1. Context

The education system

When discussing the education system in Quebec, an important and unique characteristic should be taken into account. Between high school and university, there’s an institution called the CEGEP, where students can choose to enroll in either a two-year program or a three-year technical program. The former leads to university while the latter is oriented toward direct integration into the job market. In the context of Quebec and this text, they are also commonly referred to as colleges.

Important aspects of these CEGEP’s (colleges) include the mixing of students from different programs in core classes such as French, philosophy and sports, as well as the fact that the education is free, excluding nominal administration and other fees.

Because of the existence of these institutions, university undergraduate programs are only three years long (as opposed to four years found elsewhere in Canada and the USA) and high schools have one less year (eleven, instead of twelve).

Universities in Quebec, like CEGEPs, are all state-funded for the most part, and tuition (contribution by students) is fixed by law: universities can’t choose to charge higher or lower tuition, except for the institutional fees such as registration, administration etc. Furthermore, tuition doesn’t vary from one program to another.

While the total cost of enrollment has gone up over the years through institutional fees, the average cost of attending university for a year in Quebec — around $2500 — is still relatively low by international standards. This is partially due to the fact that in 1968, after a general student strike, tuition was frozen at $500 a year. The tuition remained frozen up until 1990 when it was raised to $930 and again in 2007. Even so, when the government announced in 2011 that it would increase the tuition fees by $1625, it created a lot of discontent.

The student unions

Though student unions in Quebec have existed in their current form since the mid-sixties, they were only recognised by law in 1983. The law establishes various privileges for student unions such as automatic membership of and levy from all students, seats on various councils such as the administrative board, designated office space and a billboard provided by the campus.

In CEGEPs, only one student union exists per institution. This is important, because 60% of CEGEP students are enrolled in a technical program. Even though most of them don’t go on to university, and a hike in university tuition fees is unlikely to affect them directly, as members of the student union they’re encouraged to participate in discussions, decision-making and organizing. Each CEGEP student unions typically has a membership of 2000 to 6000 students. In total, CEGEP students make up about 200,000 of the 450,000 students enrolled in post-secondary education in Quebec.

In universities, the structure of student unions is less homogeneous; it varies from one institution to another. There are small departmental unions, unions based on the university programs and large, campus-wide unions. Some unions are structured as federations of smaller unions, others not. Some lump both undergrad and grad students into one union, while in other institutions they’ll have separate bodies. As a result of all this, university student unions tend to exhibit more sectarian dynamics, with unions in different parts of the same university that could have entirely different politics and practices, ranging from radical and anti-capitalist to complacent and conservative.

In addition to these local unions, there are also province-wide federations of unions. Three exist today in Quebec : FECQ, FEUQ and ASSE1.

FECQ and FEUQ are sister organizations, the former grouping CEGEP student unions and the latter, campus-wide university student unions or governments. Both are quite conventional unions, similar to labour federations. Their organizing is top-down, highly centralized and bureaucratic. In terms of politics, they defend leftist values, opposed the tuition fee hike and supported the strike — in limited fashion. The two student groups are close to the Parti Quebecois, one of the two mainstream political parties in the province. Before the 2012 strike, together they represented over 180,000 students and were considered by politicians and media as the legitimate representatives of students.

ASSE, with its emphasis on direct democracy and direct action, is the more radical union. Before the strike, it had a membership of only 45,000 students. With an understanding that more unions would need to join to build a sufficiently large opposition movement, ASSE created a strike coalition, CLASSE by temporarily opening up its structures and conditions to join.

  • 1. FECQ : Fédération Étudiante Collégiale du Québec (Quebec Federation of College Students)
    FEUQ : Fédération Étudiante Universitaire du Québec (Quebec Federation of University Students)
    ASSÉ : Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (Association for Solidarity among Student Unions)

What’s an unlimited general student strike?

It’s important to understand what is meant by “unlimited general strike”. In Quebec, a student strike isn’t just a bunch of rallies, marches and occupations. The strike is a complete shutdown of all courses on campus : no classes, no exams and no evaluations are to take place while the strike is on. Once the strike is voted in a general assembly and comes into effect, picket lines are erected and classrooms are emptied. Everyone, students and faculty alike, is forced to respect the strike mandate. Universities and colleges affected by the strike see their academic calendars disrupted, and since no classes or grading is allowed to happen, degrees can’t be awarded.

While student unions are recognized by university administrations and by the government, student strikes, however, have no such legal standing. Although not illegal in and of themselves, most of the tactics used by students to enforce their strikes are.

A common argument made to delegitimize this tactic suggests that students were the only ones losing out by going on strike. Since they already paid for the education, boycotting it made no sense. Would anyone go to Wal-Mart, buy a TV and then just leave it boxed up in the living room as a form of protest?

However, student strikes are more similar to worker strikes than they might seem at first glance. Of course, students are penalized by missing their classes, just like workers losing out on their paycheck. But, when the goal is to massively paralyze the education system — which can be understood as a factory producing wage workers — then huge sectors of the economy could be threatened by a workforce shortage.

The fact that business and state officials have claimed and shown that student strikes shouldn’t be tolerated is further proof that they’re an effective way of applying pressure.

In short, the strike is a complete blockade of classes; it’s unlimited when the general assemblies vote to maintain this blockade as long as the issue isn’t settled; and it’s general when lots of unions and campuses join the movement.

During the 2012 strike, most student unions held general assemblies every week to decide whether or not to stay on strike until the next assembly. While doing so, students meeting each other could also discuss the orientation and the actions of the movement. These regular and populous assemblies were fundamental in creating empowerment and a deep investment into the movement among students.

In large universities with tens of thousands of students, the strike was voted and enforced at the departmental or the school level, never campus-wide. Not only is it virtually impossible to build up enough cohesion to effectively enforce a strike at that level, but holding regular general assemblies with more than about 3000 participants is a logistical nightmare. On the other hand, strikes in smaller institutions, (typically under 7000 students) were voted and enforced campus-wide.

Past student strikes

Any context to the 2012 student strike in Quebec wouldn’t be complete without a few words about the history of the student movement in the province.

It wasn’t the first time students resorted to an unlimited general strike as a means of protest. This type of collective action by the student movement actually goes back a long way; up to 1968 to be exact. Similar strikes also happened in 1974, 1978, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1996 and 2005. In the majority of cases, students were successful in either blocking counter-reforms or making outright gains in terms of keeping tuition low and winning improvements to student financial aid, a government program of loans and bursaries.

When bringing up the necessity of an unlimited general strike, student unions could draw on a history of struggles in which students not only gave themselves a fighting chance, but actually made real, tangible change.

Comparing 2012 with previous student strikes in the province isn’t without its limits, however. Never before had a strike movement involved so many students and campuses all at once. Already, the 2005 strike had established a record in terms of duration of a student strike (7 weeks), and yet that record was shattered by students in 2012, with the strike lasting over six months.

Events leading up to strike

By the time the government of Quebec announced the tuition hike in 2012, it was already a well-known policy item of the ruling party. In fact, tuition had already been increasing steadily by about $100 a year since 2007. When this previous hike came into effect, we tried to launch an unlimited general strike in opposition, but failed: the strike never got started.

In March 2010, the government announced its intention to step up the rate of increase starting in September 2012, but without giving out any specific details. We knew, however, that the hike would be bigger and hit harder than in 2007. Concrete plans were drawn up to block the new hike using an unlimited general strike.

But the tuition hike was quite an important policy for the government. Along with implementing new user-fees and a special tax in the public healthcare sector1 as well as a hike in electricity fees2, the hike was part of a so-called “cultural revolution” in public services pricing pushed by the province’s finance minister. These measures were justified by the precarious state of public finances and the need to progressively eliminate the deficit — a discourse very much in tune with austerity politics being implemented globally.

Though we knew that taking on such a central policy for the government would be difficult, we couldn’t imagine student unions standing idle.