Two weeks ago, in protest of impending tuition hikes, the Department of English Student Association (DESA) became the largest student association in McGill history to declare an unlimited general strike.
The strike only lasted a week, but the subsequent fallout has left the association at odds with Department Chair Allan Hepburn, leaving some students concerned about the effect of the strike on their final grades this term.
Four days before their first strike General Assembly (GA), the DESA executive emailed departmental faculty informing them of the meeting and asking for their “opinions, thoughts, and concerns on the matter.”
President Zoe Erwin-Longstaff said the executive sent the email “not thinking this was going to cause or stir anything. We just truly wanted input.” She added that DESA had enjoyed “wonderful relations” with both Hepburn and the department before this email.
“I was absolutely shocked at how things played out,” said Erwin-Longstaff. “I foresaw [Hepburn] not supporting the strike, but I did not foresee the way he has handled this at all.”
Erwin-Longstaff said that within two hours of receiving the DESA email, Hepburn had emailed every faculty member about the GA, leading with a description of the Arts Undergraduate Society’s failed strike vote from earlier that week.
“DESA has no right to strike and no authority to take votes that bind members to strike. Students who want to attend class have the right to do so,” wrote Hepburn in the email.
He added that “any professor who wishes to cancel a class must contact the Chair of the Department, justify the cancellation, and state how and when cancelled classes will be made up.”
DESA VP Academic and Daily staffer Ryan Healey said Hepburn’s email “set the tone from the start, which is really important for how departmental politics work.”
Four days later, the DESA GA voted for an unlimited general strike. At the end of the week, Hepburn emailed Erwin-Longstaff requesting the names of each member of the strike committee. Erwin-Longstaff declined the request after consulting with the committee, citing the “fluctuating” nature of strike committee membership.
Hepburn responded within ten minutes, saying, “The department does not condone secret meetings and committees without a chair or clear membership.”
In an email to The Daily, Hepburn wrote, “Committee memberships in the Department of English are a matter of public knowledge.”
Hepburn obtained the minutes from the two strike committee meetings, although neither Erwin-Longstaff nor Healey know how.
According to Healey, Hepburn “penciled in the last names of students that he knew or thought he knew” and emailed the minutes to the departmental faculty. Hepburn mistakenly identified two students – U1 Women’s Studies student Molly Swain and Arts senator Matt Crawford – as being members of the strike committee.
“People have been kicked off of campus for flyering,” said Swain, who is an English Literature minor. “Connecting my name with strike committees and hard pickets that I’m not a part of could have potentially led to disciplinary action against me.”
Healey spoke to the potential academic repercussions of Hepburn identifying students in the strike committee to professors in the department.
“If a professor doesn’t like the strike and sees their name on the strike committee minutes, it could influence how they grade their papers,” said Healey.
Healey added that there were “a lot of fears” on the part of members of the DESA executive in particular. Erwin-Longstaff said she was personally worried.
DESA held a GA to renew the strike last week. The renewal vote failed, ending the DESA strike, but a motion condemning Hepburn’s actions passed with only a handful of dissenting votes. Hepburn declined to comment on the motion.
Hepburn confirmed that last Tuesday, faculty members in the English department met to discuss their experiences of the strike and how the department might respond to it. “The department seeks transparent, open communication with DESA and its committees,” he wrote in his email.
Both Erwin-Longstaff and Healey said they had heard from professors that “there will be repercussions” for the DESA strike activity.
“What those repercussions are concretely, we don’t know,” said Erwin-Longstaff.
Both executives said the episode has revealed a lack of clarity over DESA’s role in the department.
“Clearly they don’t think that we have the autonomy or the authority that we insist that we have. That’s been made very clear to us,” said Erwin-Longstaff.