One of the most crucial aspect of the 2012 Quebec student strike is that it was driven almost exclusively by student unions. This may seem surprising given the fact that today, representative student organisations everywhere seem almost completely co-opted by administrations and political parties. Many shy away from political action altogether and focus heavily on entertainment and cultural activities. By allowing themselves to become breeding grounds for managers and politicians, they have made themselves powerless to challenge education policies at any significant level.

Of course, many student unions in Quebec fit this description. But what’s characteristic of the student movement in Quebec is its strong syndicalist wing. Hailing from the very beginnings of student action in the sixties and inspired by early labor movements, it has refused to break from its history of radicalism. At the same time, it has kept alive a model of collective action: syndicalism.

While syndicalist unions in the student setting might not be a given, they can still make a lot of sense. To be sure, students don’t form a homogenous class to the same degree that workers do. On any given campus, students with a really wealthy background might rub shoulders with others who can barely make ends meet. But despite these different socio-economic backgrounds, students do form a community and they do have a certain set of common interests, independent of their political, philosophical or religious opinions. There is no shortage of issues which can cement support for student unions and which call out for protest.

At the same time, faced with strong adversity and a difficult organising context, many will choose to form or join campus activist clubs. Yet these tiny groups with little resources can’t hope to give birth to a movement on the scale of the 2012 Quebec student strike. As Jonathan Matthew Smucker of Alternet writes, “In a society that is self-selecting into ever more specific micro-aggregations, it makes sense that activism itself could become one such little niche. But when it comes to challenging entrenched power, we need more than little niches.” [1]

On the other hand, due to their nature, student unions aren’t automatically geared toward empowerment and social change. Through experience, the Quebec student movement has found certain useful concepts and practices which can help steer such organisations toward these goals.

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