency is into. Engineering students will want to see familiar faces, and so on.
Banner drops: you know the deal! A really good banner drop would inspire some sense of awe. Be bold, be visible. Giving flyers to people as they pause to look at the banner would be strategic.
Speaker session: invite a professor (or anyone else who would draw a crowd) to give a talk at lunch or some other time on the topic of austerity or a relevant issue. You can then, or perhaps even your invitee can, speak to students about the upcoming GA or other events.
The department or faculty-wide GA would ideally be the highest decision-making body of the department or faculty student association. Ultimately, this means that it is the students themselves who make decisions, and not a handful of people (elected executives or any other committees) who do so on their behalf. Having a set of by-laws allows the association to follow a set of clear guideline.
Election of a facilitator and the secretary by the members themselves helps ensure unbiased proceedings. The amendment and approval of the agenda by members allows the membership to bring the issues that are important to them to the table, making the GAs relevant to the members.
In order to save time in this process, however, the first item of the agenda for your first GA could simply be to vote on a committee that will draft bylaws for the next GA. Another item could be to designate a couple of people to follow up on any tasks and mandates voted in the GA.
If it is the first general assembly and it is being organized in a short timeframe, priority should be given to mobilizing. The association can then be formalized in subsequent weeks (method 2 or 3 above for creating the student association). Discussing by-laws and constitutional matters at the first GA could turn out to be discouraging and uninspiring. The key is stressing that these documents are nevertheless vital and can be developed over time.
Make sure the GA is consultative, allowing students to express their concerns and instigating debate and discussion.
Many of the key mobilization points were addressed above. A few additional logistical points to consider...
It may be difficult to estimate the turnout of a GA, particularly the first one! This really depends upon the level of mobilization and awareness leading up to the GA. Be sure to book and confirm a sufficiently sized room well in advance. Look at department course schedules and attempt to pick a time that is accessible for most people in the department.
Depending on the size of the GA, certain technologies may be necessary (projectors, computers, microphones, speakers, screens, outlets, power bars, extension cords). Make sure relevant material is printed and available on a table at the entrance of the room (voting cards, secret ballot cards – just in case needed, propaganda materials, etc.)
It is good to have the minutes visibly displayed on a projector so that people can collectively agree upon the wording of motions and so on. This is always the preferable method.