Do Students Have a Right to Strike?

Panel Debates Merits of Regulating Student Protests Like Labour Strikes

  • Pascale Dufour (left), a Université de Montréal Professor, and FEUQ representative Jonathan Bouchard (right) were among the panelists present to discuss whether or not students should be legally able to go on strike. Photo Natalia Lara Díaz-Berrio

  • Gene Morrow , VP Academic and Advocacy for the Concordia Student Union, engages in the discussion with panelists. Photo Natalia Lara Díaz-Berrio

  • During the student strike of 2012, picket lines were formed at Concordia. Photo Brian Lapuz

During the days of the historic Quebec student strike of 2012, protesters, detractors, media analysts and those caught in the crossfire of nightly—and sometimes violent—marches routinely debated the right of students to strike. Over 18 months later, Jonathan Bouchard says it hasn’t changed much.

“It is safe to say that we are at crossroads today regarding the student’s right to strike,” said the representative of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, the largest student interest group in the province, during a panel discussion hosted by Concordia University’s School of Community and Public Affairs last Tuesday.

About 40 people attended the event at the Samuel Bronfman Building.

“When it comes to giving the state the responsibility of determining what the strike is, how it’s done, it’s extremely risky,” said Benjamin Gingras, a student at the Université du Québec à Montréal and spokesperson of the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, Quebec’s other major student interest group.

“There’s clear state interference with how students organize.”

Adrienne Gibson, a member of the Quebec Bar Association, echoed the concerns of her fellow panellists, saying she thinks that rights to protest and assembly are quickly limited by too much legislation.

“When you legislate, you limit the right,” she said. “It will be the judges who will decide the extent of it, and we know what judges think about strikes.”

Panellist Pascale Dufour is an associate professor in political science at the Université de Montréal studying social movements in comparative politics. She says she thinks a lack of clarity to current legislation on student striking might be advantageous to students because it allows them to push the limits of what strike tactics they can employ without breaking the law.

It is also important to put Quebec’s situation in a global context, according to Gibson. She says that the situation in the province is unique because it is the only place in the world where student associations are recognized by law and act as unions.

“The main element is money,” she said. “Student associations, like unions, in Quebec have the power to receive student contributions, […] which is completely different from what you can find in other countries.”

Dufour says that legislating students’ right to strike could be advantageous to the movement in different ways.

For one thing, having a legal on-strike status would help students make inroads and mobilize with other activist groups, such as labour unions and women’s interest groups, she said.

Dufour added that a legal framework around students’ rights would make the student movement more efficient.

“If you have a legal right to strike and if you are recognized as a union, you can put more energy in times of crisis into the strike itself and not in the respect of the strike by the students who disagree with the mandate,” she said.

Gingras said he does not think that the right to strike is unique to workers, or that it should only be recognized in the Quebec Labour Code.

“The right to strike existed before the labour code did,” he said.

He says that students recognize themselves as “intellectual workers,” which gives them the right to strike.

“We are not customers or clients of our colleges or universities, we are an active part of it,” he said.

“We contribute to making the institution alive, not just as students but as researchers. When we go on strike, we are doing a political action by suspending our academic implications.”

Although he said the best course of action is for students to not have their power to strike regulated, Bouchard said he is concerned that court injunctions employed in response to strike tactics may have now become a precedent.

During the Maple Spring protests, multiple students sought and were awarded injunctions by Quebec courts in an attempt to bypass protesters and attend their classes.

“A new strike would have that in mind where injunctions are possible and injunctions do work,” he said. “If there is another strike, it will be in society’s minds that individual actions can be more important than collective decisions.”

How to deal with the possibility of injunctions in the future is a debated subject. Dufour and Gibson both suggested that each student association negotiate contracts with their university.

“The benefit of working with the universities and the unions would be that you’re not dealing with the government,” said Gibson.

“The flip side is that it is not going to be evenly distributed [among universities],” she continued.

“It could be an interesting focus for the student groups at this time.”

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