What does it mean to go on strike?
A student strike follows the same concept as a workers’ strike, but with some legal differences. For the duration of a strike, students do not participate in academic activities and instead put their time towards organizing for the goals of the strike. In the case of this particular strike, students would spend their day participating in the November 10th demonstration against the tuition hikes rather than going to class, doing lab work, or working on their research. Student strikes are not covered by employment law however – and if you are an RA or TA, or otherwise an employee of the university, you still have to perform those duties.
What is the Charest government’s agenda?
In its last budget, the Quebec government announced its plan to raise tuition: It will soon cost
$3,793 a year for every full-time university student, representing a nearly 75% increase over five years. If we take into account the previous increases (from 2007-2008 to 2011-2012), tuition will be raised by $2,125 (127%) over ten years, increasing from $1,668 to $3,793. Since the plan is to index tuition to inflation, increases will continue past 2017, even if student salaries do not match the cost of living. This is tied to a much larger plan to privatize Quebec’s public services. Raymond Bachand, the Minister of Finance, has referred to these reforms as a “Cultural Revolution.”
Why is the government doing this?
This ‘revolution’ is taking place in an international economic context that puts austerity measures such as fee increases and privatization at the top of government agendas. In Europe, in the United States and in Canada, governments are telling their populations that they have no money left because of the 2008 recession. They therefore argue that public services must be privatized and user fees should be implemented in order to avoid bankruptcy. In other words, Western governments claim that collective and accessible public services such as education are too expensive and that we, students and ordinary people, should now bear the costs as individuals.
Does the government really have a choice?
Jean Charest and his ministers want us to believe that privatization and fee increases are as natural as rain falling from the sky. In short, we are being told by politicians that this is not a political question so much as a strictly economic one. This is not true. When we look back at recent history, we quickly realize that this is really a political issue. Over the last ten years, Quebec governments have significantly cut their revenues coming mainly from income taxes. This money was given back mainly to wealthy individuals and corporations in the form of tax cuts and fiscal reforms. Now the government is imposing a tuition increase that will generate a total $265 million in revenue for universities. If the government had not made the political decision to weaken our tax system, we would have all the money we need to publicly finance our public services and keep them accessible. Today, if we collectively decide to protect our tax-based education funding, we could reverse that tendency.
But why would we want education to be funded through taxes instead of user fees?
User fees are considered regressive because they ignore people’s financial capacities and reproduce social inequality. Taxes, however, can be proportional to revenues, taking into account peoples paying capacities and ensure wealth redistribution. By switching from a tax-based funding to a fee-based funding of education, Jean Charest makes it cheaper for rich people to attend universities, while less wealthy people will have to choose between withdrawing from school or being burdened with massive debt. In this commodification of education, students are treated as consumers and not as the citizens of tomorrow’s society.
Has the tactic of a General Strike already proven its effectiveness?
Yes, on many occasions:
1968 (October): The CEGEPs (junior colleges) have just been founded in Quebec and it’s a dynamic period for social movements in Quebec and around the world. More than 4,000 students are refused admission into university in Quebec due to the lack of space and professors. Students demand accessibility for working class youth and francophones in post-secondary institutions; clarification about the Minister’s position on the loans and bursaries program; and more democracy in the university, within a general critique of global capitalism. Fifteen (out of 23) CEGEPs go on strike for around one month. The strike speeds up the creation of the Quebec university network (UQ) and the construction of UQAM, and achieves the abolition of mandatory class attendance for students enrolled in CEGEP -a first step towards recognizing the right of students to strike (by not attending class).
1974 (October & December): There are two general strikes during the same semester, against two different reforms. The first strike opposes new aptitude tests for university studies (TAEU) that are required only of francophone students. With CEGEPs on strike for one month, the government cancels the TAEU. The second strike is sparked after 300 students have to quit CEGEP due to financial difficulties because of changes to the loans and bursaries program. The strike includes 40 institutions on strike during its peak (mostly CEGEPs, but also universities and high schools), for around 2 weeks. Demands include substantial improvements to loans and bursaries, notably abolishing the parental contribution (the expected amount that all parents should pay). This second strike is also quick and effective, resulting in a promise on the part of the government to abolish the parental contribution in loans, and diminish the parental contribution in the case of bursaries.
1978 (November): With the promises from 1974 not completely fulfilled, students demand free education and substantial reforms to the loans and bursaries program. The strike lasts around three weeks, reaching 100,000 striking students once UQAM joins the ranks of the 33 CEGEPs. The movement grows so quickly that the government makes concessions: Significant improvements are made to the loans and bursaries program.
1986 (October): Responding to the Liberal Government’s threat to increase tuition and to make cuts to loans and bursaries and to education budgets, students launch a strike. Thirty student associations (mostly CEGEPs) go on strike for 5 days. After only 5 days, they force the government to retreat from its plan to increase tuition for both university and CEGEP, to open negotiations about loans and bursaries, and to stop ancillary fees from being imposed at universities in the UQ network.
1988 (October): Disappointed with the stagnated progress of the loans and bursaries negotiations, and fearing upcoming tuition increases, students strike up to 2 weeks, with 25 student associations for the strike, and 25 against it. Not enough CEGEPS participate: The Liberal government announces a tuition increase, though the pressure to improve the bursaries and loans program (AFE) indirectly contributes to most of students’ demands about the loans and bursaries program being realized in 1989.
1990 (February-March): The government increases tuition (from $500 to $1200) and allows universities a 10% margin to include ancillary fees. The student movement is badly organized at this point, still recovering from a defeat two years earlier. Sporadic strikes take hold in a dozen student associations, including universities. Some associations call for a general boycott of tuition (encouraging students not to pay), but only 1% of students answer that call, so this strategy fails.
1996 (October-November): The government plans to increase tuition by 30%. With more than 40 student associations on strike, including 100,000 students at its peak, it is a success: Tuition is frozen and stays frozen until 2007. Yet seven hundred million dollars are cut, loans and bursaries become more restrictive, tuition fees increase for those living outside of Quebec, and a tax for CEGEP students who fail classes.
2005 (February-March): This is the most important general student strike in Quebec history. In 2004, when the government decides to transform $103 million from loans into bursaries, students start organizing protests and other tactics, and start striking. It lasts 8 weeks and at its peak 230,000 students are on strike. It ends in a partial victory, preventing the $103 million in bursaries from being converted into loans starting in 2006 (yet losing the $103 bursary funding for 2004 and 2005). Considering it was the longest and most popular student strike in Quebec history, the provincial student union that negotiated with the government could have asked for more.
What we can conclude from this timeline is that every time there has been a major attack on accessible education, the strategy of a general strike was potent enough to scare the government into changing its mind. Never has the government backed down on an important decision when it only faced demonstrations, petitions or symbolic actions. It was when the student movement was strongly combative and united in strikes that massive political victories were possible.
What are my legal rights in the event of a strike?
As legally accredited institutions, student unions act as government-sanctioned fee-gathering and representative bodies, mandated to promote and protect the interests of their members. Student strikes fall into a legal grey zone, and are not governed by the strict set of rules and regulations that constrict labour unions. Even so, in recent years the Quebec government and its partners in university administrations have done their best to put up legal barricades to democratically-decided strike actions. In 2007, certain administrators threatened to apply provincial Bill 43 -a recently-passed law designed to prevent work disruption among public service employees- to students. This was ultimately unsuccessful (as students are not workers, and thus do not fall under the purview of that law). At the same time, the UQAM administration sought and obtained an injunction preventing students from protesting or pursuing strike-related activities within 100 feet of the university. Yet it’s important to note, again, that our student unions are accredited bodies legally mandated to protect student interests, and that protest activities associated with striking are rights enshrined in the Canadian and Quebec constitutions.
This applies equally to the actions of individual students. Freedom of thought, expression, assembly and association are guaranteed not only by federal and provincial law but also under Concordia’s “Code of Rights and Responsibilities” governing disciplinary incidents at the university. It is extremely unlikely that any student would face legal sanctions for political activity undertaken during a strike. In any event, any student accused of an offense, either by the government or within Concordia’s disciplinary code, is entitled to due process. The stronger our collective campaign, the less likely it is that any one individual will be targeted.