In response to the Ontario government’s massive cuts to education, including attacks on student representation and access for low income students, the Canadian Federation of Students have voted to mobilize and prepare for a General Strike.
For the first time in decades, Ontario students are mobilizing towards an unlimited general strike. While this is the right move, the student movement must build the education, strategy, muscle-memory, and horizontal direct-democracy required to pull off the strike we need to win.
While many are inspired by the 2012 student strike, the experience between those who organized it, those who took part, and those who watched from other provinces vastly differ from each other. For our friends in the rest of the Canada (ROC) who watched the massive nightly demos from their television sets, if they didn’t get their hot takes from Pastor Rex Murphy, they often concluded that the prevalence of rebellious French culture is what made for a successful strike in Quebec. Often with a quick remark about how Quebecers are more prone to taking to the streets than the loyal “business as usual” Anglo-Canadians. This lazy analysis couldn’t be more wrong. The ROC can be forgiven since other striking Quebec students like myself were removed from the many years of work it took to build the strike, but the work and strategy themselves aren’t unique to Quebec. These are the very basic syndicalist principles of direct democracy and horizontal organizing that’s existed for over a century around the world. It’s time they come to Ontario.
To be fair, Quebec has a unique history in regards to education. Since the Quiet Revolution, Quebecers have had the very idea of free education ingrained into a national identity. Even the PLQ (Parti libéral du Québec) promoted free education in one of their earlier publications. Thanks to strikes in 1968, 1974, 1978, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1996, 2005, and 2012, almost every generation of students learned firsthand that the strike is the best tool they have to fight attacks on free education. This cycle of capitalist attacks on education, followed by massive strike actions from students in its defense, has happened so often that it’s become almost ritualistic.
With this legacy, along with radical member-led student union ASSÉ, students in Quebec didn’t have the burden of starting from square one. The red square, for example, was a symbol from the 2005 Strike. Every student knew at least one family member, fellow student, or co-worker who had been through a strike, could speak to its merits and give advice to help avoid serious missteps. Still, that isn’t enough to organize 200,000 student under horizontal direct-democracy. So before any rallies, marches, or actions could take place and be featured in corporate media; a new generation of would-be organizers had to agitate, educate, inoculate, organize, and unite their peers.
Studentstrike.net documents how this was built from the ground up, as well as the critical role of the general assemblies. The first step however, was the establishment of a goal, strategy, and tactics.
The Goal: Force the Charest government to reverse their decision to raise tuition by 75%.
Strategy: 6-9 week general strike* to shut down all education and some economic institutions. Begin with strike mandates from smaller, more radical unions. Build on that momentum to get larger unions on board, and finally to get the more conservative unions and federations to join the strike or risk being eaten alive by the wave of agitated students and their allies.
Yes leafleting. The same boring old leafleting that your hippie uncle did at Berkeley in the 70s. No french cultural secrets or magical formulas. While there were plenty of other tactics used, this was the first, and one that Ontario students could learn a lot from. Because It’s not that they simply had leaflets, or that they were amazing (really, just the best) leaflets. It’s that they didn’t stop. They never stopped. Up until the very end, they were leafleting. Every single campus printer was going non-stop and could barely keep up.
Let’s find square one and start together.
If students weren’t leafleting to promote and explain why we need to strike, they were getting others on board to leaflet with them. If it wasn’t leafleting, it was putting up posters around campus to dispel the blatant lies the pro-business media were making about the students. If it wasn’t postering, it was holding workshops on the general strike and how to win. If it wasn’t workshops, it was making quick videos about their stories and why they need to keep education accessible for all. There was a role for everyone a year or more leading up to the strike and this became critical.
Not everyone is an organizer or a protest superhero but when you’ve been leafleting all day and you see your efforts shit on in the news by wealthy men and their corporate lackeys, you get pretty pissed off. You might make another, more radical leaflet or poster in response and double down your efforts. Hundreds of students became radicalized in this way before the strike began or a rally was held. Once radicalized and educated, students held massive general assemblies to attain mandates on strike action and provide direction to elected representatives.
In Ontario, rallies are usually the best that we and our top-down student unions can come up with. We burn ourselves out trying to get people to show up and then become frustrated when nothing comes of it. After a poor turnout, we sometimes vent publicly about how Ontarians need to “wake up!” or some similar aggression. This endless cycle of throwing whatever we can against the wall and watching in despair as nothing sticks is harmful to our cause and our own mental health. But most of all, it leaves nothing behind for those who will take on the struggle after us.
In short, there is no magical trick or lifehack for a revolutionary general strike. Like anything in life, it must be built brick by brick. That’s the lesson we need to take to heart. Students are workers and we share a common history with class struggle all over the world. We need to see ourselves as part of this legacy and learn from it. Let’s find square one and start together. Start leafleting, hold organizer trainings and strike workshops on campuses. Begin the groundwork for student-led organizing as enjoyed by ASSÉ. Promote the revolutionary idea that students are workers, as CUTE has done in Quebec. From there, if we’re committed and serious enough, we can build a radical, horizontal, directly democratic student worker-union movement that doesn’t just win but defends those wins and keeps winning for generations to come.
*The strike would gain enough momentum to last 6 months