August 2019

Students as Workers and the 2019 Québec Student Strike

On how the 2019 Québec Student Strike has made it possible for a new generation to conceive of study itself as a form of intellectual labor deserving of wages and suitable working conditions.

By Jonathan Turcotte-Summers

Student strikes are not particularly uncommon in Québec, Canada’s second most-populous province. In fact, there have been at least nine major strikes — some successful, some not — since the secularization of the provincial government, the establishment of the Ministry of Education, and the increased accessibility of post-secondary education during Québec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.[1] [2] Such strikes have arguably become “culturally institutionalized” in the province,[3] owing in large part to the legal rights afforded to student unions through the application of the Rand formula in the 1983 legislation[4] — even though this legislation does not explicitly include the right to strike. Despite the Quiet Revolution’s promise of tuition-free post-secondary education remaining unfulfilled, a relatively organized student movement that regularly engages in grèves générales illimitées (unlimited general strikes) is one reason why Quebecers have typically faced the lowest university fees in North America.

In 2012, Québec students made international headlines when hundreds of thousands walked out of class and into the streets for the largest and longest such strike in Canadian history. It was the result of escalating opposition to a planned tuition increase of 75 percent— from $2,168 to $3,793 per year — over five years. Efforts by the provincial government, corporate media, and other reactionary forces to delegitimize the strike included attempts to rebrand it a “boycott,” asserting that student democracy is illegitimate and that students are not workers but individual purchasers of courses and passive consumers of educational services. Such attempts exemplified the transparent hypocrisy of Liberal premier Jean Charest, who fondly reminisced in his own autobiography about his days as a student activist organizing similar strikes.[5]

Not all of Québec’s student strikes have been in response to tuition fees; for example, several have been centered on financial aid. And in the spring of 2015, a strike campaign arose against austerity measures, including one billion dollars in budget cuts to the province’s education system by another Liberal government. This campaign fizzled out both because of its failure to rally enough grassroots support to the cause and because of mismanagement by the executive committee of the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ). Anti-austerity campaigners had been counting on ASSÉ to reproduce the successful results of 2012, when it had distinguished itself as the most radical and, ultimately, effective of the three large provincial student organizations. A subsequent loss of trust in the association eventually resulted in its formal dissolution four years later, on May 31, 2019.[6]

Demonstration for paid internships in Montréal in November 2018. The signs reads, ‘Check your Rolex. It’s time for a revolt!’ Photo credit l’Activiste.

Meanwhile, Québec’s student activists have not only revamped their organizing strategies but have also adopted new demands around which to organize, with a particular focus on tackling unpaid internships. The most recent attempt at an unlimited general strike in the spring of 2019 did not go through a provincial organization — even one as progressive as ASSÉ — but relied on decentralized, non-hierarchical coalitions of local student associations and ad-hoc Comités unitaires sur le travail étudiant (Student Work Unitary Committees, or CUTEs). Building on the partial victories of student teachers and doctoral students in psychology, who had each recently won modest compensation packages from the government, the CUTEs demanded that everyone required to complete an internship as part of a program of study receive not just compensation, but an hourly wage, and the protections afforded to workers under provincial labor law.

Since 2016, this most recent strike campaign built momentum through demonstrations as well as one-day and one-week strikes involving tens of thousands of students. It too nevertheless fizzled out before winning any major concessions by the government, now controlled by the right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec. Still, this government did eventually announce $30 million in new compensation for student interns, which it claims will allow for four times as many to receive funding anywhere between $900 and $4000 per year.[7] Furthermore, the campaign marked the first attempt at an offensive general strike by Québec students in thirty years; it opened up a new arena of struggle for the student movement by exploring its parallels with the labor movement; it created the theoretical space to think of students as workers and to conceive of their studies themselves as a form of intellectual labor deserving of appropriate wages and suitable working conditions; and it was rooted in a fundamental critique of the unjust and exploitative nature of capitalism’s dependence on an endless supply of unrecognized and unremunerated labor in order to survive.

Demonstration for paid internships in Quebec
City in February 2019. Photo credit Julien Crête Nadeau.

A full century after Marx wrote “Estranged Labor” — which Jean Lave and Ray McDermott would more recently reinterpret as “Estranged Learning”[8] — 150 survivors of the Second World War assembled on a spring day in the amphitheater of Grenoble’s faculty of medicine to set about rebuilding France’s student movement.[9] The result was the 1946 Charte de Grenoble (or Charter of Grenoble) of the National Union of Students of France. The first of its seven articles is a bold and succinct declaration, seven words that make explicit these students’ desire to align themselves with organized labor: “The Student is a young intellectual worker.”  The following six articles go on to elaborate the specific rights and responsibilities they associated with each of the three aspects of this student identity: the rights and responsibilities of the student as a young person, as an intellectual, and as a worker. As a young person, the Charter calls on the student to integrate themselves into the whole of the national and worldwide youth, echoing Marx and Engels’s call for the workers of the world to unite. As an intellectual, the student is in a privileged position to uncover history, share culture, propagate truth, and — above all — defend freedom. And as a worker, the student is entitled to labor and rest in material independence and the best possible conditions, guaranteed through the exercise of union rights.

The Charter of Grenoble would undoubtedly go on to influence the Québec student movement in the decades that followed. In addition, the most recent strike drew inspiration from the international Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s. That campaign called attention to the enormous quantity of unrecognized and unpaid labor (domestic, emotional, and reproductive labor) performed by women every day and indeed socialized into them in order to prop up a deeply patriarchal capitalist economy. A leading figure in this campaign was Italian scholar Silvia Federici, who authored the influential short 1974 text Wages Against Housework. This subtle turn of phrase hints at an existential threat to the ruling class: workers’ willingness to refuse the work (whether in the factory, the kitchen, or the bedroom) and stop catering to the demands and desires of those who would dominate them. In her text, Federici endeavors to show that “not only is wages for housework a revolutionary perspective, but it is the only revolutionary perspective from a feminist viewpoint and ultimately for the entire working class.”[10]

Demonstration for paid internships in Montréal in November 2018. The sign reads, ‘Let’s not be invisible.Women forward. Photo credit l’Activiste.

The Wages for Housework campaign led to the 1975 Wages for Students campaign in the northeastern US, at its core a couple of graduate students and an assistant professor of philosophy named George Caffentzis. Wages for Students further emphasized how a lack of remuneration effectively makes invisible and invalidates labor. The claim: “[w]e already earn a wage; now we must be paid it.” [11] They boldly asserted that it is the universities, government, and capitalists that owe students money, and not the other way around. They directly confronted economic conceptions of schooling as either a consumer good or a personal investment in oneself as “a little corporation, a mini-GM,”[12] arguing that the vaunted exchange value of education is far less than it must convince us it is in order to maintain any semblance of legitimacy. And they suggested that most of what students in a capitalist society actually do isn’t so much produce knowledge or acquire skills, but consists largely of the labor of self-disciplining, “the double task of doing schoolwork and making ourselves do it”[13], serving simultaneously as both worker and capitalist, both prisoner and prison guard. In other words, the main function of a student’s labor is to produce the self as a subjugated and self-subjugating subject, a commodity that is particularly valuable to capital. The mass indebtedness we’ve seen since then, which has been described as a contemporary form of indentured servitude, only serves to further subjugate and control students. Federici similarly describes the “double exploitation”[14] of schoolwork as being exploited in preparation for future exploitation. In response, Caffentzis calls “the refusal of work as the basis upon which class struggle operates” and “argues that what’s important is how much we don’t give to capital and how much we reject the identification with being the worker.”[15]

Federici and Caffentzis, veterans of the Wages for Housework and Wages for Students campaigns, both lent their support to the CUTEs, who made a substantial amount of theory and analysis available through videos, magazines, and newspapers they have produced themselves. The campaigners demonstrated a keen awareness not only of the labor that goes into their studies and internships, but also into their activism. This activism was rooted deep in a critique of capitalism itself, a system that cannot sustain itself without the subjugation and exploitation of working people. And this critique addresses the ways in which it disproportionately harms some more than others. In particular, the campaign for paid internships was explicitly and unabashedly feminist, emphasizing that unremunerated internships are found mostly in the caring professions and in education (jobs mostly occupied by women), and that tolerating the non-remuneration of these internships contributes not only to reproducing gender inequality but to “the devaluation of these forms of work, which are essential to our collective well-being.”[16] Furthermore, female interns face the heightened risk of harassment and assault at work, and are protected not even by the most basic provisions afforded by labor law.

General assembly of the student association at Cégep Marie-Victorin in Montréal in November 2018. Photo credit to the Syndicat Étudiant du Cégep Marie-Victorin.

Federici endorsed the Québec campaign for paid internships as “revolutionary” for its intersectional approach centered on material relations.[17] Similarly, the Wages for Students organizers suggest that “putting an end to unwaged labor in all its forms would destabilize, indeed terminate, the capitalist system”.[18] But the 2019 attempt at an unlimited general strike failed to come close to anything resembling such a revolution, let alone the uprising of 2012. Nevertheless, it marked a possible turning point in the history of the Québec student movement, revealing, at least theoretically, the power of decentralizing the student movement and realigning it with the labor movement. This shift demonstrates a more complex understanding not only of the roles of student and worker, but also of the additional labor of activism.

Jonathan Turcotte-Summers is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Br*tish Col*mbia (Musqueam territory). Originally from Tio:tia’ke/Montréal (Kanien’kehá:ka/Mohawk territory), he led the English-language “Student Strike 2019” project (studentstrike2019.info) and contributed to translation efforts for the Montréal Coalition for Paid Internships. Jonathan’s academic work draws just as much from his ongoing anti-capitalist and anti-fascist organizing as it does from his extensive experience teaching at virtually all levels of the school system, in both formal and non-formal settings. At UBC, he has been awarded a Four-Year Doctoral Fellowship and an R. Howard Webster Foundation Fellowship.


Further Reading

[1] CLASSE, “Historique des grèves générales” (History of general strikes), last accessed August 17, 2019, http://www.bloquonslahausse.com/verslagreve/historique-des-greves-generales/

[2] Radio-Canada, “Les grèves étudiantes au Québec: quelques jalons” (Student strikes in Québec: some milestones), February 15, 2012, http ://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/549959/droits-greve-chrono

[3] Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, Tenir tête (In Defiance), (Montréal: Lux, 2013), 180.

[4] Act A-3.01, Act Respecting the Accreditation and Financing of Students’ Associations, 1983, http://legisquebec.gouv.qc.ca/en/ShowDoc/cs/A-3.01

[5] Jean Charest, “J’ai choisi le Québec” (“My Road to Québec”), (Rosemère: Pierre Tisseyre, 1998).

[6] ASSÉ, “Congrès annuel 2018–2019 : Les membres de l’ASSÉ votent en faveur de la dissolution” (Annual convention 2018–2019: ASSÉ members vote in favor of dissolution), April 29, 2019, https://nouveau.asse-solidarite.qc.ca/index.html%3Fp=3788.html

[7] Daphnée Dion-Viens, “Quatre fois plus de stagiaires auront droit à des bourses” (Four times as many interns will have access to bursaries), June 18, 2019, https://www.journaldequebec.com/2019/06/18/plus-de-bourses-pour-les-stagiaires

[8] Jean Lave and Ray McDermott, “Estranged Labor Learning,” Outlines 1 (2002): 19–48, http://www.outlines.dk/contents/Outlines021/Outlines-2002-1-p19-48.pdf

[9] Robi Morder, (2006, March 20). “Quand l’UNEF se dotait d’une charte” (When UNEF gave itself a charter), Le Monde, March 20, 2006, https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2006/03/20/quand-l-unef-se-dotait-d-une-charte-par-robi-morder_752685_3232.html

[10] Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework, (Bristol: Falling Wall, 1975), 2, https://caringlabor.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/federici-wages-against-housework.pdf

[11] The ‘Wages for Students’ Students, “Wages for Students,” in Wages for Students, eds. Jakob Jakobsen, María Berríos and Malav Kanuga (New York: Common Notions, 2016), 27.

[12] The ‘Wages for Students’ Students, 20.

[13] The ‘Wages for Students’ Students, 18.

[14] “Wages for Debts, Students for Borrowers, Life for…” in Wages for Students, eds. Jakob Jakobsen, María Berríos and Malav Kanuga (New York: Common Notions, 2016), 40.

[15] “Wages for Debts, Students for Borrowers, Life for…” 37–38.

[16] Newspaper Committee of the Montréal Coalition for Paid Internships, “What Is a Paid Internship?” The Invisible: All Work Deserves a Wage, winter 2019, 3.

[17] Comités unitaires sur le travail étudiant, “Silvia Federici – Un salaire pour le travail gratuit : perspective révolutionnaire” (Silvia Federici – A salary for free labour: a revolutionary perspective), YouTube video, 45:08, May 21, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=6&v=HZBgbXzR_sY

[18] George Caffentzis, Monty Neill and John Willshire-Carrera, “Introduction to the Present Edition,” in Wages for Students, eds. Jakob Jakobsen, María Berríos and Malav Kanuga (New York: Common Notions, 2016), 10.

0 comments on “Students as Workers and the 2019 Québec Student Strike

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: