By Philippe Dumesnil
The author is Professor of philosophy at the Collège de Valleyfield.
Everyone has an opinion on the strike but nobody seems to be addressing the question at the heart of it all: What happens if the Government refuses to change its position and students do not return to class? The answer is of widespread concern, because if the strike continues and snowballs into a something even more large-scale, students are likely to win the fight.
The strike causes serious and costly organizational problems for each of the schools involved, especially in the case of cégeps that have been on strike for over five weeks.
Because of strike’s unforeseen delay and extension, the return to regular courses may be bumped up to mid-June, at which point professors will be beginning the summer season, taking time off from regular teaching. There are several different options facing the student population, then, each with its strong and weak points, but all costly and problematic: firstly, students could demand that schools schedule Saturday make-up classes; or, it could be proposed that the vacation time for professors could be moved to a new date; the winter session could then be extended into mid-june, with summer courses beginning in August. Professors would have to be paid overtime, the number of course lecture days might have to be reduced, etc.
In all cases, this would require complicated negotiations before coming to agreements with local unions. Tampering with the academic schedule would also potentially undermine the quality of coursework, since the summer session would have to be postpones a few weeks, causing a domino effect which would push forward the beginning of the fall session as well.
In the universities themselves, the mere though of the majority of faculty members having to renegotiate the contracts of lecturing staff points to the incredibly magnitude of the effects of the strike and the problems present.
If these complications are taken into consideration along with the difficulties of the administrative blocks and the negotiation of support and maintenance staff schedules it is clear that the Government will eventually have no choice but to negotiate.
A Shortage of Employment Opportunities
The strike also runs the risk of delaying many graduate students’ entry into the labour market. We often fail to take into account that most of the CÉGEP technical programs offer placement rates of at least 90%. Staunching the flow of students into the labour market would also affect the public service industry and companies that have a dire need for this work force. Not many people talk about it, but it is often these very companies that tend to contact the Government with appeals for information on when the strike might end.
The same situation applies to the many jobs that are expected to open up in late May and early June, jobs which may not be filled because students will still be spending their time in the classroom. We must try and look at this situation not in terms of students who lose these hours of wages, but in terms of how this situation might put pressure on the Government. Looking at it in terms of the latter, leaving the strike is prolonged will affect company’s seeking to recruit employees, and affect municipalities in general, impair the quality of education and job training, delay the beginning of the new University session, and generally create serious organizational problems in schools with the cost of extending the strike growing daily, especially when considered along with the delay in resuming courses.
This not to mention the price to be paid by the government for the municipal services of the police during demonstrations, occupations, the barricading of bridges, and other « set-in’s », or the fact that the strike has begun to spread as far as to some secondary schools.
There will come a time when the price that the government (and by extension, we the taxpayers) pay for these problems will be higher than any increase in tuition fees.
To Cancel or not to Cancel the Session
If the government refuses to back down, and the strike is forced to continue, cancelling the session might be an effective means of getting the message across. However, this possibility is really quite… impossible. This option is logistically difficult, especially when considering the chaos that might ensue if the extended end of the fall session runs into the summer, and the arrival of new students when the students form the fall session are still attending courses, not to mention, the sudden shortage of graduating students whose availability for employment will be delayed.
The idea of cancelling the session at the last minute, then, would pose a great threat to the government, and should be considered the students’ ultimate weapon. In proposing to cancel classes, the government will really feel pressured to reconsider the hike in tuition.
This is a student strike, unlike any strike in the public service. The government does not have the right to press charges or to motion for a special Act or Bill against strikers unions or associations.
The question « What can possibly effectively push the Government into meeting our demands? » can only be answered by careful negotiation. It has always been the case that when students strike, at any time, in any country, solidarity and taking to the streets is the only way to render the government powerless to our forces. This is at all times, in all countries: when students strike, remain solidarity and appear in the streets, the Government is powerless to their challenge, unless they resort to sending in the army. But there is no Tiananmen Square in Quebec…
The government has its feet and fists bound, and can only hope that the student movement loses its momentum. But this is far from the case; momentum is gathering in the struggle. Still, the government certainly seems to be hoping the protests will die down.
We have only to think of the recent pronouncements of Charest, Bachand, and Beauchamp: « la decision est prise (the decision has been made) », « nous ne reculons pas (we will not back down) ». An opposing reaction on their part would have been stupefying. They seek to discourage the strikers, but fail to recognize our power to apply pressure in the negotiations. With three or four more weeks of students striking in significant numbers, and with two or three more national protests, the government may have to But even three or four weeks of strike d’ a number significant d’ students, combined with one or two other national events, and the Government will have no choice but to back down a little.
The question remains as to whether the strike movement can and should be sustained for another month.