Direct democracy

Yet, escalation of tactics alone isn’t enough. Getting people involved needs to go beyond simply asking people to join actions. Building a rock-solid basis for a movement requires giving real power in the hands of participants and bringing them to the center of the decision-making process.

This idea is embodied in ASSE’s (CLASSE) core principle of direct democracy. A simple, democratic, transparent structure was crucial to the success of our strike.

Firstly, the supreme ruling body in local unions is the General Assembly, sometimes also called the general membership meeting. Elected officials such as members of the executive or administrative boards are under the authority of this assembly, which is open to the union’s entire membership.

Everyone is equal during these meetings: staff and board members aren’t given any kinds of privileges such as special seating in front of the assembly or right-of-reply. Rules of order, such as “Robert’s Rules of Order” are used and strictly applied by a facilitator as a means of structuring the meeting and orienting debates toward collective decision-making. Applying rules of order isn’t always easy and sometimes there’s a temptation to do away with them altogether. However, in our experience, a formal structure and process which everyone recognises and which can be applied openly and respectfully is much better than informal structure where shadowy power relationships between participants can influence the decision-making process to the advantage of an individual or a group. To ensure that knowledge of the rules of order in itself doesn’t become a source of inequality among participants, unions publish and make sure the rules of order are available to all, while facilitators take time as needed to explain them and make sure everyone in the meeting understands the processes.

As members of the union, elected union officials can bring motions to the floor and participate in discussion; but once the general assembly has passed a motion, their role is to apply that decision: not to discuss it or debate it further. Acting against general assembly resolutions is a grave offense and grounds for impeachment.

At the provincial level, decisions are made by a congress composed of delegates of every local union. Delegates are not representatives of their union’s membership, entitled to speak on behalf of the student body, nor are they sent in to express their personal views. Their role is to bring up and defend the positions of their union’s own general assembly and abstain from casting a vote if they don’t have one on a particular proposal. As a result, only motions which have the support of a majority of local general assemblies can pass.

As in local unions, the role of elected members of ASSE (CLASSE) is to implement the decisions of the congress.

In the two years leading up to the strike, local unions would hold about three or four general assemblies per semester, while ASSE (CLASSE) held no more than one or two congresses per semester. When the strike began, however, that rhythm was accelerated with local unions holding at least one general assembly per week and congresses also happening on a weekly basis, during weekends.

Frequent assemblies and congresses meant that decisions made at the provincial level would echo as much as possible those made at the grassroots level.

As in local unions, important internal policies and mechanisms are in place to foster a culture of horizontality in which no individual or group holds higher status or symbolic power over others. The idea is to minimize the distance between those who have an official function (staff and elected members) and the rank and file.

Examples of these policies include:

  • No special speaking priority in meetings for staff or elected members;
  • No special seating (ie. up front) for staff or elected members in general assemblies and congresses and they do not facilitate these meetings;
  • No salary or special scholarships for elected members;
  • Number of staff is kept to a minimum;
  • Stipends are available to whoever is taking on tasks;
  • No special/corporate clothing, name-tags or jewelry for staff and elected members and no personalized business cards;
  • No luxury furniture in union offices (TVs, leather couches, etc.);
  • Non-hierarchical labels for elective functions: no presidents, vice-presidents, directors, chairmen, etc.;
  • Undefined member limits for most elected committees, eliminating competition for positions.

When union officials aren’t a class apart, when they get the same treatment as everyone else, and when union orientations arise from general assemblies, participation increases as students, having been able to contribute in a meaningful way, are naturally drawn into the process of implementing collective decisions. Additionally, open structures with unelected participants such as “mobilization committees” are key to channeling motivation and enthusiasm towards implementing general assembly resolutions and concrete organizing.

In a few words, a mobilization committee is an informal structure that gathers anyone willing to participate in a political campaign on campus. It often works in concert with the student union, which gives it a budget and some independence allowing it to take political initiatives. The mobilization committee’s meetings typically involve the integration of new members, mobilization planning (ie. making flyers, classroom visits, postering, etc.) and dispatching tasks. Those meetings are more informal than general assemblies, but are also guided by the ideas of horizontal organizing. It’s customary that elected union officials make themselves inconspicuous in those meetings, the idea being to share information and involve everyone willing to help on an equal basis.

The combination of direct democracy and escalation of tactics helped us build robust internal legitimacy: democratic decision-making and progressive involvement contribute a lot towards the notion that the union really embodies the will of the majority. As a result, decisions made in general assemblies, even though they might not be backed by law, are widely respected by students.

The strike itself is perhaps the best example. In Quebec, student strikes have no legal basis whatsoever. Furthermore, enforcing the strike using picket lines and blockades of buildings is illegal. But unions’ internal legitimacy is so strong that even while students know that the strike isn’t explicitly lawful, picket lines are respected, even by students who oppose the strike.

That’s important, because it means student strikes are possible anywhere. It also means that we don’t have to wait for the state or universities to recognize our unions, our general assemblies and our democratic decisions. Autonomous organization allows us to build a level of internal legitimacy so strong that it can override laws and other efforts to silence us.

» Further reading : The case against representative democracy

» Further reading : General assemblies: how to build their legitimacy

» 3 – Chronicle of the strike : Lead-up

Leave a comment