Since February, tens of thousands of Quebec students have been on strike against tuition increases that will raise their fees by 82 per cent over seven years. The strike has been so successful that the provincial government was compelled to pass an emergency law, Bill 78, that effectively outlawed it by criminalising picketing and other forms of campus protest. Public reaction to the law has been even stronger, and in May Quebeckers poured out of their homes and into the streets each night at 8pm in noisy defiance of the restrictions. The tuition rises are a central theme in campaigning for elections in the province, which take place on 4 September.
The scale of the protests is astounding. There have been more than 100 consecutive nightly demonstrations, and solidarity marches held on the 22nd of each month routinely draw more than 100,000 people. Although it feels spontaneous, the Quebec student movement has succeeded because of its organisational strategies and the hard work of activists who have spent months mobilising their campuses. For anyone wondering how to keep affordable higher education on the public agenda, the campaign offers important lessons.
The current student movement emerged as part of the Quiet Revolution in 1960s Quebec, which brought secularisation and greater rights for francophones as well as the province's first students' unions. Free secondary and post-secondary education were among the radical ideas of that moment, and although the goal of free university tuition has not been realised, costs remain low by Anglo-American standards. This is because several generations of students' unions have used the tactic of unlimited general strikes to fight for (or, more recently, to merely preserve) accessible higher education in the province.
Since 1968, students have staged nine general strikes, with the current one being the largest and by far the longest to date. They are rooted in the organisational principles of syndicalism, a form of worker self-management. The students' unions adopted the French Charter of Grenoble as the basis for their first constitutions, which conceived of students as intellectual workers legally entitled to exercise trade union rights. Although their ideological approaches to syndicalism have ranged from the reformist to the revolutionary, student unionists share the belief that the movement must be directed by students themselves, through confederations of local associations and regular general assemblies.
The Quebec student movement demonstrates one successful model for long-term organising among precarious or transitory populations. For most people, "student" is a temporary institutional identity in a way that other identifications such as class, gender, race and sexuality are not. Despite constant turnover of their members, students' unions remain a powerful force in provincial politics, even as they struggle to transform them.
While successive provincial governments have tried to shift the cost of education and other public goods on to users, the Quebec student movement has done more than any other group to keep higher education squarely on the public agenda. Like the Occupy movement, it has held together as a unity of diverse political factions, emphasising shared goals over ideological dis-agreements. And like Occupy, the Quebec student movement challenges economic policies that promote the increasingly unfair distribution of wealth, infrastructure and opportunity in our societies.