About the strike 1
Rally at the Université de Sherbrooke in February 2018. Photo: Radio-Canada

A New Direction for the Student Movement

As elsewhere, students in the province of Quebec are routinely exploited as free labour through the practice of unpaid internships. Some argue it’s enough that these internships provide necessary on-the-job learning experiences. However, we reply that unpaid internships not only constitute training for future exploitation, but exploitation in and of themselves; student interns are in fact paying tuition to be exploited. Unpaid internships also represent financial barriers for working-class people who can’t afford to work for free, and are particularly prevalent in female-dominated fields, contributing to the continued oppression of women. Furthermore, unpaid internships result in cost-cutting through the elimination of secure, well-paying, full-time jobs with benefits — in other words, increased precarity for all workers.

It’s with these concerns in mind that the first Comités unitaires sur le travail étudiant (CUTEs), or Student Work Unitary Committees (SWUCs), were formed at the province’s cegeps [1] and universities in 2016. Rather than organizing through the traditional channels of the province-wide student federations, each CUTE coordinated locally with the student associations at its home institution. The CUTEs and allied student associations then organized regionally through Coalitions for the Remuneration of Internships (in Quebec City, Montreal, Sherbrooke, and the Outaouais, for example).

Their demand: a fair wage for all student interns, and the protections afforded to workers under the Quebec Labour Code.

About the strike 2
Protesting students at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). Photo: Montréal Campus

Escalation of Tactics

The CUTEs organized their first public action, a banner drop, at the Liberal provincial government’s Forum Ideas for Quebec in Longueuil in September 2016. Demonstrations and disruptions multiplied in 2017, including a one-day strike of 30,000 students to coincide with the National Conference on Manpower in Quebec City in February, and another strike of 20,000 to mark International Interns’ Day in November. The following year saw large one-day strikes on February 20, March 8, March 20, and March 22. [2]

In March 2018, the provincial government announced that Quebec’s student teachers would be receiving $3,900 in compensation for their final internship — a first in Canada. The CRAIES [3], which had been campaigning for such a measure since 2014, celebrated a hard-won victory. However, this concession by the government ignored the work done by student teachers during their other internships, let alone falling well short of the CUTEs’ demand for the recognition of all student interns as workers deserving of an adequate salary and appropriate working conditions. In addition, such half-measures risk creating divisions in the student movement.

Organizing by the CUTEs thus continued in the fall of 2018, leading to a week of strikes from November 19 to 23. In total, some 58,000 cegep and university students from 39 different associations across the province went on strike during that period, some for one day and others for the entire week.

About the strike 3
A student holds a sticker reading “Ultimatum: remunerate all internships at all levels or it’s a strike.” Photo: Zacharie Routhier

Toward an Unlimited General Strike

Faced with the continued intransigence of the new Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) government, the CUTEs are now mobilizing for an unlimited general strike in the winter of 2019. However, strikes must be approved and carried out by individual student associations, which are recognized as legal entities with special status akin to labour unions under Quebec law, and they typically include as members all the students in a certain academic department, faculty, or institution. Such associations may have elected executives to manage their day-to-day affairs, but important decisions (i.e., whether or not to strike) are usually made in General Assemblies (GAs) in which all members are invited to participate. GAs are an example of participatory and deliberative democracy, and decisions made there are binding on the entire association.

It’s important to note that strikes are among the most powerful organizing weapons in the arsenal of the working class. As opposed to boycotts or walkouts, they represent the deliberate withholding of labour, and a student strike in particular constitutes an exercise of students’ power as workers. Quebec has seen at least nine major student strikes since 1968, including, most notably, the historic 2012 effort. That strike led to months of civil unrest, the electoral defeat of the sitting government, and the cancellation of a 75% tuition increase.

One of the things that make the 2019 strike so different, however, is that it is not being organized around simply keeping the cost of education down, but around students as themselves being owed wages. In other words, students are no longer considered as consumers of a commodity called education, but as intellectual workers.

For more information about the strike, check out the Audio & video, Texts, and Materials sections of this website. To keep up to date, follow this website, our Twitter account, and our Facebook page. And, even if you understand only very little French, you should also consider following the CUTEs on Twitter and Facebook.

[1] “Cegep” is an acronym for Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel, or General and Vocational College. Created by the government of Quebec in 1967, cegeps are post-secondary institutions that provide both two-year pre-university and three-year technical programs.

[2] This historical overview of the campaign has been adapted from http://www.grevedesstages.info/historique (in French)

[3] CRAIES stands for Campagnes de revendications et d’actions interuniversitaires des étudiant.es en éducation en stage, or Interuniversity Advocacy and Action Campaign for Student Interns in Education.