Common Misconceptions on Student Strikes

Common Misconceptions on Student Strikes

Montreal (Quebec) 5 April 2015 – Last Wednesday, my faculty voted to go on strike. At first, many thought this was an April Fool’s prank – McGill’s Faculty of Law hasn’t ever gone on strike (at least not in living memory), even not during the height of the 2012 protests that rocked the province. I admit I’m still uncertain about this course of action, but if anything, it certainly uncovered a lot of unfounded objections that need clearing up.

Organised student protest is nothing new, with student strikes having a clear and established tradition in Québec going at least as far back as the Quiet Revolution. It’s surprising then that so many of the basic objections to a student strike, long ago rendered obsolete by civil discourse, continue to pop up. Below are a few of the most common ones, addressed in no particular order.

“It’s not a strike, it’s a boycott!”

Some would have you believe that because students pay for their education, they are actually recipients of services and that therefore the term “boycott” would be more appropriate. The loaded intention behind the term “boycott” is immediately obvious – it paints students as strictly consumers receiving a public good, and thus easily opens the door to portraying students as spoiled brats, unhappy with what they’re being so generously given by the state and always whining for more.

The narrow-minded idea that only those who are paid wages for their labour are able to strike shows both a fundamental misunderstanding of both the flexible economics of work as well as the value of students. Even Ayn Rand, in Atlas Shrugged, acknowledged that the ability to go on “strike” was not limited to wage-earning labourers, but was open to any socially-mandated economic exchange of value. Students are not strictly recipients of services – they provide well-established and proven value to society for their work. The direction the money flows is irrelevant – a strike is about one side stopping the flow of value to an economic exchange through its intentional cessation of labour. Students refusing to attend classes fits the definition as well as any libertarian fantasy Ms. Rand could think of.

“Go on strike, fine, but don’t prevent others from going to class!”

The obstruction of classes during a student strike is definitely one of the more divisive and controversial tactics used in student protest. It places students in direct opposition to university staff, or worse, to their fellow students. I’m exceedingly uncomfortable with it myself and this issue alone has often swayed my vote. However, as with any collective action, a strike requires some means of enforcement on non-cooperating students in order to be effective.

The strength of any collective protest is that individuals are protected from excessive individual burdens by their strength in numbers. This crowd protection is often essential in allowing protest to happen in the first place, since it lowers the actual individual cost involved in protesting and enables more people to participate in the political process. While some heroic individuals may decide to bear the full burden of their decisions alone and protest regardless of their numbers, reliance on individual heroes is not how democracies operate. In the case of student protests, when classes are held regardless of a strike mandate it puts additional burden on students to catch up – on their own time – for the classes they refused to attend. Obstruction of classes, combined with extremely low (or nil) attendance, instead forces the cancellation of those classes and a relative equalization of burdens on all students to cover the course material in a protracted manner.

Distasteful as it is, methods of enforced compliance are necessary for a student strike – like any strike – to be effective. It’s worth noting that the overwhelming majority of student associations outright reject any use of violence. All things considered, when you consider how the state regularly enforces compliance using state-sanctioned violence (police, prison, etc.), it’s not an excessively difficult pill to swallow.

“Student associations don’t even have the legal right to strike!”

It’s still up for debate if Québec law allows student associations to go on strike, and if so, exactly how. Courts so far have tended to side against any right to physically block access to classes, but not much else. Fundamentally though, it just doesn’t matter whether that legal right exists.

None of the activities involved in a student strike would otherwise be illegal and need special sanction by the state. Joining in student associations that hold votes to decide various matters is not illegal. Failure to attend classes is not illegal. Non-violent means of obstructing classes (such as standing in doorways and making noise) are not illegal – they only become illegal if they are continued after the owners of the buildings themselves ask that they stop, and so far most student strikes have respected directions by campus security or police to cease their obstructing activity when asked. The existence or non-existence of a legal right for students to strike is absolutely irrelevant, since none of the activities involved in a student strike require special legal permission.

“You shouldn’t complain, you have the lowest tuition in North America!”

First, in many parts of the rest of North America student debt is rapidly approach crisis levels. Have you considered that the rest of North America might not have such absurdly high tuition if students there were more willing to protest in the first place?

Second, though, is that this assumes all student strikes are about tuition or student services. That isn’t true – the current student protest movement is in opposition to austerity in general. Which leads us to…

“Students seem to be protesting about every imaginable issue at the same time!”

When you go vote, are you asked to vote for each issue? That would actually be great, but that’s not how collective activities work. Just like you vote for a candidate who generally aligns with your way of thinking, student protests (and mass protests in general) are about opposition to a general government alignment. Voters may support a candidate for a variety of reasons – sometimes even contradictory ones – but they’re still valid votes in favour of a candidate. Participation in a mass protest movement is much the same. Each protester has their own reasons for participating, and these reasons may not align perfectly with every other protester, but that doesn’t invalidate their participation in the protest.

Student protests have been a key component of social change since at least the time of Victor Hugo and Les Misérables. It’s especially worth noting that, perhaps historically more so than today, students tend to come from more privileged backgrounds than the average, while student protests largely focus on helping the underprivileged. As incoherent as the message might be, that resonance rings clear in the current protests as well. If anything, it should be a clear marker that Québec society is in good hands when the future of our society’s privilege-holders is willing to put itself on the line for the good of those who may not be able to help themselves.

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Categories: Opinion

About Author

Farnell Morisset

Farnell Morisset is passionate about discussing (among other things) the issues of modern social identity for many Québécois who, like him, feel deeply connected to the Québécois nation and culture yet do not identify with the traditional francophone non-practicing Catholic nationalist image. He has an engineering degree from Université Laval and is currently a law student at McGill University.

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