It’s important to understand what is meant by “unlimited general strike”. In Quebec, a student strike isn’t just a bunch of rallies, marches and occupations. The strike is a complete shutdown of all courses on campus : no classes, no exams and no evaluations are to take place while the strike is on. Once the strike is voted in a general assembly and comes into effect, picket lines are erected and classrooms are emptied. Everyone, students and faculty alike, is forced to respect the strike mandate. Universities and colleges affected by the strike see their academic calendars disrupted, and since no classes or grading is allowed to happen, degrees can’t be awarded.
While student unions are recognized by university administrations and by the government, student strikes, however, have no such legal standing. Although not illegal in and of themselves, most of the tactics used by students to enforce their strikes are.
A common argument made to delegitimize this tactic suggests that students were the only ones losing out by going on strike. Since they already paid for the education, boycotting it made no sense. Would anyone go to Wal-Mart, buy a TV and then just leave it boxed up in the living room as a form of protest?
However, student strikes are more similar to worker strikes than they might seem at first glance. Of course, students are penalized by missing their classes, just like workers losing out on their paycheck. But, when the goal is to massively paralyze the education system — which can be understood as a factory producing wage workers — then huge sectors of the economy could be threatened by a workforce shortage.
The fact that business and state officials have claimed and shown that student strikes shouldn’t be tolerated is further proof that they’re an effective way of applying pressure.
In short, the strike is a complete blockade of classes; it’s unlimited when the general assemblies vote to maintain this blockade as long as the issue isn’t settled; and it’s general when lots of unions and campuses join the movement.
During the 2012 strike, most student unions held general assemblies every week to decide whether or not to stay on strike until the next assembly. While doing so, students meeting each other could also discuss the orientation and the actions of the movement. These regular and populous assemblies were fundamental in creating empowerment and a deep investment into the movement among students.
In large universities with tens of thousands of students, the strike was voted and enforced at the departmental or the school level, never campus-wide. Not only is it virtually impossible to build up enough cohesion to effectively enforce a strike at that level, but holding regular general assemblies with more than about 3000 participants is a logistical nightmare. On the other hand, strikes in smaller institutions, (typically under 7000 students) were voted and enforced campus-wide.
» Further reading : How exactly do we enforce a strike?