From Les temps fous
The morning of September 27th, the streets of Montreal and Quebec City were taken by storm by a historic human tide. Hundreds of thousands, young and old, hit the street in response to the international call for a Global Climate Strike. This call for a planetary strike arrived in Quebec in the spring, when student associations and teachers’ unions began voting to walk out on September 27. In the summer, cégep administrations, threatened by the prospect of illegal strikes by teachers, decided to make the day of September 27 an “institutional day” and arrange the calendar accordingly. Institutional days, as a mechanism for capturing and absorbing strikes, gradually spread throughout the entire Quebec education system, from elementary schools to universities. If, at first, one could be satisfied that more than 600,000 people would be “freed” by the authorities to participate in the demonstration of September 27, doubts arise with respect to the future of the movement and its autonomy. The strike as a voluntary and collective interruption of daily routine has been diverted by school administrations, which used institutional days to ensure that they would maintain control of the agenda and temporality of the struggle.
On September 17, the administration of the CSDM (francophone secondary school board) sent a letter to parents informing them that a pedagogical day would be moved to allow students to participate in the demonstration of the 27th. Beyond the calendar change, the letter was an opportunity for the CSDM to openly threaten students who would seek to strike beyond September 27:
2. Advise your child that in no case may he prevent other students from attending class, since the scolarisation of students is a fundamental right that must be respected;
3. Remind your child that he must show evidence of civility and not participate in blocking access to school in any way whatsoever, with respect to anyone, because this may constitute mischief under the meaning of the law.
All while arranging the calendar to permit protesting on September 27, the CSDM in this way seeks to ensure that the Friday strikes affecting many schools last spring don’t reproduce themselves. It reminds us that institutional days decided from above enable the intermediary powers that are school boards, cegeps, and universities to delegitimize strike days decided from below.
At the university level, the situation at Polytechnique lucidly revealed the fears of power regarding the movement’s development. Despite an electronic vote by students more than 78% in favor of class cancellations, the Polytechnique administration refused to accept the “request” for a levée de cours. Polytechnique director-general Philippe A. Tanguy – former engineer with the French oil company Total – justified this refusal by saying:
“Polytechnique supports this cause, but we are also aware that, unfortunately, this global day of action will not be sufficient to resolve the climate issue; there will be others, and we will not be able to cancel classes for all of these days”.
His justification effectively shows the limits of asking authorities to cancel classes. Despite the adoption of institutional days in many institutions, we cannot forget that a strike never awaited approval by bosses and other authorities to be carried out, and that it’s perfectly normal that it disrupts the institution’s calendar and daily routine, and more largely, society.
The major union federations also played a key role in the disappearance of the strike from public discourse. While various unions began adopting strike mandates for the climate outside of the Labour Code’s legal framework, the union federations explicitly intervened in the movement by demanding that protest organizers stop calling for workers to strike. In place of the collective “Planet on Strike”, formed by workers at the grassroots level, the collective “The Planet Comes to Work” substituted itself, coordinated by union federation leaders. Whereas Planet on Strike aimed to shake up the legality of strikes in Quebec by assuming at the same time the necessity and illegality of the strike, The Planet Comes to Work sought to mobilize workplaces while eliminating all mention of striking from posters, flyers and communications. During the press conference on September 27, Serge Cadieux, spokesperson of The Planet Comes to Work and secretary-general of the FTQ, reminded us of the federations’ lack of political courage by refusing to mention the ten or so unions that had chosen to strike and reaffirming the federations’ submission to the Labour Code. Beyond their lack of political courage to reappropriate the strike outside its legal framework, Serge Cadieux reminded us of the depoliticization of contemporary syndicalism: he affirmed that “there is no opposition between the economy and ecology” and that unions were working with “the world of management” and “the world of finance” in order to confront the climate crisis.
The proximity between the union federations and political and economic power is not new, although one might have thought that in the current context of climate crisis the federations would see the necessity of a rupture with the capitalist system. Far from it! In any case we have no illusions about the union federations’ role in the climate strike movement which has been and will be one of pacification and recuperation.
Through their support of the movement, administrators, politicians and bosses strive to drain environmental questions of all their political character. A flattened “struggle” emerges, without conflict, in which there are no guilty or responsible parties. We all agree on the importance of the environment and we march together to underline it, as if fossil fuel development, the appropriation and destruction of land, or the destruction of rivers and oceans were natural processes escaping our control. Desjardins, National Bank, and CIBC take measures allowing their employees to miss work to protest, MEC closes its stores, alongside a long list of companies ranging from a legal firm to an advertising agency. Joining protesters in the streets, heads of state, ministers and CEOs appear as citizens like the others, who’ll promise to stop buying plastic straws, for their children’s future. They deny the political character of the environmental movement, as if the future of the planet depended more on the good will of each individual than on the decisions they make. By flattening and pacifying what should be a struggle, they try to contain environmental issues within the straitjacket of individual consumption, wherein everyone must do their part, and the 500,000 demonstrators do not realize the collective force that could be produced by their encounter.
Green capitalism’s recuperation of environmental struggles has refined itself now over several decades. It’s probably because these struggles have the capacity to put a colonial and capitalist world into question that they’ve been neutralized so effectively. But for once, the discourse of recuperation sounds oddly false. The generation that grew up surrounded by the same lies, that tell it to study, recycle, work, eat local, and impoverish itself for an increasingly uncertain future, refuses to continue playing the game. Throughout recent months, we’ve seen strike votes passing with huge majorities in unexpected cégeps, illegal strike mandates in local unions, and high school students organizing strikes and weekly demonstrations over many months.
Behind the “strike for the planet” lie questions that largely exceed the stakes within which labor strikes are legally contained. The strike for the planet is not a “pressure tactic” in hopes of getting better working conditions or blocking a tuition hike. Politicians are asked to “do more”, but the rare efforts to define what that could mean fall flat. No demand appears able to contain the extent of the stakes raised by the movement. It’s the very condition of the worker or student subject that could be thrown into question by this strike: why continue studying, working, and investing in your RRSP while the world crumbles beneath our feet? The strike for the planet has the capacity to see itself for what it is, a political strike capable of interrupting the temporality of this death-machine world, a temporality where the growth of capital and colonization is interwoven with the acceleration of ecological catastrophe. In the hour of climate emergency, it is no longer a question of pleading with authority for liberation, but rather of Striking in the most political sense, that is to say destituting our everyday life by collectively retaking each moment of our existences. We can no longer follow the rhythm of a protest movement fenced in by the state. We must strike, interrupt, and radically transform our relation to the world and to time.