Commentary  Strike Endorsements Are Not Strikes (Yet)

An Open Letter to Student Executives

To those serving as executives or representatives in our student associations,

As September 27 approaches, many student associations at McGill University have come out to endorse the student strike for climate justice. We are incredibly happy to see this support, and with all this enthusiasm, we thought this would be the perfect moment to discuss where we can go from here and how we can channel this energy into meaningful change. There are a lot of ideas floating around about effective organizing strategies, and while we are constantly looking to improve ours, one strategy which we see as effective as students in today’s context is the student strike. In order to discuss the importance of organizing strikes, we should probably discuss the theory of student strikes. So what are strikes, how do we get them, and why are they useful?

A strike is a collective withdrawal of labour so as to interfere with the proper functioning of society and create enough pressure for decision-makers to listen to our demands. Originally, this was done by workers in order to pressure their employers to improve working conditions and wages, to show solidarity to other workers, or to address any number of economic or political grievances. Since the strike would halt production, and their employer would therefore lose their source of income, they would be forced to comply with workers’ demands in order for production to resume.

Student strikes, admittedly, are a somewhat different creature. Many are dismissive of student strikes and argue that a collective withdrawal of labour doesn’t make sense in a student context. After all, what do they care if we go to class? Haven’t we already paid tuition? What do we really have to bargain with? These are strong points. Maybe we should distance ourselves from the labour analogy for a hot sec, since we are not threatening our day-to-day labour in quite the same way. Instead, we are threatening escalation and collective failure. The economic system, as it stands, requires a constant influx of new workers in order to keep functioning. If, however, we continue fighting across the province and country and eventually declare an unlimited student strike – which threatens that an entire generation of students will not graduate – we could cause an enormous labour shortage and clog up our universities, who won’t have enough room for the first-years. By striking and taking the streets, we also have the opportunity to block and interfere with the normal functioning of the fossil-fuel economy. This escalation is what we are threatening with a one day strike, and this is what we are bargaining with.

You may ask, why does this matter? What does any of this have to do with strike endorsements? Let’s go back to our labour strike analogy and imagine a scenario where there’s a workplace of 100 people, but the union decides that instead of calling for a strike, they’ll put out an endorsement of workers’ grievances and suggest that people should decide individually if they want to join a strike. The day of the “strike” comes, and 30 people walk out since no one really talked about it. So what happens? If most people decide to continue working, what happens to the collective withdrawal of labor? Well, nothing. The workplace continues functioning, the bosses don’t cave, and when those who are striking begin to suffer financially, and go back to work without winning anything. They cannot succeed with just an endorsement, and that’s the key point – we can’t either. Endorsements from student executives are important and appreciated, but we’ll need more to win and win justly. If we don’t do this all together, if we don’t don’t enforce our strikes, if we act individually and not collectively, it’ll never work.

Convincing people to go on strike is, admittedly, pretty tough. Strikes are risky, and we need to make sure that we are all on the same page. If people don’t see the strike as legitimate, they’ll end up going back to work or school (read: scabbing), and the strike will fall apart. So while strikes cannot be done by a small minority, we also cannot expect to simply declare them and achieve success. We need to ensure that everyone we are asking to strike is able to discuss and participate in the decision to strike through direct and participatory democracy. Many student associations have general assemblies (GAs), where all members of the association can collectively discuss and vote as individuals instead of through representatives. There are some upcoming strike GAs up for Arts undergraduates, French literature, and philosophy students. Unfortunately, most departments associations at McGill do not make it easy to organize a GA unless you yourself are an executive, and without GAs, we cannot hope to create an effective movement.

So what are we asking of you? Endorsements are a great first step, but what we need now is to change our bylaws to allow for student-led GAs that can be called by petition. Our movement and our associations would become profundly more powerful and democractic with these in place. In the short term, you can call for strike general assemblies yourselves and allow students to lead the discussion. We are all wondering what on earth we can do about the climate crisis, and there are many people offering many different answers, all of which (including ours) are limited. As students, our options feel limited, but striking has huge potential to force the hand of decision-makers. For any student reading this, we need to pressure our executives into building these structures and letting us lead the strikes. Email them, meet with them, petition them, and, if necessary, run for their positions and vote them out.

Student strikes are a potentially powerful way to enact change, but in order for them to work, we need to make our decisions collectively and directly, we need to enforce these decisions, and we need to make sure that everyone sees these decisions as legitimate. Barring some miracle where the climate crisis ends this Friday, the climate strike movement will have to continue fighting, and we will have to fight harder. This we very much intend to do. Student executives, this is where we need your help. We are excited that so many of you are supportive of the climate strike movement, but we will not win with words on paper. We need more than endorsements – we need strikes.

Solidarity,

Climate Justice Action McGill (C-JAM)