On Sunday July 22, 2012, the Québec Student Strike (grève générale indéfini, #ggi or Indefinite General Strike) resumed protesting after a brief pause in June to give students some time to rest.
The Student Unions that organized the #ggi in Québec used the summer pause to travel to Ontario for a “Solidarity Tour” to help educate Student Unions there about how to organize a successful student strike. The Canadian English media’s coverage of the tour has been astonishingly poor. Take for example Tasha Kheiriddin’s article in The National Post: “We don’t need no solidarity with Quebec students.” Here is an excerpt from her piece:
Rather than inviting Quebec students here to infect them with their protest virus, the Ontario students would be better off going to Quebec, to see the effects of all this mayhem there. I played tourist in Quebec City and Montreal last week with my partner and his teenage children, and we had no trouble getting into any attractions because there were few big crowds. In June, hotels reported that business in Montreal was down by $5.8-million from the May of the previous year, with 5%-10% of bookings cancelled. While it might be great for vacationers who do show up, it is bad news for tourism operators and merchants — and for their employees.
Among those employees, of course, are students working summer jobs to pay their tuition. Between May and June, employment in the hotel and restaurant sector fell by 9% — at a time when it usually increases to serve the high season. Meanwhile, student unemployment overall stands at 16% compared to 14.5% for the same period time last year. And even if they find jobs in July, students have to head back to class in August to recoup class time lost to the strike, precluding them from holding full-time employment for the rest of the summer. (Source: The National Post)
It is not clear to me why Ontario students would be expected to take advice about their solidarity interests from a Whitby-based journalist who is unlikely to share the same interests as them since she is no longer a student.
But even more striking in this quote is the lack of understanding of what a strike is, what a strike is for, and how one might measure the success of a strike: It is even less clear to me why Ontario students should take advice from a journalist, like Kheiriddin, who could not even be bothered to research strike actions and their history before writing about them in a national newspaper.
1. What is a Strike For?
Strike actions are usually taken when two sides have a disagreement and there is an imbalance of political and economic power on one side and numerical power on the other. The strike action became important during the industrial revolution when industrialists/capitalists required a large pool of labourers to operate their factories. The political and economic power resided with the owners of the factories because the labourers depended on them for their individual livelihoods and politicians depended on the owner’s financial backing to win elections and industry’s tax revenue to fund government programs. However, the numerical power resided with the labourers because they far outnumbered the owners.
If workers tried to press their claims as individuals against the owners of industries they were often unsuccessful as they had little bargaining leverage and could easily be fired and replaced with another worker. In contrast, when workers tried to press their claims as a collective (sometimes called a syndicate or union) they had more bargaining leverage because it was much more difficult to fire and replace an entire workforce at the exact same time. Further, through strike actions the collective of workers could interrupt the functioning of the factory (economy or political process), thereby demonstrating their collective economic and political importance: unless labourers take collective action (such as a strike), it is difficult for owners to recognize the extent to which owners depend on labourers for their economic success. Thus, the main function of a strike is to cause an economic disruption that demonstrates the unrecognised power and importance of labourers (or some other group, such as students). A secondary function of a strike is for this forced recognition of political and economic importance to result in bargaining that gives advantage to the numerical majority.
2. How to Measure the Success of a Strike
Since the primary (or proximal) goal of a strike is to create an economic (or political) disruption in order to demonstrate the collective economic and political importance of an individually economic and politically less-powerful group (such as workers or students), one of the ways to measure whether a strike is successful is the extent to which this goal is obtained.
One of the ironies of Tasha Kheiriddin’s piece is that she outlines a number of economic effects the student strike has had: the tourist industry has suffered and there have been measurable economic effects from the strike. If a strike manages to achieve an economic effect, this is a sign that the strike has been (proximally) effective; it is not a sign of the strike’s failure: the students have effectively demonstrated that although it might not be obvious, they do in fact play an important economic role in Québec. But Kheiriddin takes these economic effects as a sign that the strike has failed. In fact, it demonstrates the exact opposite.
Kheiriddin believes that one of the signs of the strike’s failure is that it had negative effects on those taking part in the strike (in addition to those against whom the strikers were demonstrating). She makes this point when she notes that student unemployment is 1.5% higher this year as compared to last year. But strikes have never been a tactic that was free of costs to the striking group. In almost all historical strikes those who went on strike lost wages for the time in which they were demonstrating. Part of the reason that a strike demonstrates the commitment of the strikers is precisely because it carries costs to those who participate in the strike. Strikes often work against the immediate interests of the strikers, with a hope that their broader interests will be served in the long run. It is the selflessness of strikers that (in part) gives strikes their moral legitimacy.
The secondary (distal) measure of whether a strike is effective is related to whether the demands of the strikers are met. It is too soon to determine whether the secondary (distal) goal of the Québec student strikes has been met, because neither the strike nor the tuition hikes are yet complete. Tasha Kheiriddin somehow thinks she can weigh in on this distal measure (perhaps with a crystal ball?), however:
As for the tuition hikes, they haven’t been reversed. Instead, it appears the province is headed for a general election, which is where the whole issue should have been settled in the first place. In fact you could say it already was, since tuition increases formed part of the Liberal platform in 2008. But no matter: As with repeat referenda on Quebec independence, it seems one has to ask Quebecers the same question more than once, even if one gets the same answer. (Source: The National Post)
We don’t yet know whether the Liberals will win the election predicted to take place in Québec next September. But the results of the 2008 election have no bearing on the success or legitimacy of the student strike. A tertiary (or 3rd distal) goal of a strike is to shift public opinion because the idea is that the public might not have considered or heard the perspective of the numerically dominant, though politically or economically marginalized group. The 2008-pre-strike opinion of Québecers cannot be taken to represent the 2012-post-strike opinion of Québecers without begging the question against the student strike. Asking the same question more than once in the face of novel arguments or novel data is not a sign of redundancy. It is a sign of adhering to the principles of reasoned argument and rational decision-making.
3. Has the Québec Student Strike Been Effective?
At this point we cannot legitimately evaluate the success of the student strike because it is not over. We can, however, evaluate some of its parts (i.e. its proximate and distal goals). In terms of the proximal goals of a strike, the Québec student strike has undoubtedly been successful, as Kheiriddin ironically demonstrates. In terms of the two distal goals (namely, shifting public opinion and ultimately winning tuition concessions) we cannot accurately predict because whether these goals will met continues to reside in the future. But at minimum we can say that in terms of meeting the tertiary (distal) goal of shifting public opinion, the Québec student strike has been successful at getting an opinion into the mainstream media that is difficult to voice in that estate, which is now controlled by corporate interests and reflects a neo-liberal agenda. For example, see this video:
And the student strikes have been effective at getting a large number of people into the streets for demonstrations, as we can see in this video:
It is important to recognize that even if the Québec student strike is not successful in meeting all of its goals (perhaps the secondary distal goal of a tuition freeze or reduction), it will still have been successful at meeting some of its goals (namely the primary proximal goal of effecting economic impacts and the tertiary distal goal of brining an unorthodox perspective to mainstream attention). So, yes, the student strike has been effective.
3b. Update on The Effectiveness of the Strike (September 2012)
When I wrote this piece back in July, it was too soon to tell whether the students would be successful with the tuition freeze. Now, the Quebec election has taken place, the PQ won a minority government, and the premier of Quebec, Pauline Marois, has cancelled the tuition increases: the students won. And the Students are celebrating their win. So, Kheiriddin’s analysis is even more flawed now that we are actually in a position to make judgements about the effectiveness of the student strike.
4. tl;dr: In Brief
Shorter Tasha Kheiriddin: “Ontario students should not take lessons from Québec students because the student strikes in Québec have been effective.”
Shorter Bakka: “What?!? That makes no sense, Tasha. Usually we want to take lessons from those whose actions have been effective.”
5. Link Round-Up
Translating the printemps érable a website that translates the French media’s coverage of the Student Strike into English. There has been a marked discrepancy in the way English vs. French media in Canada has covered the student strike. From the description at their site: “Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English.”
Québec-Ontario Student Solidarity Tour July 12-20, 2012
Together Let’s Stop The Hike: The English version of La CLASSE’s website about the Student Strike and Ensemble, bloquons la hausse the French version of the same website (note: the content on the two language versions of the websites is not identical and the French version has more information). La CLASSE stands for ‘Coalition large de l’ASSÉ’ (where ASSÉ stands for ‘Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante,’ which roughly translates to ‘the Association for a Student Solidarity Syndicate/Union.’ ASSÉ also carries the meaning of “enough” in French, which is lost in the English translation). Here is a link to the French website for ASSÉ and an English version.
Wikipedia’s entry on “strikes.”
Tasha Kheiriddin “We don’t need no solidarity with Quebec students,” The National Post July 12, 2012.
Les Perreau “As Québec election looms, protesters weigh voters’ wrath,” The Globe and Mail July 22, 2012.
The Canadian Press “Québec demonstrations shrink, but protesters warn of future battles,” The Globe and Mail June 22, 2012.
Camille Robert and Jeanne Reynolds “Quebec Students Hail Their Movement’s Victories,” The Toronto Star Sunday, September 23, 2012.
6. Some Video Links
JE N’ AI JAMAIS ÉTÉ AUSSI FIER par Doucerebelle
Jason Bajada – The Sound Your Life Makes
 Although Kheiriddin did benefit from the low tuition rates in Québec according to her bio in The National Post: “A Montreal native, Tasha is a graduate of Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf (1988) and the law faculty of McGill (1993).” It is important to remember that the low tuition rates in Québec are a result of past student strikes that kept the Québec government from enacting proposed fee increases. Perhaps with Tasha’s article we are seeing another instance of the phenomena Milgram uncovered in which people often harshly devalue those by whom they do wrong, which I wrote about in a previous post.
 Part of the reason for union dues is to create a pool of money that can be used to help mitigate the effects of the strike on those who are striking by giving them some (usually reduced) income for the duration of the strike.