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Hands-on democracy

by Archives March 16, 2005

Wednesday’s general assembly in H-110 of the Hall building started civilly enough. Students streamed in and took their seats, holding a yellow “yes” card and a pink “no” card for the voting. The auditorium filled to capacity, and at around 2 p.m. the proceedings to decide whether or not to strike began.

The chair of the assembly, Michel Fournier, called the meeting to order. He was flanked by Arielle Reid, CSU VP External, and Tim McSorley, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students-Quebec (CFS-Q).

McSorley opened the meeting with a brief overview of the government’s cuts to the bursaries program, and the ramifications for the students present. “As debt goes up, it creates a barrier to higher education for those with the least amount of money,” he said.

McSorley added that those who think students have nothing to complain about are wrong. “People say Concordia students are spoiled. If we look around the world, we’re by no means spoiled. We have to look beyond Canada and the United States, and lead by example.” This drew cheers from many of the students in the audience.

Arielle Reid then explained what a student strike would entail. The key difference between a labour and a student strike, she said, was that whereas in a labour strike the workers deny employers their production, students were sacrificing class time for which they’d already paid to send a message to the government.

Reid said that student strikes had been very successful in the past. “The ’74 strike brought us our financial aid system, and the ’96 one got us our tuition freeze.” She said that this strike was shaping up to be the biggest since ’74.

Fournier then opened the floor to questions, and students lined up at microphones on both sides of the room to make their views on the strike heard.

Imai Welch sounded a note of caution. “If we’re going to strike, we do not need to do it for more than one or three days. We should not risk an indefinite strike.”

Other students were concerned about the effects a strike would have on their grades. Film student Sylvie Rath asked, “Even if everyone doesn’t go on strike, and even if the semester isn’t cancelled, will I still fail my classes if I do? I have some two-semester classes, will I lose all those credits?”

Reid answered that the CSU was already in discussions with the administration to prevent that from happening. “We will seek clemency for all students who choose to go on strike.”

Political science student Chris Brown said that people were getting carried away and their worries were unfounded. “People, we’re talking about one day. Yesterday, a water pipe broke and the Hall building shut down for the day. Are we going to fail our semester because of that?”

Brown also said the increase in student debt was serious, and justified going on strike. “I work and go to school, and I’m living on borrowed money. I don’t want to be paying off this debt for the rest of my life.”

Mayer, an international student from Germany, spoke on the video screen from the Guadagni lounge at the Loyola campus. He said that last year students in his country went on strike and squandered the support of the public. “Don’t make the same mistakes we did,” he cautioned. “Remember, you’re not on strike against your school, but against your government.” He urged students to work with teachers and faculty members in making their strategies. “Don’t block access to the school,” he added, “and students who want to attend their classes should be allowed.”

Others were in a less conciliatory mood. One student said, “I don’t think a one-day, three-day or one-week strike, or any limited strike is enough. Over 60,000 students are on an unlimited strike in this province, and we can’t just pay lip service to them with a one- or three-day strike. We have this weapon at our disposal, and we should use it.”

Another student stood up and questioned the validity of the voting process. “How is it right that two per cent of students decide this issue for 28,000?”

Reid responded that this was the way the system was structured, adding “If we could get 50, 60 or 70 per cent student participation, we’d love that.”

Then someone put forward a motion to call the vote for the one-day strike. The motion was seconded, and a majority in the room agreed they were ready to decide. The chair read out the motion for the one day strike and the voting began.

It was clear right away that the motion would pass when the overwhelming majority of those in the room raised their yellow cards in favor. The final tally was 768 in favor, 322 against. Concordia would go on strike on Wednesday, March 16. But the proceedings were far from over.

After the vote for the one-day strike had passed, Fournier opened the floor for more questions and comments from the crowd about an unlimited strike.

Many students present were strongly in favor. Marwan Khalil said he believed Concordia should go on an unlimited strike because it would be too complicated to follow up a short one in the amount of time remaining in the semester. “What will we do if a short strike doesn’t work?” he asked. “Will we do this whole process all over again?”

Macdonald Stainsby then said, “I’d like to propose an amendment that if we do have an unlimited strike, we have a mandatory meeting once a week to decide whether or not to continue it.” He said this would ensure that the will of the majority of students was still in favor of the strike.

Soon afterwards, someone called the vote for the unlimited strike, and the moment of truth arrived.

It was clear that this vote would be much closer than the previous one. The yellow and pink cards looked pretty evenly balanced, and counting took a bit longer as the numbers from some sections of the room were verified again. Then another short delay as the chair waited for the results from Loyola’s assembly.

The final verdict was 328 in favor of an unlimited strike, and 293 against it. “This does not reach quorum, so the motion is defeated,” announced Fournier. Students who were against the unlimited strike greeted the announcement with cheers, while those who hoped for more than one day looked glum.

The auditorium began to empty very quickly, and about half the students had already left when Laith Marouf called out from near the exits. “No one called quorum before the second vote!” he said. “This means the second vote passed.”

The room was suddenly silent, and the crowds of students clogging the exits began to turn around. Marouf came down to the front and began explaining his objection to Fournier and Reid. He claimed that Robert’s Rules of Order states that quorum needs to be verified before the vote is taken, otherwise it is assumed and the vote stands.

This caused a ripple of excitement to move through the students still present, with students who favoured an unlimited strike shouting their agreement, and other students asking one another what was happening. Soon, the table at the front of the room was surrounded with students voicing their own arguments about the controversy. Because no one present had Robert’s Rules with them, Fournier asked everyone to calm down while someone went to find a copy.

By now the scene was pretty chaotic, with everyone talking at once and questions coming at the chair from all quarters. Some students claimed they had called quorum before the vote, but the chair hadn’t acknowledged them. Others wondered how quorum could be assumed when the vote itself proved its absence.

This continued for a little while until Fournier stood up and said, “Look, this takes five minutes. Could you just shut up for five minutes?”

Finally, someone returned with Robert’s Rules, and Fournier and Marouf began poring over it together. After a brief exchange, Fournier announced that the second vote didn’t pass, that there weren’t enough students present to continue the assembly and that nothing in Robert’s Rules proved otherwise.

CSU President Brent Farrington then stood up and said anyone who wanted to continue the debate was welcome to attend that evening’s Council meeting, and the general assembly was officially over.

This didn’t stop some from continuing to argue about the decision, but nothing was going to be changed with the room now almost completely empty.

at the council meeting later that night, a motion was put forward to hold another general assembly on the Thursday after the one-day strike, but it was narrowly defeated, nine votes to eight.

Reached the next day, Tim McSorley said he wished students had voted for a longer strike, but the CFS-Q wouldn’t fight the decision.

“Our focus now is on Wednesday,” he said. “We’re trying to get as many people out as possible to participate in the strike, so that it has maximum impact.”

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