General assemblies: how to build their legitimacy

Submitted by Joseph Kay on July 11, 2013

When first setting up a student union, it might not be easy to establish the supremacy of the GA as a legitimate thing. Even in Quebec where student unions are widespread and where the general assembly has been rooted in the movement’s culture for decades, the participation in those assemblies is usually between 1 and 3% of all members of the student union. For example, in a college of 3000 students, there’s between 30 and 100 students at regular assemblies. When a one-day strike is voted, the participation varies from 5% to 30%. The highest turnout we have seen is for unlimited strike votes, with a maximum of about 60%. Usually, smaller unions have better participation rates than bigger ones, and undergraduate students are more inclined to come than graduate students.

So, why does the participation rate seem so low? Well, it’s important to understand that capitalism doesn’t encourage participation in democratic structures and impedes it by very materialistic limitations. The need to work and the rhythm imposed by classes and exams are examples of that.

Low participation is a problem, but giving these limitations, we have to deal with that. From the experience we had in Quebec, so long as GA’s are well publicized and open to all, and as long as the union’s executive works hard to communicate the motions voted in the GA’s to all members, then the process will be recognized as democratic by all students – even those who do not participate.

The real issue about setting up a student union is not so much to prove that they are representative, but to impose them as performative institutions. Most students need to understand and experience the concrete effect of GA’s motions before they get really interested in it and respect it. If the union has an official representative function before the administration of the campus, then it’s easy to show students that political positions taken by the GA have an effect on the campus’ life. In the same fashion, if the union has a budget, then students will have an interest in the GA because the union’s spending has a concrete effect.

A start-up union, however, might not have official representative powers or a significant budget. Outside of discursive construction of the GA’s power, one effective way to build recognition of the GA’s supremacy is through single-day strikes. A one-day strike is not a big sacrifice for students, because losing one day of class doesn’t really change your formation. On the other hand, a one day strike cannot be ignored, because by enforcing it, students who came to their classes and didn’t give much attention to the GA then experience the reality of their classes being canceled. They might not agree, but they learn that in order to prevent that for happening, they need to go to the GA. The next time a strike is voted, they might not try to attend their classes. The first ones might be difficult and such a way to build the GA’s supremacy should not be used too soon. But in Quebec, there is such a one day strike once per semester, and this is one of the ways we reproduce, from generation to generation, that idea of the GA’s an institution that has real power over campus life.