Can Students Strike?

Concordia Student Leaders Challenge University’s Charges and Code of Conduct

Concordia security recorded protesters during a class disruption on Monday, March 23, 2015. Photo Shaun Michaud

There’s a war on wording between former and current presidents within Concordia University.

At the university’s Board of Governors meeting on Wednesday Oct. 28, Concordia Student Union President Terry Wilkings questioned Concordia President Alan Shepard and other senior administration for their inconsistent stance on last semester’s student strikes.

Last spring, students throughout Quebec went on strike to protest austerity measures implemented by the provincial government. Departmental student associations at Concordia held general assemblies to decide whether they should strike or not.

After many associations successfully voted to strike, protesters had to picket and disrupt classes to enforce the mandates. In response, three Concordia professors filed formal charges against 25 student-protesters around mid-April.

The professors believe students violated Article 29G of the school’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities. The article states that members are free to engage in peaceful and orderly protest, as long as classes or university activities aren’t disrupted.

Graham Dodds is one of the professors who filed a charge for disruption during one of his Political Science classes on April 1. The identities of the 25 students and the other two professors aren’t public.

After initially saying they wouldn’t get involved, the university became co-complainants with the professors under this code at the end of May. About a month ago, the tribunals were suspended, as students and professors entered mediation. There was no university rep, however.

Last semester, senior administration set a new precedent by publicly using the term “strike” to acknowledge the mandates voted on by student associations. Previously, Concordia referred to the 2012 demonstrations and pickets as part of a “boycott.”

This year, on March 23 and April 2, the university cancelled classes for striking departments to hold days of “dialogue and reflection” between students and faculty. Since the strikes began last semester,

Shepard and other admin have recognized students’ democratic right to strike, but emphasized that safety on campus is their number one concern.

Wilkings says that if safety is their priority, then students shouldn’t be charged under a part of the Code that doesn’t deal with this issue. He believes the use of Article 29G would be warranted if the university clearly stated they’re against disrupting classes, but they haven’t.

In the event of harassment or property damage, he says other articles in the code exist to charge students with, if necessary. Although no personal harm or property damage was reported during last term’s strikes.

Back-and-forth at board

At the Wednesday board meeting, Shepard said he doesn’t have the statutory right to suspend the Code for anyone. The Board of Governors is the highest decision-making body at Concordia and includes three student representatives.

He also discussed an alleged arrangement with student leaders where the university wouldn’t call the police as long as there weren’t injuries or property damage.

“You kept your word on that, we kept our word on that,” Shepard said on Wednesday in a back-and-forth with Wilkings.

The Code allows for peaceful protesting, but Shepard stressed students don’t have the right to noisily disrupt proceedings within university buildings. The tribunal will determine whether the students broke article 29G in the Code, he concluded.

“They’re upset,” Shepard said at the board meeting, regarding the 25 students who were charged. “The three professors, I promise you, are equally upset.”

Shepard also mentioned that by becoming co-complainants, the university could provide “security support.”

In an email, university spokesperson Chris Mota clarified that this support meant providing any type of information from the security department. She added that becoming a co-complainant demonstrates administrative support for the Code.

The Code is discriminatory against students, because it doesn’t affect faculty, according to former CSU President Benjamin Prunty. Teaching unions could strike—thus disrupting university activities—and not be charged, he said at the board meeting.

Article 9 of the Code states it cannot “be applied in such a way as to detract from the rights of unions or employee associations to defend the interests of their members and to exercise their rights under a collective or employee agreement.”

Recently, the Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association released a letter saying they “wholeheartedly” support any form of non-violent protest students choose to engage in.

Former CUPFA President Maria Peluso reiterated her union’s stance at the Wednesday meeting, but said students must be willing to take the risk of formal consequence from striking and engaging in “civil disobedience.”

Strikes this semester

No classes were cancelled for students from the four departments who voted to strike this past week. Students from Liberal Arts College and the School of Community and Public Affairs held weeklong strikes, while two graduate programs were on strike solely on Nov. 5.

Students from Liberal Arts and SCPA discovered classes wouldn’t be cancelled when they received almost identical emails from their respective department chairs. The emails emphasized the university Code should be respected at all times, again citing Article 29G.

The emails further stated that the term won’t be extended and students are responsible for any missed work and making deadlines. Mota says there was collaboration between senior admin and the department chairs in writing the emails.

“There has to be a coordinated effort,” she said.

How the past week of striking will affect resumed mediation is unknown, according to Katie Nelson, Chair of the Students of Philosophy Association. She is acting as the representative of philosophy students—who voted to strike last semester—in the talks.

Her hope is that Shepard respects and communicates with student-protesters rather than “simply sanctioning them under the Code.”

A shift in position

A gap of leadership is growing between the school’s senior administration and the efforts of students, Wilkings says.

“The university is adopting an untenable position in the long term,” he said.

Wilkings believes the email sent to Liberal Arts and SCPA students is a shift in position from senior administration. The email uses the word “strike” once within quotation marks. Wilkings refers to these as “scare quotes.”

The change in position illustrates how the new administration is unfamiliar with the proactive community of Quebec, according to Wilkings. Shepard became Concordia’s president in the fall of 2012 after holding the role of vice-president at Ryerson University.

“They come from universities where this doesn’t occur,” he said. “Perhaps they’re hardening because they’re more acclimatized to what’s going on in the province.”

Students have improved their democratic processes by eliminating the possibility of disrupting cross-listed classes—courses that share two programs—during strikes, according to Wilkings.

This is significant, he said, as one of the tensest moments of last semester’s strikes occurred on March 23 during a cross-listed class between SCPA, which had a strike mandate, and Political Science, which didn’t at the time. Some students and protesters were seen shouting at one another, almost coming to blows.

As students better their striking processes, Wilkings suggests the university could improve how they handle strikes by mobilizing more students to attend the general assemblies when mandates are voted on.

“I’ve been encouraging them to do that,” he said.

Mediation suspended

Mediation between the 25 students facing charges and three professors is currently on hiatus. The contract of the mediator hired to facilitate a resolution ended last month, according to Mota.

All parties involved in mediation need to find and agree on a new mediator that they’re comfortable with and who is impartial, said Nelson. Like the university, she added she’s unsure when mediations will resume.

She hopes the university has more discussions with the charged students and their representatives in terms of finding a new mediator. The fact that a dialogue happened with the professors is important, Nelson said, but she couldn’t comment on what was specifically discussed due to a confidentiality agreement.

Correction: The Board of Governors meeting was on a Wednesday and not Friday. The Link regrets the error.