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Students’ right to strike in legal limbo, Court of Appeal rules

Activists encouraged by opportunity to establish legality of strikes

On January 27, the Quebec Court of Appeal concluded that the legality of students’ right to strike has not been established. The decision came in response to a Quebec Superior Court decision that granted an interlocutory injunction to the Association générale des étudiants de la faculté des lettres et sciences humaines (AGEFLESH) at the Université de Sherbrooke.

The injunction was granted during the anti-austerity movement that culminated in a massive student strike in the spring of 2015. It demanded that members of AGEFLESH refrain from blocking classes.

In an interview with La Tribune, AGEFLESH spokesperson Raphaëlle Paradis-Lavallée had said in French, “Students’ struggles must be done politically, and not through judicial ways. The injunction impedes upon the right to strike.”

Also during the spring of 2015, students at Concordia University and the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) faced disciplinary reactions, this time in the form of disciplinary tribunals.

Since the beginning of the 2016 Winter semester, students targeted by these tribunals have been receiving the results of their trials from their respective universities. Eamon Toohey, a member of Concordia Against Tribunals (CATS), told The Daily that the entire process has been “a gruelling nine months for all the students involved.”

Toohey continued, “As of now, the first group of students have gone through their tribunal and received letters of reprimand from the University. While this doesn’t necessarily limit future actions, it goes on their records. This endangers their standing when applying for grad school, and makes them targets should they continue with student activism.”

“Students’ struggles must be done politically, and not through judicial ways. The injunction impedes upon the right to strike.”

The charges against the Concordia students were filed by professors under article 29g of Concordia’s Code of Rights and Responsibilities. The students’ actions allegedly caused “obstruction or disruption of University activities,” even though at least three of the students who received complaints were not actually involved in the protests.

Toohey also pointed out that while the strikes occurred at the beginning of April, professors pressed charges at the end of the month, “despite the entire Political Science Students’ Association making a democratic decision to strike.”

According to Toohey, the tribunals have not only affected the students directly involved, but have set a dangerous precedent for future student movements, whereby universities can impede upon students’ autonomy to take action.

“It’s not an immediate restriction but rather sets a dangerous precedent for student activists, limiting their ability to freely mobilize without fear of retribution. […] The importance of actually having the freedom to strike as students is that it puts us on equal footing with all the other parties involved, it’s another step toward having equal control over the productive labour of education we are involved in,” Toohey added.

Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP External Emily Boytinck said that the Court of Appeal’s decision regarding the Université de Sherbrooke injunction was a useful clarification. “Although the legality of student strikes is still sort of [up] in the air, […] we now know that it’s not definitely illegal to be blocking classes,” Boytinck told The Daily.

“People who would otherwise really want to participate are scared because they are going to get an injunction, or get a ticket, or get tear-gassed.”

Boytinck said that while some strikes may disturb regular class activity, such disciplinary actions can discourage students from participating in broader student movements in the first place.
“Students should be able to fully participate in the student movement. It goes down to the same thing as getting ticketed. […] These types of things would serve to […] make people feel scared to participate. […] People who would otherwise really want to participate are scared because they are going to get an injunction, or get a ticket, or get tear-gassed.”

Although there have not been cases of student injunctions at McGill during the spring of 2015, there have been cases where the McGill administration carried out disciplinary actions against students who participated in political activities.

For instance, in 2012, the University terminated the contract of a floor fellow due to his participation in the occupation of the office of Morton Mendelson, who was the Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) at the time. In addition, the University issued a provisional protocol strictly outlining students’ rights to demonstrate on campus.

Boytinck explained that strike regulations at McGill can be ambiguous and that this can be used against the students by the administration.

“The student code of conduct [Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures] at McGill is extremely vague […and] can incriminate students for […] making somebody feel unsafe, which is totally vague, and can be used at basically the discretion of the committees. Personally, I find that to be not exactly setting up McGill to be protecting all its students,” Boytinck said.

Boytinck also emphasized the importance of strikes as an effective pressure tactic in combatting government decisions like tuition increases and austerity cuts.

“I really do think that student strikes shouldn’t be illegal, and that should be clarified. Students should feel safe using pressure tactics of whichever form they deem necessary,” Boytinck concluded.