Considering the upcoming strike votes in a number of undergraduate student associations, the SSMU wishes to inform the McGill student body about student strikes on our campus. Here are answers to some questions you might have about a possible student strike and what it means for you.
Why did we get an email from McGill about a student strike?
It is standard practice for a University administration faced with the possibility of a student strike to state that university activities will go on as usual during a strike, as you may have seen in the e-mail McGill sent out last week. However, this is not entirely true – read on!
What tuition hikes – and why are people against them?
Students across Quebec are on strike in response to the Charest government’s plan to increase tuition by $1,625 over five years. This tuition hike would affect all students – Quebec, out-of-province, and international – and the government has not specified whether out-of-province and international students would face additional hikes in the near future. The government’s own research shows that up to 7,000 students would choose not to go to university for financial reasons with this increase; thousands more would have to work longer hours during the semester, take on more debt, or drop out since they can’t make ends meet.
For details on why the tuition hike will make postsecondary education less accessible, while failing to resolve the issue of university funding, and on why compensations to the financial aid program wouldn’t help, check out www.tuitiontruth.ca as well as this document produced by the Institut de recherche et d’information socio-économiques: http://www.iris-recherche.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Brochure-English-web.pdf
What’s happening with the strike?
Currently, up to 200 000 university and cégep students are on strike across Quebec, and this number grows on a near-daily basis. McGill is the only Montreal university that has not yet joined this general, unlimited strike movement. The strike is “unlimited” in the sense that its end point is not determined in advance; it will end either when the government negotiates a settlement with student organizations (SSMU’s organization is the Quebec Student Roundtable, or TaCEQ in French) or when students themselves vote to discontinue the strike.
Student associations at McGill that have voted to strike:
- The Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) voted in favor of a three-day strike from March 20-22.
- The Macdonald Campus Students’ Society (MCSS) voted for a one-day strike for March 22.
- The Physical and Occupational Therapy Undergraduate Society (POTUS) have voted for a one-day strike on March 22.
- The Social Work Students’ Association voted in favour of an unlimited strike, which was renewed at a General Assembly on March 26th This strike began on Monday, March 19th.
- The Department of English Student Association (DESA) voted in favour of an unlimited strike starting March 20th, which was not renewed on March 26th.
- The Gender, Sexual Diversity and Feminist Studies Student Association (GSDFSSA) voted in favour of an unlimited strike starting March 21st, which is ongoing.
- The McGill Undergraduate Geography Society (MUGS) voted in favour of an unlimited strike starting March 21st, which is ongoing.
- The Music Undergrduate Students’ Association (MUSA) voted in favour of a one-day strike on March 22nd.
- The Philosophy Students’ Association (PSA) voted in favour of an unlimited student strike starting on March 27th. Hard picket lines will be held for instructors, soft pickets will be held for students, and 200-level, 500-level, and inter-department/cross-listed classes will not be affected.
- The Art History and Communication Studies Students’ Association (AHCSSA) voted in favour of an unlimited student strike on March 26th.
Strike votes in the Faculty of Arts (AUS), Architecture (ASA), Medicine (MSS) and Law (LSA) have not passed and classes will be held as usual.
How does a strike work?
A strike is a collective decision undertaken in support of particular demands. When used by students, it involves not participating in regular class activities for a certain period of time – think of it as putting the semester on “pause”. If a General Assembly of a department or faculty association votes for a strike, many, but not all, students feel strongly that all members of that association should no longer go to class, since students should respect the vote for the same reasons we respect the results of elections, no matter what the results are – because we believe in democracy. Likewise, if a strike vote is not successful, the semester goes on as before, although students are still free to attend demonstrations and other events, ideally after having made arrangements with their instructors to avoid being penalized for missing class.
During a strike, students usually plan a schedule of alternative activities – anything from teach-ins, workshops, and discussions to film screenings and concerts – that striking students can attend when not picketing or attending marches or demonstrations. Students are encouraged to not simply stay home during a strike, but to actively participate in student life.
During a general strike, strike mandates usually last for one week. Students decide to renew or end their strike at the end of that period. The strike motion itself – and the decision to begin a student strike – takes place at General Assemblies (GAs) organized at the faculty or departmental level. GAs are forums for direct, participatory democracy. Unlike online referenda, the GA provides a way for students to debate, amend, and adjust strike motions collectively, so that decisions on how the strike unfolds are subject to deliberation and scrutiny.
What about picket lines?
Typically, picket lines are held in front of classrooms in order to maintain the strike. Picket lines are generally peaceful and aim to inform students that a strike is underway. Under no circumstances should physical or verbal force be used to maintain or to cross a picket line. Regarding academic consequences for students who are prevented from attending class due to picket lines, we cannot speak on behalf of the Administration, therefore we urge you to carefully follow official statements. All we can recommend is that you contact your instructor to inform them of the situation, while forwarding your communication with your instructor to the relevant student association and to the Dean of your Faculty. You may also send your concerns to SSMU Vice-President (University Affairs) Emily Clare at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please also bear in mind that McGill Security’s phone number is 514-398-3000.
What is the university’s position on student strikes?
Please note that the university’s position is that “instructors are not required to accommodate student participation in protest activities. Students who decide to join in strikes, boycotts or other demonstrations remain responsible for any academic activities they miss, such as classes, laboratories, assignments, tests and exams. Normal academic consequences for not completing work, handing work in late, or failing to take examinations will remain applicable.” Students are strongly encouraged to contact their instructors in order to determine what their policy is; some professors and course lecturers may decide to cancel class or otherwise avoid penalizing students for taking part in the strike.
What is the faculty association’s position on student strikes?
The McGill Association of University Teachers has also issues the following statement regarding student strikes: “The MAUT Council supports the rights of students to freely and peaceably express their political views on and off the McGill campus, including positions on university funding and tuition fees. McGill faculty members are obliged by the terms of their appointments to provide teaching services throughout any boycott of classes by students, but should use measure, discretion and good sense in accommodating short-term student absences which are not likely to have a significant impact on the completion of course work.”
How is a strike effective?
When large numbers of students go on strike for a long period of time, the government must make a choice between negotiation with student organizations or extending/cancelling the semester. The government has never cancelled the semester because of a general student strike in Quebec – in fact, it has always sought a settlement, and the end of a student strike.
This is the reason students choose to go on strike; the costs to the Quebec government of cancelling a semester are prohibitively high – much higher than the costs of abandoning their plan to raise tuition. In fact, in the eight instances of general student strikes in Quebec history, a semester has never been cancelled. Cancellation of a semester would cause issues for the government, since there would be no place to put new students in the fall and a glut in the education system would ensue. The Quebec economy would face massive skilled labour shortages if large numbers of students failed to graduate on time, and the government would be deprived of tax revenue by a delay in graduating students’ entry into the workforce.
Because the Quebec government cannot sustain the consequences of a cancelled semester, it is forced to enter negotiations and meet students’ key demands. Most recently, in 2005, an unlimited general strike was organized to oppose $103 million in cuts to Quebec financial aid. An agreement between student organizations and the government reversing the cuts was signed by April 1.
What will happen to the semester?
Typically, after a strike ends, the University administration will determine how classes will be made up. The remainder of the semester’s schedule may be condensed, exams may be pushed back, and in the case of a strike that goes on for longer than one or two weeks, the semester may be extended by several days. For example, during the 2005 general student strike at University of Montreal, students were on strike for just over 6 weeks, and the semester was extended to April 30th or May 6th (including exams), depending on the faculty. Since the current student strike will likely end within one month at the very most, it is likely that McGill will not extend the semester at all.
What is the legal status of a student strike?
All that is not explicitly prohibited by the law is legal. While the Quebec Labour Code limits the rights of workers to strike to certain circumstances, no such law governs student strikes. Because no such law specifically governs student strikes, the applicable legal texts are the constitution and by-laws adopted by student organizations themselves and other generally applied laws, such as municipal by-laws and criminal law. Student strikes must respect the rules governing student associations regarding any democratic vote (quorum for the general assembly, delays to be respected in terms of advance notice for the general assembly, etc.). Student strikes are perfectly legal as long as they respect the constitution and by-laws of the student associations that vote in favour of them. The right to peaceful assembly is also enshrined in the Canadian and Québec Charters and is recognized under McGill University’s Charter of Students’ Rights.
Moreover, once the ultimate deciding body of a student association takes a decision in favour of a strike, the executive committee of the association in question has the mandate to carry out the will of the general assembly. In a serious student strike, the members of the association’s executive committee have a responsibility to ensure that classes are not held, and that students are not penalized for participating in a strike. However, each individual student also has rights to decide what their actions will be.
Hundreds of thousands of students in most universities and colleges across the province are still on strike, and precedent suggests that it is likely that many will not be penalized on an academic level for choosing to do so. The administration of McGill University has so far refused to not penalize students for participating in the strike; however, SSMU and other student associations
I’m an international student. How will the strike affect me?
As an international student, we have no reason to believe that your legal status in Quebec will not be affected by a student strike. When you apply to renew your study permit, the government looks at your registration status in the university you attend. Because students remain registered in their classes during a general strike, the reapplication process has no way of detecting whether or not you are physically present in your university classrooms. Student associations should also work with the International Students’ Services (ISS) to help international students avoid problems with their visas or permits, if a strike vote passes.
What is SSMU’s position on tuition increases?
Following a mandate passed at the Fall 2011 SSMU General Assembly, the SSMU is opposed to all tuition increases, with a long-term goal that tuition fees be entirely replaced by alternative means of financing post-secondary education.
Still have questions?
Email Joël Pedneault, the Vice-President External of the SSMU, at email@example.com.