Zachary Bell | Notes from Montreal


Critical Playground | Why don’t American students go on strike?


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Zachary Bell
Critical Playground

Photo by Zachary Bell


Below is an excerpt from an article published in The Nation by a former Daily Pennsylvanian staff columnist.

The 2010 British student demonstrations awoke the austerity generation. The 2011 Chilean Winter frightened tight-belted administrators the world-round. And now, Quebec’s 2012 Maple Spring is showing neoliberals that if they’re going to hike tuition, it’ll be over our striking student bodies.

As the spirit of youth protest winds westward, one might wonder: Why don’t American students strike?

Average tuition in America towers over Quebec’s average of $2,500. The average student debt in Quebec is a mere $13,000 compared with America’s $25,000.

According to the Associated Press, 53.6 percent of Americans under 26 with a bachelors degree — 1.5 million — are jobless or underemployed. That could fill a lot of streets. So why are they empty?

Simeon Talley explains in Campus Progress that the transformation to a bottom-line society, which is what students are protesting abroad, “has long taken hold in the U.S.,” and retro-activism is too damn discouraging. In The American Prospect, Courtney Martin points to American class divisions, which make elite do-gooders look to developing countries rather than their own classrooms to score charity points.

City University of New York students Biola Jeje and Isabelle Nastasia, who are fighting a tuition bump, argue that a mass movement could be sustained if students “establish radical, federated student unions,” modeled after Montreal, to replace the “currently weak systems of student participation.”

“We always say French schools, they are so mobilized. We always look up to them,” confessed Rushdia Mehreen, a masters student in Geography Planning and Environment at the primarily English-speaking Concordia University in Montreal.

Francophone schools have a tradition of activism in Quebec, Mehreen explained, but at Anglophone universities like Concordia, the customs must be learned and practiced.

Mehreen, along with other activists from Free Education Montreal and Concordia Mob Squad, initiated an information campaign in the winter of 2011. “We had to cater … to people not coming from Quebec,” Mehreen said.

Recognizing that informed students don’t necessarily identify with activism, the Concordia Mob Squad invited the former student union president and other past activists to speak, demonstrating that “Concordia does have an activist history … we can be militant as well.”

In preparation for a possible strike, Concordia stepped up its cultural makeover. Francophone and Anglophone universities formally linked up, which was transformative for many English organizers. “They were 10 times ahead of us,” Mehreen said.

The relationship led to joint actions, including a bi-lingual demo called “Don’t Fuck with Notre [Our] Éducation.” Mehreen felt that “these encounters helped us immerse more in the movement because before that it was like Anglophone students were not really taking part in it.”

Come springtime at Concordia, “The atmosphere … was totally changed,” Mehreen said. The organizing core grew and many students were asking how to organize in their own departments. “It was contagious, basically.”

On March 5, Concordia embarked on its first-ever unlimited general strike in several departments. Later that month, the entire university went on strike for one week.

Concordia’s narrative identifies culture as a crucial complement to infrastructure. It wasn’t until the organizing core shared Francophone activist culture that Concordia students used the unions to mobilize en masse and join the movement. What about Francophone organizing culture sparked the mobilization?

Mehreen described the culture of L’Université du Québec à Montréal, which she tried to emulate, as “combative syndicalism.” Syndicalism, a union-based collectivism, amounted to a strong respect for autonomous decision-making, genuine trust within groups and an intense sense of collective purpose in Montreal. Naturally, this core part of Quebecois organizing was expressed in the movement’s foundational political body, the General Assembly.

The structure is designed for efficiency and accountability. Students belong to unions in their faculties and departments, which send delegates to a congress, where any decision made must be ratified by each departmental assembly by a two-thirds majority vote.

Quebec’s particular culture of solidarity engenders the trust necessary for a union structure to function well. The culture also fosters a sense of inclusivity and understanding that makes the movement more inviting to all students.

American students need to create their own organizing culture, perhaps incorporating Quebecois syndicalism but without ignoring the principles of radical horizontalism designed to address uniquely American inequalities — or else suffer terminal fractures like movements past.

Zachary Bell is a 2012 College graduate from New Haven, Conn. His email address is zacharyabell@gmail.com. Critical Playground appeared bi-weekly.

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