Why Quebec students are back in the streets

March 4, 2019

Paolo Lapointe-Miriello explains how a new student movement has taken shape in Quebec — with a feminist, working-class perspective at the heart of the struggle.

SEVEN YEARS have passed since the historic 2012 Quebec student strikes succeeded in defeating the provincial Liberal Party’s plan to drastically raise tuition. Now, student associations across the province are holding votes over the coming weeks on staging a new wave of strikes, this time against unpaid internships.

This movement isn’t led by ASSÉ, the national student federation that spearheaded the Maple Spring of 2012. In fact, that federation is on the verge of dissolution. In its place, the Quebec student movement has undergone a series of reconfigurations that have given birth to new and entirely different organizations.

This time, interns, who were mostly opposed to striking in 2012, are now leading the charge and re-centering student politics around a feminist, working class perspective in a way that goes beyond the goes of the struggle and redefines the very means by which to attain those goals.

It is no coincidence that the emblematic radical organization of the Maple Spring, ASSÉ, now lies on its deathbed while a new movement reaches its apex.

Students take to the streets on International Women's Day in Montreal
Students take to the streets on International Women's Day in Montreal (Campagne sur le travail étudiant | Facebook)

Now, new networks and organizations have emerged out of tensions within student politics arising around organizing methods and the ongoing dynamics of oppression within radical spaces. They established themselves as the leading force of left-wing student unionism, bringing a renewed commitment to participatory organizing grounded in a firmly democratic approach.

TO UNDERSTAND this new movement, it is important to first elaborate its guiding principles.

In reflecting on the shortcomings of student organizing after the 2012 strikes, perspectives were formulated around two principal axes: first, a critique of the devaluation of reproductive labor within radical spaces — in other words, lack of recognition of, or outright disdain for, tasks related to care, catering or even clerical work — and second, a critique of the gendered division of labor which typically assigns these tasks to women, even in radical organizing spaces.

This, of course, isn’t limited to student politics, but is representative of the gendered division of labor across all spheres of social production and reproduction. While the work of men is generally highly valued (business administration, politics, engineering and so on), social reproduction (raising children, providing care or teaching) is given little value and often goes unpaid.

Given that capitalism is predicated on the extraction of unpaid labor and that the socially reproductive labor required to maintain the workforce continues to be disproportionately carried out by women, it is no surprise that traditionally female fields of work offer lower wages and worse working conditions.

This is particularly true for public and community sector jobs, and it manifests itself before workers even begins their career: The devaluation of this labor first appears during training and internships.

Over past decades, the number of internships has risen sharply around the globe — as much as 300 percent since the 1990s, according to one report by Intern Bridge.

There is little doubt about the purpose of interns within neoliberal capitalism. To better suit the needs of the market, higher education institutions provide interns to labor-starved businesses by requiring students to accomplish a certain amount of internship hours as part of their training.

Although it is often argued that internships aren’t “real” work, they are a source of cheap or unpaid labor that businesses can benefit from in a myriad of ways — for example, by assigning interns menial or repetitive tasks in order to free up their more costly employees.

Even in the case of an intern who doesn’t “produce” anything, their training is also a form of work that goes unpaid. Given that employees must always be trained before they become “productive,” unpaid internships place the burden of training on students, effectively reducing labor costs for businesses.

That being said, not all internships go unpaid, and although there is little data available to accurately assess the distribution of income across internships in different fields of study, data compiled by researchers at the Université de Sherbrooke in Quebec suggest that internships held by men are two-and-a-half times more likely to be paid than those held by women.

IN EARLY 2016, different student groups in Quebec began organizing around the question of unpaid internships.

Most notably, the Student Work Unitary Committees (in French, Comités unitaires sur le travail étudiant, or CUTE, as they are usually referred to in both languages) — a network of autonomous student groups existing across a variety of college and university campuses — developed an analytical framework that goes beyond the question of unpaid internships.

Inspired by the Wages for Students campaign of the 1970s in the U.S., the CUTEs make the case that since school work is a form of reproductive labor and that all labor deserves a wage, students should demand a wage for their school work. (Given that each CUTE is an autonomous student committee, there is no single “CUTE” to refer to. When the different CUTEs meet to coordinate on a national level, it is referred to as an Inter-CUTE meeting.)

While the 2012 student strike fought for the accessibility of post-secondary education by opposing tuition hikes, a student wage is seen by the CUTEs as the only way to effectively guarantee decent study conditions for all.

Rather than being seen as clients of an academic institution who must work a part-time job to make ends meet during their training (unless their parents are wealthy enough to cover the costs), students would become salaried workers who could devote themselves entirely to their studies.

In late 2016, a four-month strike organized by doctorate-level psychology interns across Quebec won a financial compensation program for their internships provided by the provincial government.

There were two main drawbacks to this victory, though: First, the compensation program must be renegotiated periodically and is therefore unlikely to increase or even follow inflation without recurring mobilizing efforts; and second, given that a fixed amount is established for the compensation of the entire province’s psychology interns, they are not guaranteed to receive the full amount that is promised, which has led one university with too many graduates to propose a random drawing for compensation.

Despite this, the psychology interns’ victory served to further motivate the CUTEs. Given that internships are the most visible portion of the unpaid labor of students, and that an interns’ strike had shown its potential as an effective means of negotiating with the government, the groups began organizing a broad campaign against unpaid internships.

While the demand for a student wage was quietly set aside to focus on this campaign, CUTE militants insisted on a set of terms for the eventual strike that are based on their feminist analysis:

Interns should demand a wage and not simply a compensation, so that interns would receive the legal status of workers, which also guarantees them social protections provided by the state

The demand should include all internships in all fields of study, so as to avoid reproducing hierarchies between different sectors of training and employment

The movement should be decentralized and no national student federation should be created in the process, so that students and interns would organize on their own campuses instead of depending on the leadership of others.

ALTHOUGH THERE were only a handful of CUTEs concentrated in the city of Montreal to begin with, their organizing efforts eventually led to the creation of five Regional Coalitions for Paid Internships, a coalition space for interns, students, student associations, autonomous student committees and individuals to coordinate their efforts towards an unlimited general strike.

While the CUTEs continue to organize autonomously and grow in numbers, it is within the Regional Coalitions that the campaign is effectively planned, independently of all national student federations.

Shortly after the creation of the first Regional Coalition in Montreal during the summer of 2017, a strike day was organized in November 2017, with more than 20,000 students participating. The following semester, 15,000 students went on strike in February 2018, and 30,000 students walked out of their courses and internships for International Women’s Day on March 8.

This provoked a reaction from the provincial government, which announced just a few weeks later that it would provide financial compensation for the fourth and final obligatory internship in education.
While this proved that the interns’ strike could work, it was also seen as an attempt to divide students by granting a victory only to those in education, who are among those most involved in mobilizing.

Over the coming months, organizing efforts continued to spread into different regions, ultimately leading to a week of strikes from November 19 to 23. At its peak on November 21, 58,000 students were on strike, and an ultimatum was sent to the government: Pay your interns now, or they will go on an unlimited general strike in the winter of 2019.

On the very first day of the weeklong strike, Minister of Education and Higher Education Jean-François Roberge organized a press conference asking students “not to barge through an open door” on the grounds that the newly elected Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government needed time to analyze the situation and come up with a solution.

Both major national student federations, the FECQ (College Student Federation of Quebec) and UEQ (Student Union of Quebec, whose membership is composed of university student associations), seized the opportunity to meet with the minister behind closed doors and negotiate on behalf of the student movement.

Unsurprisingly, militants in the Regional Coalitions were quick to denounce these negotiations. Not only did the national federations speak to the media and meet with the government on behalf of a movement they weren’t leading, but they also proposed weaker demands that only amount to a fraction of what striking interns are fighting for.

In an official response by the Montreal Regional Coalition, the FECQ was accused of political co-optation, using the strike movement as an opportunity to advance its own lobbyist agenda in a way that permanently divides interns based on whether or not they provide goods and services during their training.

Since then, both national student unions have jointly launched their own independent lobbying campaign against unpaid internships, although close to none of their constituent members (local student associations) are planning any strike action.

IN PAST weeks, strike mandates have been voted on in a large number of general assemblies. Unfortunately, although many students will be striking on multiple dates throughout the coming weeks, most student associations have not adopted an unlimited general strike mandate.

Nonetheless, the floor established by the Regional Coalitions — 20,000 students across three administrative regions of Quebec — has been reached as of February 21, which implies that several associations will declare an unlimited general strike or some form of renewable strike week within the month.

While the large-scale demonstrations of 2012 are unlikely to reappear in 2019, the strength of the campaign for paid internships comes from its feminist, working-class perspective: The most effective means of obtaining recognition and a wage for the socially reproductive work of interns, and women in particular, is for them to go on strike.

The first week of the unlimited general strike begins on March 18, and the recently elected CAQ government will be delivering its first provincial budget three days later.

After three years of organizing around a grassroots struggle, the final test of the Wages for Interns campaign will coincide with the first major opportunity for widespread revolt against what is likely to be another neoliberal attack on the working class.

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