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Québec students vote for unlimited general strike

AFEA general assembly, photo  by Éloi Halloran
By: 
Jonathan Turcotte-Summers (studentstrike2019.info)

March 4, 2019

Québec post-secondary students, who launched the largest and longest student strike in Canadian history in 2012, are now gearing up for another one to begin on March 18.

The minimum threshold agreed upon by the student associations in order to trigger an unlimited general strike is 20,000 students in at least 3 regions of the province. It might have been harder than expected, but that threshold was surpassed on February 21.

At the time of writing, it appears that more than 30,000 students in 6 regions of the province will walk out later this month.

But what makes this strike different from that of 2012?

First, there’s how these students are organizing, foregoing the traditional centralized and hierarchical union structure. Instead, they’re opting for a loose affiliation of autonomous associations and Student Work Unitary Committees (Comités unitaires sur le travail étudiant, or CUTEs) that are organized in concentric circles institutionally, regionally, and province-wide.

But this strike is also different in terms of what students are fighting for. It’s not just the usual reaction to a tuition hike or cuts to student aid, but an increasingly rare attempt to actually gain some ground against capital and the state that manages its affairs.

Their specific demand is a fair wage for all student internships and the basic protections afforded under Québec labour law. This may not seem revolutionary, but it’s a demand rooted in an understanding of studies themselves as a form of intellectual labour, and students as workers deserving of recognition and remuneration like all others. Furthermore, it’s a demand firmly situated in a fundamental critique of the overwhelming amounts of unrecognized and unremunerated labour — mostly by women and racialized peoples — required to prop up capitalism.

In addition to building on the legacy of their own formidable student movement, Québec’s student activists today draw inspiration from the 1946 Charter of Grenoble by the National Union of Students in France, as well as the Wages for Housework and Wages for Students campaigns of the 1970s.

It’s Wages for Students activists George Caffentzis, Monty Neill, and John Willshire-Carrera who point out that “putting an end to unwaged labor in all its forms would destabilize, indeed terminate, the capitalist system.”

An escalation of tactics

It’s with this in mind that the inaugural CUTEs were formed at some of the province’s cegeps and universities in 2016. They organized their first public action in September 2016 and stepped up their tactics in 2017, including a one-day strike of 30,000 students in February, and another strike of 20,000 to mark International Interns’ Day in November. The following year saw large one-day strikes on February 20, March 8, March 20, and March 22.

Organizing continued in the fall of 2018, leading to a week of strikes from November 19 to 23. In total, some 58,000 cegep and university students from 39 different associations across the province went on strike during that period, some for one day and others for the entire week.

All of this building up to a planned unlimited general strike (grève générale illimitée, or GGI) in the winter of 2019 — unless the new right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec government capitulates to their demands.

The first student association to vote in favour of an unlimited general strike back in mid-January was the Quebec Association of Student Midwives (Association des étudiantes sages-femmes du Québec, or AÉSFQ). With only about 80 members and based out of the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, this small association embodies the fighting feminist spirit at the heart of the entire movement.

Over the weeks and months to follow, through a long, drawn-out, and halting series of general assemblies and referenda, they would be joined by students in the social sciences, fine arts, education, journalism, philosophy, languages, and law, among others.

But some of the largest student associations joining the strike come not from the province’s universities, but from its idiosyncratic cegeps (pre-university and vocational colleges). These include the 8,184 students at Collège Ahuntsic and the 4,100 students at Cégep Marie-Victorin — both in working-class northern Montréal.

Students still face uphill battle

The 20,000 student threshold might not yet have been attained without the student movement’s new, more nimble and dynamic organizational structure. After a surprise “no” vote in the education faculty at Université du Québec à Montréal, the CUTE at that institution realized its action plan was at risk. So it swiftly convened an emergency meeting and determined it would be best to establish a proposed start date for the strike, but one late enough in the semester to give student associations sufficient time to organize. March 18 would soon be adopted as the generally accepted start date for all associations voting on the strike.

Still, it appears that about half the students who walk out that day will not in fact be on an unlimited general strike, but only a week-long one. How many of those will renew their strike action beyond March 22? Will the student movement demonstrate the resilience, resolve, and solidarity needed to sustain the strike for as long as it takes to win?

It also remains to be seen whether the striking students will be able to successfully link with other potentially anti-capitalist efforts such as Indigenous land struggles, the Fight for $15, the growing school strike for the climate, and the Gilets Jaunes uprising in France (not the violent racist poseurs here in Canada).

Check out studentstrike2019.info for regular updates on the Québec student strike movement.


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