By Jason Michael
In response to the Ontario government’s attacks on student representation and access for low income students, unions like the Canadian Federation of Students are starting to explore the idea of a student strike. For those of us students who are new to strikes or still learning about unions, we can learn some important lessons from the Québec 2012 student strike.
In 2011, Québec Premier Jean Charest put forth plans to raise tuition by 75%. In response, students began organizing the largest and longest general student strike in North America.
For six months, over 300,000 students shut down all institutions of education from CÉGEP to University, held occupations of economic institutions, disrupted countless Liberal party events, and held nightly demonstrations that made headlines around the world.
By speaking with organizers and examining the history of student organizing, we can see that what made the 2012 student movement so effective — direct democracy, horizontal organizing, and commitment to a sound mobilization strategy.
Their rebellion against the government ended with Charest being ousted from power and the tuition increase scrapped.
For those of us who dreamed of an unlimited general strike in Ontario, we could only watch in awe at what Québec students pulled off.
Unlimited general strikes work. So how do we build them and why haven’t there been any in Ontario?
Those who got their “entitled lazy students” hot takes from the likes of Rex Murphy might have concluded that the prevalence of “rebellious French culture” is what made the strike so successful. In this view, Québecers are somehow more prone to taking to the streets than us loyal “business as usual” anglos.
This lazy pseudo-analysis couldn’t be more wrong. By speaking with organizers and examining the history of student organizing, we can see that what made the 2012 student movement so effective — direct democracy, horizontal organizing, and commitment to a sound mobilization strategy.
We should note that Québec student activism does have a strong history to draw on. Since the Quiet Revolution, the very idea of free education has been ingrained into a shared national identity. Even the Québec Liberal Party promoted free education in one of their early publications from 1960.
Thanks to strikes in 1968, 1974, 1978, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1996, 2005, and 2012, almost every generation of students learned firsthand that a strike is the best tool they have to fight attacks on free education. A cycle of government austerity attacks followed by massive student strike actions has happened so often that it’s become almost ritualistic.
More importantly, having past wins in recent memory reminds people what unions and strikes are supposed to be. Unions give us a voice and a seat at the table with the elites who might have other plans for us. Meanwhile, the strike is how we hit them where it hurts, when we aren’t being heard or respected. Through these means, unions have historically won a better quality of life for its members.
The results speak for themselves. Québec’s legacy of strikes has kept college mostly free and university tuition at around half the cost of Ontario tuition.
These wins are what it takes to keep large working populations from slipping further into becoming a hopeless debtor class, like we have seen in the US and in the rest of Canada.
Another critical difference is how unions are structured. In Québec, many unions are organized by academic departments, with major decisions being made at popular general assemblies or at a congress.
Sometimes this means having student unions as small as 50 people. While this could at times be inefficient, their members enjoy a level of direct democracy and popularity that larger top-down unions can’t provide.
This kind of bottom-up representation isn’t replicated in Ontario. There are no university department unions and general assemblies as a legislative body barely exist.
The top-down, all-encompassing union structure in Ontario might have seemed efficient at one time. But today it has only resulted in mass alienation among the membership, to the point where many if not most students have no idea what their union does or why it even exists.
This lack of popular participation and student oversight has resulted in disgusting amounts of corruption and mismanagement. It also means student unions have largely become a student-funded training ground for political parties.
The 2012 strike taught us that small student-led radical unions can spearhead organizing towards a general strike. By starting small, and gradually growing from win to win, we can build momentum. At a certain point this momentum becomes so big and influential that larger and more mainstream unions have no choice but to join.
But where do we start? Leaflets!
Yes, leafleting. The same boring old leafleting that you always see on campuses. No French cultural secrets or magical formulas. While there were plenty of other tactics used, this was the first — and one we could learn a lot from.
It’s not that Québec students simply had leaflets or that they were amazing leaflets. It’s that they didn’t stop leafleting. Up until the very end, they were leafleting. Every single campus printer was going non-stop and could barely keep up.
If students weren’t leafleting to promote and explain why we need to strike, they were getting others on board to leaflet with them.
If it wasn’t leafleting, it was putting up posters around campus to dispel the blatant lies that corporate-owned media were telling about the students. If it wasn’t postering, it was holding workshops on the general strike and how to win. If it wasn’t workshops, it was making quick videos about their stories and why they need to keep education accessible for all.
There was a role for everyone. And this became critical.
Not everyone is an organizer or a protest superhero, but when you’ve been leafleting all day and you see your efforts dumped on in the news by wealthy men and their corporate lackeys, you get pretty pissed off.
You might make another, more radical leaflet or poster in response and double your efforts. Your crew of leafleters might form into a media committee.
Hundreds of students were agitated and educated this way, before the strike began or a single rally was held. Once agitated and educated, students held massive general assemblies to attain mandates on strike action and provide direction to elected representatives.
In Ontario, rallies are usually the best that our top-down student unions can come up with. We burn ourselves out trying to get people to show up and then become frustrated when nothing comes of it. After a poor turnout, we sometimes vent publicly about how Ontarians need to “wake up!” or some similar aggression.
The lesson to learn is that we can’t skip any steps. We have unions in name, but the students aren’t organized. Let’s fix that. Agitate, educate, and organize your department.
Don’t let the fact that departments aren’t legally recognized unions hold you back. Québec student unions weren’t legalized until 1983. Start holding organizer workshops, build committees, tell your stories, and begin promoting an unlimited general strike to win and defend free education.
Even small wins will inspire others and let them know that they aren’t alone in this struggle. As momentum grows, larger unions will have to follow the lead of organized students.
And don’t stop leafleting!