Keeping the student strike alive

September 7, 2016

Alain Savard, a Quebec socialist and former member of the executive council of Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), describes what it will take to build the power of the student movement and deepen its politics, in an article written for Jacobin.

AT THE end of May 2012, the Quebec student movement joined the international anti-austerity protests as thousands of students and workers held rallies protesting the government's repressive measures. By then, 200,000 students--which accounts for almost half of all postsecondary students in the province--had already been on strike for three months against a tuition hike. The student assemblies who organized the action were supported by artistic rallies, nightly demonstrations, economic blockades, and massive marches.

For many observers, this seemed consistent with other post-crisis revolts, a logical follow-up to the indignados, the Occupy movement, and the 2011 student protests in the United Kingdom and Chile.

But in fact, the 2012 student movement continued a long history of successful strikes dating back to 1968. And in spring 2015, Quebec students took the streets once again. Thousands went on strike for two weeks, gathering 75,000 people for an April 2 rally.

So while the 2012 student strike did respond to global austerity, it owes its strength, its mode of organization, and its tactics to a deeper militant practice that has proved capable of mounting large mobilizations.

The ASSÉ student union contingent at the October 3 anti-austerity demonstration
The ASSÉ student union contingent at the October 3 anti-austerity demonstration (

What explains this unique Quebec tradition? In the North American context, the success of Quebec student strikes is unmatched. The structure of Quebec activist groups offers a valuable model for a strong and sustainable radical movement that can oppose neoliberal attacks across Canada and the United States.

Mapping the Movement

The Quebec movement grows out of the province's student associations, which, like many labor unions, have mandatory membership and a dues structure. They began in the 1950s, but were only formally recognized by state law in 1982.

Student associations vary depending on the level and size of their institutions. Small pre-university colleges (CÉGEPs, which function like a bridge between high school and university) have only one student association per campus with a membership between two and six thousand students.

In some universities, groups center around specific fields of study, so that each university will have a number of departmental associations, ranging from a few dozen to almost 1,000 members. Other associations organize around schools--like the social sciences or the arts--and have membership rolls between one and six thousand.

Regardless of their size, each student association shares the same simple internal organization: an executive council and a general assembly. The general assembly, in which all members may participate, meets at least once a year to adopt the association's budget and to elect the executive council. In many associations, the general assembly can overturn the council's decisions.

Province-wide federations, which the smaller associations may choose to join, mirror their member organizations' structures. They gather association delegates, and are led by an executive body elected by those delegates.

The Association For Student Union Solidarity (ASSÉ) takes a more radical position than its competitors. It emphasizes direct democracy, free education, and combativeness. Created in 2001, ASSÉ draws on the student unionism tradition initiated by the National Association of Québec Students (ANEEQ), which was founded in 1974 and dissolved in 1993.

ASSÉ's membership has ballooned from 20,000 (in 2004) to forty-five thousand (in 2011), and now reaches 80,000 (about 20 percent of all postsecondary students).

The other federations more closely resemble large labor federations. They organize in a top-down, highly centralized, and bureaucratic manner; they defend leftist values, but favor lobbyism over confrontation. Before the 2005 strike, they represented over 260,000 students, making them--in the eyes of politicians and the media--the legitimate representatives of students. But their membership has since shrunk to about 120,000, and one of them is now dissolved.

But what sets the Quebec student movement apart from similar groups in other Canadian provinces or in the United States is the strike action itself. Students vote to strike in the general assembly, with the knowledge that the action completely shuts down all courses: no classes, no exams, and no evaluations can take place while the strike is on. Everyone, students and faculty alike, respects the mandate, disrupting academic calendars and delaying degrees and awards.

Students at smaller institutions--typically under seven thousand students--will shut down the whole campus. But in large universities, strikes are enforced at the departmental or the school level, never campus-wide. For example, if the political science student association votes to strike, the picket lines would only target political science classes.

Student associations often call strikes over local issues, setting a limited time period for the action. But the real strength of the student movement resides in the unlimited general student strikes, like the ones in 2005 and 2012, which spread from campus to campus and last until the government answers the movement's demands. The unlimited strike was pioneered in 1968; since then, it has been used nine times in Quebec.

While both university administrations and the government recognize the student associations, they do not recognize their strikes. Although going on strike is not illegal as such, most of the tactics used to enforce the lines--like hard pickets and noise making--are prohibited. Until 2012, most campus administrations tolerated these disruptions and took no legal action against the students.

But recently, some schools have demanded injunctions to break strike movements and tried to expel activists--largely in an effort to reduce the effectiveness of the student strike. However, widespread student support has made it difficult for the police to enforce this legal action--particularly because breaking the picket lines does not restore classes if most students still refuse to show up.

Initiating Students

When the first unlimited general student strike began in 1968, Quebec campuses were very similar to other schools across North America. In the United States two years later, a nationwide strike shut down almost 450 campuses and affected up to 4 million students. But since then, student strikes have disappeared from American activists' playbooks, while persisting in Quebec. Why?

The answer is fairly straightforward: a set of self-reinforcing practices allows students to reproduce radical tactics year after year. These groups pass down the knowledge of the general assembly and the strike with very little outside assistance.

Most Quebec students have no prior knowledge of unionism when they enter their college or university programs. If the student union doesn't mobilize frequently, the student will see it as part of a menu of clubs which serve as simple meeting spaces for students with similar interests--like a chess club or an ecological committee. If it is organizing around tuition or fees, it does appear more political, but the student still might view it as just one issue-focused group among others.

What gives the student union meaning is the general assembly meeting where a strike is discussed. There, new students learn that a strike suspends their classes, and that the general assembly has the power to make this happen.

Because everyone is affected and--more importantly--everyone can debate, bring motions, and vote for or against the action, students are compelled to take a position.

Further, since broad political campaigns, demands, and other actions discussed at the general assembly could lead to new strikes, the student association's political activity in general takes on a new meaning, and makes students more likely to participate in the decision-making process moving forward.

The traditional one-day strike, then, becomes much more than a way to build collective power against the government. Every time students strike, they initiate newcomers into the strike's norms and practices, ensuring that future strikes can take place.

The state and the society do not validate the practice of the student strike in any official or legal way. It only survives because of the structures of student unionism.

Further, without a general assembly, the strike could not establish legitimacy among students. Enforcing a strike without a democratic vote would depend on the sheer force of hard picket lines. The association's activist core is usually too small to undertake a complete blockade, especially if masses of students try to enter. By making the decision to suspend classes in the general assembly, the union creates a space where it can win the consent of the student body.

Of course, the general assembly–strike pair does not reproduce itself out of thin air. The activist core needs to organize and convince the general assembly and must figure out how to enforce the strike mandate.

The activist core necessarily knows more about the ongoing process and may decide to mobilize for a strike before any large-scale democratic debate, but no member of this group arrives at college ready to organize strikes and assemblies.

Further, because student turnover is fairly rapid--the normal time frame to graduate is two to three years in colleges--the activist core needs to be reproduced on a very frequent basis. The application of the assembly-strike pair achieves the kind of large-scale initiation that allows the student union to recruit new members and sustain itself.

The trio around which Quebec's student organizations are most basically organized is the assembly, the strike, and the activist core. Each institution is crucial to the others. If one element weakens or disappears, it can threaten the rest.

For example, if no strikes take place for a prolonged period, the activist core will lose strike organization knowledge and may struggle to recruit new members. The attendance at general assemblies drops, and the student association loses its political purpose.

The more this core is weakened, the harder it becomes to restart the cycle without outside help. Most of the time when this happens, the student association shifts its focus to social activities, organizing parties and funding student clubs.

Outside of Quebec, no campuses hold frequent general assemblies, making it impossible to plan and vote for strikes. In 2014, the University of Ottawa and University of British Columbia both tried to institute general assemblies with strike power. However, these attempts failed because they were implemented campus-wide.

In Quebec, the largest associations have about 8,000 members. It is almost impossible to adequately mobilize a 40,000-student campus--the participation rate will never be high enough to legitimate the strike.

From Campus to Campus

The figure above is really a simplified diagram of how the trio of general assemblies, strikes, and activists work together. In fact, student associations often have help stabilizing the practices of combative student unionism.

For one, the bylaws of a student association usually include a blueprint to restart the cycle if it is interrupted. Further, the automatically deducted fees allow associations to hire employees. In most cases, the staffers formerly served as student activists, meaning they can transmit knowledge of strike organizing even after long downturns. Of course, this is never as efficient as the strike itself, but the employee nevertheless acts as a backbone who can make sure the cycle never completely runs out.

Cross-campus solidarity also helps sustain activism. This is crucial, because only a minority of student associations across Quebec can maintain the full reproduction cycle over long periods. When core activists from mobilized campuses organize on inactive campuses, they can transform long-inactive associations.

This happens especially during preparation for an unlimited general strike. The most mobilized student associations help other associations to organize their assemblies and strike votes, recruiting and training students in the process.

The combative student federations have historically centered around this solidarity. For example, ASSÉ often coordinates efforts to restart or to help fuel the cycle at inactive colleges and universities.

Further, once the unlimited strike starts, the province-wide mobilization creates a favorable context to motivate leftist students on demobilized campuses to imitate strike practices. And because unlimited general strikes happen every five years on average, these intense moments of cross-campus solidarity are never too far apart.

The historical success of the general strike also maintains its relevancy as an efficient tactic; in the Quebec student movement's oral tradition, eight of the nine general student strikes won at least a partial victory.

Finally, the migration of students from colleges to universities provides another mechanism for activating new members. In fact, the assembly-strike-activist cycle doesn't perfectly apply to universities because a constant stream of CÉGEP students--who already went through the training process--arrive each year.

As a result, the activist core does not necessarily have to be reproduced on campus. The GA-strike-activist cycle still takes place in universities, and new activists are continually produced, but it is possible for certain student associations to count almost exclusively on the arrival of college graduates. The cross-campus solidarity can work the other way, as well, as university activists help organize college campuses.

Lobbyism and the Radical Left

The activist work that goes into sustaining the practices of combative student unionism is made more challenging by the student movement's lobbyist faction, which is primarily organized in the other student federations, the College Student Federation of Quebec (FECQ) and the Quebec Student Union (UEQ).

Unlike the activists, student lobbyists focus on building relations of trust with individuals of power inside political parties and using rational dialogue to win concessions from the government. Mass mobilizations are viewed as a last resort, and the federations rarely organize one-day strikes.

As a result, their activities do not sustain the mass mobilization required to keep the assembly-strike culture alive, and they reproduce the typical problems seen in contemporary labor unions: without day-to-day mobilization, rank-and-file participation declines. The leadership then sees members as apolitical, uninterested, and always "not yet ready" to participate in strikes and large mobilizations.

This kind of unionism dominates both the Canadian labor movement and student movement, and is shared with their American counterparts.

And, exactly as an activist core reinforced the culture of mobilization for its rank-and-file members, these non-combative student associations reinforce the rank-and-file members' alienation from the union itself: the leadership does not mobilize members on a regular basis, so the culture of mobilization fades away and democratic structures become inactive. New generations of activists take leadership positions already believing that mobilization won't happen and that members do not want to participate in democratic structures.

However, these lobbyist federations are not invincible. They dominated the Quebec student movement during the 1990s, as they counted most student associations as members. It took fifteen years of struggle and two different attempts to build an alternative vision, but Quebec students have now thrown these federations into disarray.

The broader social and historical context is also key to understanding the success of the student movement in Quebec. The movement was deeply influenced by the combativeness of labor unions in the 1960s and 1970s.

In many ways, the upsurge of student associations in the 1970s--including the creation of the province-wide federation ANEEQ--came out of an attempt to imitate trade union structures. During the 1970s and 1980s, the nationalist movement and the strong presence of Marxist-Leninist groups influenced student associations.

After the neoliberal turn in the 1980s, the rise of lobbyist tactics in labor unions, and the supposed end of history, combative unionism lost most of its influence in the student movement. ANEEQ dissolved in 1993, and the lobbyist federations took over.

The period between 1994 until 2012 was one of rebuilding as activists worked slowly to rebuild the student left, influenced by anarchist ideas, which encouraged direct democracy and direct action. ASSÉ was also deeply affected by the antiglobalization movement of the early 2000s and by global resistance to austerity since the 2007 crisis.

But these changes in the social, political, and historical context in Quebec would not matter much were it not for the activists themselves, who build and maintain the structures of the general assembly and the strike. As the impact of the Great Recession drags on, the time is ripe for student unions across Canada, and the United States to take a page from the Quebec students' playbook and take back their campuses.

First published at Jacobin.

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