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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.

Photo Credit: Eugenio Marongiu /


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 striking student bodies.

As the spirit of youth protest winds westward, one wonders: Why don’t American students strike? And more broadly, what can US student activists learn from Montreal about making a movement mass?

As a recent graduate and student organizer, I headed north last month to compare notes with my Canadian counterparts.

Average annual tuition in Quebec stands at $2,500, dwarfed by America’s average tuition of $12,800 at public institutions and $32,000 at private ones. The average Quebec student debt is a mere $13,000 compared with America’s $25,000. And in 2012, 7.2 percent of US college grads were unemployed, beating out Quebec’s 6.3 percent.

According to the Associated Press, 53.6 percent of Americans under 26 with a Bachelor’s are jobless or underemployed. That’s 1.5 million people. That could fill a lot of streets.

So why are they empty?

Some point to uniquely American challenges. 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 US,” 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.

Others argue that American student mobilizations do flare up, like Liz Dwyer of Good magazine. Dwyer admires UC Berkeley students’ protests against tuition increases, but notes that maintaining a movement for months “is unheard of in the 21st century United States.”

City University of New York students Biola Jeje and Isabelle Nastasia, who are fighting a five-year $1,500 tuition bump, argue that a mass movement could be sustained if the right infrastructure were in place. Specifically, if students “establish radical, federated student unions,” modeled after Montreal, to replace the “currently weak systems of student participation.”

But American students can’t just mail-order unions from Quebec. No manual can explain the student union culture that’s necessary to make them effective. However, a case study of an Anglophone university in Montreal might help.

“We always say French schools, they are so mobilized. We always look up to them,” said Rushdia Mehreen, a master’s 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 are far less understood and practiced.

Although English activists like Mehreen have been vocal since tuition hikes were announced in April 2010, their schools remained largely quiet. In the winter of 2011, Concordia began taking steps to join its French counterparts.

Mehreen, along with other activists from Free Education Montreal and Concordia Mob Squad, initiated an information campaign, which included the seminal “ 23 Answers for Students,” addressing the history, justifications, and concerns about an unlimited general strike in a step-by-step manner. “We had to cater…to people not coming from Quebec,” Mehreen admitted.

They also engaged students through dialogue, hosting town hall meetings for “everyone to argue their point of view,” and holding debates to discuss common ideological barriers like, “if you want your education to be of high quality, then you have to pay for it.”

The campaign culminated in a massive November 10 march, with two hundred thousand Montreal students striking (including Concordia’s graduate and Arts & Sciences students) and thirty thousand stomping in the streets. This served as an ultimatum before an unlimited general strike.