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Why Don't American Students Strike?

With millions of young people jobless and underemployed, it's time for American students to join their peers around the world in protesting threats to education from every side.

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

Over the winter holidays, Mehreen co-organized a two-day training camp (a Francophone activist tradition) with this inter-cultural group. Her review: It provided the Anglophone activists in the “A to Z of what we needed to know as mobilizers.”

The relationship led to joint actions, including a bilingual 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,” said Mehreen. The organizing core grew, and many students were asking how to hold General Assemblies 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, Concordia struck university-wide for one week.

The neophyte strikers quickly ran into problems. The inexperienced administrators threatened activists or barred them from campus, and called for all faculty, staff, and students to report anyone participating in strike activities. This led some disgruntled students to break through picket lines, while some departments simply didn’t hold a General Assembly to continue the strike.

Still, Mehreen believed that the school gained some activist muscle that’s not going to atrophy. “These departmental associations are politicized now.” Mehreen’s story demonstrates how building infrastructure for each department and faculty to hold assemblies can be instrumental in sustaining a movement.

Concordia’s narrative also 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?

At the demonstrations and assemblies I attended, there was a noticeable lack of infighting. In my experience with American college and Occupy organizing, conflict over issues of process (everyone feeling like their voice is heard) and goals (radical or reformist political visions) are often prevalent.

In searching for an explanation to Montreals’ relative harmony and success in building a mass movement, I returned to Mehreen’s description of the culture of L'Université du Québec à Montréal, which she tried to emulate: “combative syndicalism...to fight for our rights.”

Syndicalism is a principle many of my interviewees repeated. It refers to a sort of union-based collectivism. Academically, it’s defined as an alternative to capitalism and state socialism, relying on federations of multiple non-competitive units to manage the economy. In practice in Montreal, it amounted to a strong respect for autonomous decision-making, genuine trust within groups, and an intense sense of solidarity and collective purpose.

Mehreen asserted that this syndicalism was in the DNA of Quebecois organizing. Naturally, it was expressed in the movement’s foundational political body: the General Assembly.

The General Assembly at L'Université du Québec à Montréal was rather mundane. A group of biology students wanted an exception to the strike. They would lose a semester’s worth of lab work if they didn’t complete it by the fall, and only needed two weeks to finish.

A student brought up the implications of making exceptions. Someone raised that summer session wasn’t official. Another slipped “if the strike ever ends” into his statement and got laughs. An amendment was offered: the biology students do the lab work over the summer, but don’t submit them for grades until later so that their transcript doesn’t report classes taken during the strike. The resolution squeaked by with the necessary two-thirds majority. I checked my watch. It’d been forty-five minutes.