Elizabeth Sarjeant: First, we want to say congratulations on the strike that’s happening this week. So far it seems to have been successful, and we want to discuss that in a moment, but to begin we’re wondering if you could briefly relate your backgrounds and how you each come to student activism.
Éloi Halloran: My name is Éloi, I’m a student here at UQAM [Université du Québec à Montréal] in sociology, this is my first year. I started getting involved in this campaign a year-and-a-half ago while I was in CÉGEP, in Gatineau, so I’m not from Montréal. I created a committee with comrades around unpaid internships, we started to organize. I’ve been involved with CUTE-UQAM since September here in Montréal. And this is my first campaign in the student movement in Québec.
Jeanne Bilodeau: My name is Jeanne and I’m a student here at UQAM, in education. I did a bachelor’s degree to be a teacher and now I’m doing a master’s in education. I came to the student movement around 10 years ago, when I was in the CÉGEP in Montréal in 2009 where I was involved in the mobilization that led to the 2012 strike. So, I didn’t have any executive role or status but I was just a normal person involved in the student movement back then.
Enda Brophy: The 2012 student-worker strike, united by the symbol of the carré rouge [red square] and led by Coalition Large de l’ASSÉ (CLASSE), was widely seen as very successful in Canada and indeed across the world. What is the legacy of this strike in your opinion?
ÉH: As I said, I wasn’t in college at that moment, this is my first campaign in the student movement. I actually was in high school at that time so I wasn’t really aware of it. But as I got older I started to get involved and since 2012 has such a big legacy, people talk about it all the time and it’s known as a big thing, I felt like I had to learn about it. I didn’t really agree with how the corporate media represented it when they talked about a “student crisis” or when the student claims were pictured as whining. I also didn’t really agree with the dominant “militant” way of describing it, which seemed like a bit of a fairy tale.
All the more when I got involved with the CUTE, since the campaign is really critical of how 2012 went. But yeah, that was really something, people talked about 2012 as if it were the best thing ever or a historical victory, when actually the strike ended with an election and a government that indexed the tuition fees. So, that was a big thing coming to be an activist, deconstructing the 2012 legacy, that was a big part of how I got involved. The main demands of 2012 were free education and a critique of the commodification of education, but I felt like that wasn’t really grasping the role of education in capitalism and I felt the analysis put forward by the activists involved in the CUTE was more useful for the goal of really transforming education.
JB: Yeah, because a lot of people who started or participated in organizing the present movement were also involved in the student strike in 2012 and from this experience many of us developed a critique of the way that that student strike went, especially with respect to the centralization of power in the organization – in ASSÉ [Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante] and then CLASSE. There was a significant centralization of power around the executive committee and decisions were made without taking into account more radical tendencies that had been present in the student movement for decades in Québec. A lot of us were critical of the relationships between the executive committee and people around them in ASSÉ and CLASSE and the reformist political parties in Québec, such as Québec Solidaire.
Also, the strategy in 2012 was mostly based on media coverage and acceptability. Regarding the direct democracy around general assemblies, there were almost no general assemblies during the strike, so there was no space to make debates live into the movement in 2012 and that was also a big criticism we had. Also, all of the analysis of 2012 around the tuition fees was an analysis of the commodification of education. For us – and that’s part of what we developed in CUTE – this is an idealistic vision of an education free from the market and the economy, as if school were a space of emancipation. What we wanted to do with the analysis on which it’s founded, this movement, is a feminist analysis of the unpaid labor and reproductive labor on which capitalism relies, of which internships are a part but not the only one.
One legacy of 2012 was certainly this idealistic vision of education, which led to big debates and big problems in the beginning of this current movement: a lot of the old-timers in the student movement would have a big reaction to our analysis and would say that it would accentuate or increase the commodification of education to ask for wages. And we have always responded by saying that the commodification of education already took place a long time ago, and we want to show that school is a means of reproduction for capitalism, it has been for a long time. Internships are a new form in which they are doing it and refusing to acknowledge that role. Refusing to demand wages for the work that we are doing does not rule out or erase exploitation, but it increases that situation of exploitation in which students are placed – especially women, people of color, immigrants, students who have kids and go back to school. So that’s a way in which 2012 had a legacy and created a lot of conflicts around the acceptability of the present campaign within the student movement itself.
ÉH: Conflicts which are still present to this day, actually.
EB: Unpaid internships are, as you’ve said, a key issue in this strike. Could you describe the role internships play in the Québec post-secondary system? What are the concerns students have about them?
ÉH: So, there’s a huge culture of justification around internships, people thinking that it’s an opportunity or it’s an obligatory rite of passage. These people normalize internships. But I think one of the key things that this campaign has shown is that internships have not always been there, actually. The past decades have seen an explosion in the overall numbers and the average length of internships, and when you look at it like that, you see that actually internships are unpaid labor and when you inscribe it in the neoliberal reconfiguration of labor and link it to other forms of unpaid labor that are exploding, there’s a form of analysis there. This is also confirmed by the fact that unpaid internships are done predominantly and historically in “female” fields such as social work, education, and care. Those are also fields that have been let down by the state in recent years with neoliberalism. It’s a form of work that has always been exploited by capitalism but now an unpaid internship is a new form of that work. It’s also the most visible part of student labor. We look at student labor as a form of reproduction of the workforce and in that case, internships work as a kind of filter that puts people back in their social place – according to class, race, gender, or even abilities. It’s not everybody, actually, that can get through internships, and at the same time, internships are also in the fields that lead directly to work.
But personally, being a student in sociology there is a lot of backlash and some people refuse to see themselves as workers or demand a wage for what they’re doing, as if reading Marx or Foucault were different or somehow not linked to work or our place in the capitalist society. And also we don’t have to do internships, but if we had to do internships in sociology, probably those people would feel more like workers because they would have to actually spend time outside of the university.
JB: The increase of internships is linked to the precarity of the workforce in different fields and that is not to be misunderstood. For example, a lot of community centers or grassroots organizations in Québec rely on interns to do work and as we’ve seen with the strike, if the interns aren’t there then a lot of work can’t be done and a lot of people get frustrated because the work that they do is organized with interns that work for free within these workplaces.
Also, what we see in the new organization of labor and school is that there’s a shift from education being the responsibility, in part, of enterprises to becoming the individual responsibility of interns. So now to be a teacher, you need to have hundreds of hours of internships so that the first day you get in as a real teacher with a job you will be ready so they won’t have to lose one minute or one cent to make you a teacher that understands how the school works or where the kids have to go after school. That’s your role, not only to teach but also to help the kids put their boots on and go to recreation time. All that knowledge is developed through free labor from interns, and that’s a big way in which workplaces save money.
EB: How did the CUTE originate? What is the relationship of these committees to the 2012 student-worker mobilization in Québec?
JB: As I said before, a lot of people involved in the different CUTE committees were involved in the 2012 student strike and from that experience we drew some critiques that led to new forms of organizing in the student movement. One of them was the critique of centralization that led to creating autonomous committees, which are the CUTE. One of the principles that led to this movement is that of political autonomy, to try to achieve this as much as we can. This is only a principle and there are always tendencies to centralize and conflicts between us and within the movement, but there was a clear desire to try to organize a movement that would be led by the people and not by a bureaucracy that would decide for us without us knowing what’s going on. So, the structure of the CUTE is mostly that there are different committees on different campuses and we have meetings where we coördinate but there is a lot of autonomy among us.
At the beginning the campaign was not about internships, we created committees around the recognition of students’ labor as labor with the feminist analysis of reproductive work. So, the first year in 2016 was mostly creating those committees and presenting that new analysis of education within the student movement in Québec. Then the next year we built the campaign around internships because we thought, as a strategy, it was the most visible way in which students carry out work. It’s also a clear way in which the student condition can be linked with other workers’ conditions, especially women and other precarious workers. So, that was also a way for us to get rid of this analysis of education as an autonomous sphere and to make it really part of a broader analysis of work and capitalism.
EB: Just as a follow-up question…Is this perspective one that is resonating with students, or is it one that you’re having difficulty transmitting? What’s the response to the analysis you’re putting forward?
JB: Well, for interns I would say that it is really easy to share and, for most of them, it’s just obvious that what they do is work. When we talk with the interns it’s easy to share that analysis. The student movement in Québec was, for the biggest part of its history, organized around programs such as sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and humanities, and the propositions that were presented in the general assemblies were excluding internships from the strike. So, they would say, “We won’t go to class, we won’t present at university, we’ll block the university,” but internships were always excluded from the propositions that were voted on in the general assemblies.
EB: So the strikes didn’t include the internships that were off-campus?
JB: Yeah. And the whole student movement was really organized in the student unions around humanities faculties and not around faculties such as education, psychology, and social work, which were professional programs. Most technical programs in CÉGEP such as nursing and kindergarten education would be considered “right-wing.” We would not go and try to organize in those programs and in the general assemblies they were labeled as reactionaries who would vote against the strikes. Often that was true, that people would vote against the strike that proposes an analysis of education as a way of emancipating yourself. So, these people, of course, were like, “Yeah, that’s just a dream you’re living,” or “You’re just privileged to have this kind of analysis,” and they would vote against the strike. Organizing a strike with a basis in those programs instead of the programs in humanities meant to organize with the more precarious people in higher education.
EB: Is it fair to say that one of the qualities of the composition of those programs is that more women are enrolled? Hence the connection with the theoretical perspective that you’re adopting?
ÉH: Yes. This campaign is really a practical critique of this view of the student movement because we’re actually organizing a strike that puts interns at the forefront. And this is a new thing, having an internship strike, which is a plus because we don’t only block universities, we’ve seen people who have stopped doing their work and the effect is really there because many of the state services rely on the unpaid labor of interns. Myself being from outside of Montréal, it was clear that the centralization of power in the student movement was around Montréal, the decisions were made in Montréal and everyone around Montréal had to follow. Being in a CÉGEP that wasn’t really mobilized, the autonomy that we had really helped us organize and make people feel good and we had control over what was happening on campus. It’s a difficult task to organize in autonomy, but it was really something that was useful and great.
ES: Feminist Marxism is influential in CUTE’s analysis of student work, especially the theory produced by figures in Italian autonomist Marxist groups like Wages for Housework. How would you describe the relationship between the legacy of these ideas and the formation of the CUTE?
ÉH: Well, one thing that was central in the analysis around internships is that there are some internships that are paid and others that are not, and the unpaid internships predominantly and historically female-dominated. And to transform this work, this reproductive work that is “naturally” assigned to women, we used the strategy of the wage in order to denaturalize that work and to see the wage as a political tool to organize and to get power. We really put forth that analysis in the school to avoid the mistake usually made by the student movement of seeing students as people who were receiving a service, and instead seeing them as workers who were producing the workforce. But for internships there was also the fact that it was reproductive work done by a majority of women and it opened the possibility to use the wage as a way to subvert those social relations.
JB: We were really inspired by the strategy of wages that the Italian autonomist feminists adopted. Especially because the wage is not a revolutionary demand but it’s a good strategy to lead to reduced exploitation, making it visible, and also trying to transform education. If we really want to think about education and its role in capitalism and have means to transform it, then we have to enter that relationship of labor. So, we were really inspired by the strategy of these feminists from the 1970s. It was also an offensive strategy instead of always being in a defensive position. The last student strikes and mobilizations were trying to defend an education in which we don’t believe, defending just some little things that are not what structures that relationship. So, it was really inspiring to see feminists in an offensive position against capital. We also added an analysis similar to them in which capitalism relies a lot on free work and it’s not because it’s done against a wage that it isn’t a relationship within capitalism, but it is certainly a way by which capitalism assures that those workers are not powerful and not able to organize and see themselves as a force.
ÉH: Yeah, it’s a way to take back a part of the value of the free labor that capital relies on. But as Silvia Federici says at the beginning of Wages Against Housework, the struggle for wages for students, for housework, and all forms of free labor, is in itself a way to attack capital and a way to subvert its social relations. So, the struggle in itself is more offensive than the traditional student strikes and student perspectives.
JB: And what we see is also that there are a lot more women that are involved in this strike, compared to other student strikes in Québec. I think this is because of the programs in which we’re organizing, but also the way we’re organizing which is done with autonomy and not by a bureaucracy of men making the decisions. It was also what we saw from 2012, that there were a lot of women doing reproductive work in the student movement itself and a lot of men in the media and in the prominent roles. I can’t say that there are no gender-based problems anymore but there has clearly been a shift.
ÉH: There’s also the potential of the wage strategy to make links with other workers. In 2015, there was a strike around austerity and opposing neoliberalism and environmental issues that tried to make connections outside of the school. Personally, I see the wage as a way to make links and we’re actually making them with a bunch of places that have interns and helping them recognize the causes and see the ties. We’re having good relations with nurses’ organizations and other groups, and it’s also a good way to subvert the social structure that is the university and to not just be in a defensive position, and to link the university to the capitalist system.
EB: The 2010s saw a remarkable flowering of resistance against unpaid internships across the world. Organizations of different stripes were formed in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere. How do you see CUTE’s organizing fitting in within the broader panorama of resistance against the exploitation of student work?
JB: Yes, we made some links a little bit in Canada but also in France, in Belgium, in Switzerland. But we also saw them in Africa where we don’t really have any links but we see an analysis and movement of interns there, and also against debt which can be linked with the internship movement around the world.
ÉH: It might be linked to the tradition of strikes here in the student movement, but I think the strategy of the internship strike, even if it is hard to lead, is kind of new. It has happened but a big movement like that, I didn’t hear about it or read about it. But there’s surely something that goes beyond what’s happening in Québec and the unpaid internship situation is really generalized and we have been connected with a lot of European groups and some student unions that are also raising the unpaid internship situation and the student labor perspective. Also, there has been a call for a women’s strike by students in Belgium and they called for an intern strike, a school courses strike, but also for work strikes – they were all on strike on March 8th. So yeah, it has been going on for a decade but I think it’s really still going strong.
ES: We’re curious: have you collaborated with English-speaking groups like the Canadian Intern Association?
JB: We had some links with them mostly in the beginning of the campaign. We tried to organize an international interns’ day as part of different one-day strikes that were taking place in the different university and CÉGEP trimesters to create a mobilization around that campaign. But I think the strategy of the strike is rarely the main strategy adopted by those associations and it makes organizing together more difficult. For us, the main strategy was the strike in clear opposition to the state, a refusal to negotiate and collaborate with the state. But it also forced us to rethink the way we do strikes; it’s more complicated to coördinate a strike during an internship because interns are all around the city and it is not clear how you’re going to make sure that this strike happens. So, it forced us to rethink the way we do strikes, we couldn’t just block the schools. Also, as with women’s work there’s also the fact that we’re not all in the same spot and it’s not as easy to organize as women, as precarious workers, and we’re all around in our different realities feeling isolated. So, there was collaboration and there are still exchanges and sharing of information but we couldn’t collaborate entirely on the movement at this time.
ÉH: I know that there’s some people organizing at Concordia University and I think they might have more connections with the rest of Canada and anglo organizations. Journalism is on strike at Concordia and I know they made links with an organization, I don’t know if it’s an intern organization or a journalism organization.
EB: The use of digital and other communication technologies has been critical to social movements from Occupy to #idlenomore in recent years. What communication channels do the CUTE use for organizing? What kinds of social media, mobile technologies and media outlets have you used to spread your message and coördinate your activities?
ÉH: Well, one thing’s for sure is that those technologies are useful. They are useful for spreading our message but we couldn’t really organize there alone, we also need to organize in real-life. But it sure has been a useful tool for finding out when the meetings are or making some pamphlets or banners. We have Facebook groups that are useful. From what I’ve heard there are private groups for basically every committee so they can share information. There’s also another group that includes more people but from all around Québec, which we call a “consolidation group” where we share information from all regions. Since we were planning the general unlimited strike we created a large group of 800 people where we basically post some general information, whether it’s a strike vote or the government saying something about internships or interns or the student federations. That’s another problem: here in Québec the student federations tried to take over our movement and were talking with the government, actually. What they’re doing is not really linked to our claims so that’s another thing we talk about on Facebook. But also, to link all the regions that are organizing, we’ve set up some Skype meetings, we call them “inter-regions,” all the regions organized actually have meetings every two weeks and now, since we’re on strike, it’s more like a weekly basis.
JB: We organize a lot on these private Facebook groups. We share a lot of information on a daily basis but I think it only works because we also meet a lot in person. We have a lot of meetings, those moments in real life where we see each other and where we meet for hours and where we have more theoretical and strategic big discussions – then we can relegate some of the practical tasks to those groups on Facebook and on social media. The way in which we use technology in the different CUTE committees is because we also organize against strategies of anonymity and it is really important for us to organize and to make sure that we can identify individuals and use our names. When we sign or write statements we never sign them “CUTE-UQAM” or “Committee of UQAM,” we sign them with the names of the people in the committee that wrote and edited it and are in personal accordance with it.
We also use technology to share all the minutes of our meetings publicly, not only among the people that are involved in the committee at UQAM. Our minutes are available on the public Facebook events of our meetings and that’s also a way in which we’re making ourselves vulnerable in front of other tendencies in the leftist movement and student movement, especially in front of tendencies that choose a strategy of anonymity. That’s a way in which they all have access to our discussions but we never have access to any of their decision-making processes. So, we are really aware of that difference and it’s also a political principle of our tendency.
In the last month, Facebook has also been where the conflicts with other tendencies have exploded or emerged. For me, it’s okay that it happened on those social media because a lot of people have access to them and can read them afterward. Especially with the strike going on, it has really accentuated those conflicts and made them more visible. Different tendencies have responded to our analysis on Facebook and other media and so I feel like with the strike beginning it has really made conflicts more visible and more real.
ÉH: I think it’s actually the way to make it as public as possible for those people because they either won’t sign their statements or assume their political positions in front of their colleagues or even debate in public. So, Facebook is the best way to do it. Google Docs has been a great tool for sharing our meeting minutes because there are usually two to three of us on the notes at each meeting and we try to do them verbatim so people can have access to the debates and see the different positions amongst the CUTE in the meetings.
JB: And who was taking which position.
ÉH: Yeah, absolutely. So, people who were not there can understand. It’s not perfect but it’s the best thing we can do. Also, as Jeanne said, it’s difficult to organize a strike where the workforce is diffused and working all across the city. So, we wrote a strike notice, a letter addressed to the university, to the departments and also so that the interns could feel that the movement was collective. The letter was on a Google Doc and said that interns were going to do a strike, to respect the vote that had been decided on, and that they would make sure that the hours that were struck would not be re-done or whatever. We made the Google Doc accessible and people were actually signing it. It’s another way to make the thing visible and collective.
ES: As a transversal theme that was able to speak across different student groups, debt was arguably the key theme of the 2012 strike. Has it fallen into the background a little as far as CUTE’s organizing is concerned? If so, why?
JB: I think it’s true that it has fallen into the background as an analysis and I think we are aware of that problem. It hasn’t been a main part of the discourse that we are sharing when we are organizing this strike. I think maybe one of the reasons is because 2012 was really about debt and especially demanding to have easier access to scholarships for everyone. It was really based on a discourse of universal accessibility and the analysis we built was in reaction to that. So, I think that’s a reason why the question of debt was not a main part of what we’re doing because we wanted to show the student as a worker instead of as someone that gets help from the state and needs to be helped, it’s infantilizing in a way. I’m not saying that there is nothing in the debt analysis that could benefit us – not at all – but I think that’s what happened when we built the discourse around CUTE.
ÉH: And from what I remember there was also – at the beginning when there was some people that were closer to maybe, or less critical of 2012 – one of the claims that came with the internships and transformations of loans into scholarships. But I think that fell apart mainly because the political perspective of the claim was kind of different, understanding school work as actually work and not as a service. In any case, I still believe that getting paid for the work you do is still a way to start getting out of debt also but the perspective is different. You get your work recognized, versus the state just giving you something – there’s something different there and I think that that goes with the long perspective of the campaign.
JB: Because one thing that we have said about debt is that gaining a wage would be a way for interns, who can’t work when they have internships, to earn when they have to take care of a family and they have other complex realities, they can’t often work in places other than school. So, gaining access to a wage would be a way to reduce debt, especially for women and precarious workers who will only have access to work with lower wages after school. That’s a way in which we tried to begin to talk about debt but it is clearly not a central part of our analysis.
EB: Finally, we want to ask you about the strike, since you are in the middle of it! What are you seeing thus far? What is your assessment of it at this point? What level of participation are you seeing? We’ve heard in the Anglophone media that it’s brought out around 60,000 people.
ÉH: I guess when you’re in the middle of it it’s easier, probably, to be a pessimist than an optimist. The 60,000 number is wrong; for the week, there’s around 35,000 and 40,000 students that are on strike – not all interns, they’re mostly students. There’s a big clash between, as we said, the traditional old-timers of the student movement who are big fans of staying inside of the university, using the strike to occupy the university, who are really not interested in getting involved with interns and making sure that the internship strike is actually effective and working. The activists that are involved in the CUTE made the internship strike the main strategy and we put most of our energy towards that. The first thing with the internship strike is actually getting out of UQAM to make the strike visible, as we talked about. We go on tours all around the city in workplaces where there are interns, to make the strike visible, talk with workers, make links, and from that experience a lot of support letters have come up from those organizations – support letters that include respect woard the strike, actually. To make sure that the interns will not be punished or whatever by doing their strike because there’s a lot of fear and repression because the departments are saying to the interns that they will have to re-do the hours that they miss during the strike. So, we’re working on that and organizing collectively to resist that repression.
JB: Yeah, like Éloi I’m not that optimistic about the strike that’s going on right now. I think there are fewer votes that led to a strike in different student associations and unions than we expected. I feel the strike is not as big and won’t be as long as we would have liked it to be. I don’t think we will gain anything in the short term from this strike, we won’t have any success in our demands in front of the government from the strike that’s going on this week and maybe for the next few weeks. But, what I’m positive about is the experiment that we are doing right now with the internships tour around this city, for one thing, and other experiments that we are doing right now. The way we are rethinking how we do politics in the student movement. I’m also positive about this experiment and it possibly leading to us continuing to organize in the workplaces where we’ll be working after we graduate, in the schools, the hospitals, and the community centers. This experiment is really rich in the ways it succeeds in putting politics back into the workplace with a principle based on political autonomy and against bureaucracy, a movement that is not organized only within the student unions. For me that’s a big thing and will certainly be a broader legacy for the student movement but also for the labor movement, which has not had many experiences of autonomy in the last few decades in Québec.
EB: So, the goal is to have the strike for a week as a way to send a message to the government and the intent is to send a warning that says: “You better respond to the issue of internships, and if you don’t, then this is going to happen again?”
ÉH: To put it back in context, the objective for this semester was to have a general unlimited strike, but that didn’t start well. The first vote didn’t pass and from there we kind of changed our strategy. We focused on one week that could be renewed by certain student unions, it will probably be renewed by some here at UQAM and probably maybe outside of Montréal but not that much. That’s another thing that went a bit wrong, because the last semester we had a weeklong strike which at its highest point involved about 60,000 people from 7 regions, now we’re 6 regions at 35,000-40,000 for a week, so it’s not that bad but it’s not as we expected. Actually, tomorrow the budget is being deposited by the government and we are hoping for something there for interns, but it probably won’t be there. Our hope wasn’t really with the budget but rather to have an unlimited general strike of internships which would become difficult to manage for the state.
JB: But this is not what is happening. We’re learning that it is not as simple to organize an internship strike and that there are a lot of new problems. It’s a substantial involvement for people to do the internship strike, a lot more than it is to not go to class, and that’s been the backlash of this first vote that didn’t go well. So, it will be part of the things we will have to think about afterward. That was the crucial moment of this campaign and I don’t think there will be another big moment, another one bigger than these weeks that we are in right now, so it won’t be a big success, I don’t think we’ll be able to say. But it will certainly be a good experiment.