During the student conflict in Quebec this past spring, the then governing Liberals used the term “boycott” to describe the university and college students who refused to go to class to protest against proposed tuition fee increases. The students, the government reasoned, were not “on strike,” as that refers to the withdrawal of their labour, which doesn’t really make sense in this context.
Mere semanitics? Not necessarily. The legality of student strikes in Quebec was never seriously contested before this year, but the massive social disruption caused by the recent protests has underlined to many observers the importance of clarifying the issue before the next time students take to the streets.
In Quebec, student associations are governed by legislation known as Law 32, which sets out students’ rights of association and representation, but which makes no mention of the right to strike. That “right” was more of a social consensus, a tradition built up over the years, says Alec Castonguay in an excellent blog post on the issue.
But many people started to question that right as the student protests escalated, particularly the manner in which the strike votes were organized by the student associations. In some instances, only 10 percent of eligible students participated in strike votes. As well, some students complained of feeling intimidated from voting against a strike as these votes were sometimes held by an open show of hands. “The spring protests in effect exposed the gaps in the practices of the associations, to the point of putting in doubt the legitimacy of their decisions,” wrote Brigitte Breton in an editorial in Le Soleil entitled “Student democracy or anarchy?”
Further questions were raised about the right of students to set up picket lines on or adjacent to campuses to prevent dissenting students from attending classes. Some students went to court seeking injunctions against the student associations from blocking access to campus while others filed a class action lawsuit against educational institutions for their failure to deliver courses, further exposing the legal landmines created by the protests.
Crucially, as some commentators have pointed out, the right to strike – such as that accorded to labour unions – is also counterbalanced by certain responsibilities and obligations on the part of those unions. “The privilege is granted carefully and jealously, with legal regulation of the decision-making procedures that lead to a strike, as well as of the picketing and protesting activity that can accompany it,” wrote Jacob Levy, the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory and an associate professor of political science at McGill University, in a recent article in Academic Matters. He continues:
“The [student] boycotters helped themselves to the privileges accorded to labour unions and claimed the right to be able to create a ‘strike’ binding on dissenting students (not to mention instructors) while upholding none of the responsibilities of labour unions: publicly authorized quorum rules and voting procedures agreed upon in advance, limitations on the time and place of picketing, and so on. This was the source of the ugliest confrontations on campuses. Many universities and CEGEPs sought to remain open for students who wished to attend class, and ultimately called on police to enforce court injunctions against their classrooms being blocked by protesters.”
This led to something from which we should all recoil, said Dr. Levy: “professors who wanted to teach and students who wanted to learn being prevented from doing so by aggressive masked protesters who blocked classrooms or disrupted classes … This left the universities and colleges affected by the boycott with no tolerable choices; they were cornered by the boycotters’ claim that they could legitimately decide to shut classes down.”
Recently, in response to these issues, Quebec’s new minister of higher education, Pierre Duchesne, mused openly that perhaps student associations in fact should be given the legal right to strike. That idea was quickly condemned by La Presse editorial writer Andre Pratte as “one right too many.”
The inconveniences of such legislation “would be much greater than its advantages,” he wrote. “It would create a precedent: for the first time, it would give to a group of beneficiaries of a service provided by the State the right to deprive other persons of that service.” An editorial in the Montreal Gazette made much the same point, calling the idea “folly.”
Interestingly, Martine Desjardins, the head of Quebec’s university student federation, FEUQ, is also against the idea of granting students the legal right to strike. Speaking to Alec Castonguay, she said her federation has begun looking at other jurisdictions in the world where students have this right and said it’s “frightening.” Essentially, the restrictions that these laws impose “would make student mobilization impossible,” she said.
The minister has opened a Pandora’s Box, commented Mr. Castonguay. But, he added, if the students’ federations want to avoid the strict obligations imposed by a right to strike, the only solution is for them to do the necessary internal work to clean up their practices regarding student protests to ensure the process is democratic and has legitimacy. “That may not solve everything,” he wrote, “but it would be a huge step in the right direction. Whether it comes from government or from the students’ associations directly, the time for clarification has arrived.”