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A strike is not a cute thing we do only when it's convenient

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
A strike is not a cute thing we do only when it's convenient
A strike is not a cute thing we do only when it's convenient

To the Simone de Beauvoir Institute (SdBI) from The Women and Sexuality Studies Students (WSSA) 2015 Strike Committee

An Open Letter

April 20, 2015.

We write this Open Letter in response to recent communications from the SdBI, taking inspiration from the Open Letter published by our friends at the McGill WSSA. It is clear to us that the repression faced by the McGill WSSA Strike Committee during their two-week strike this month from their department (the IGSF) is similar to that which we are now facing from our department, despite claims of being “allies”, “in support” and “in solidarity as feminists against austerity”.

Concordia WSSA has been on a renewable strike against the Quebec government’s austerity measures since March 30th. We have held General Assemblies every week since this day, during which our strike mandate has been renewed consistently. Since March 30th, we have been actively organizing against the Quebec government’s austerity measures and Concordia’s ambiguous stance in a variety of ways, including planning demonstrations, workshops, discussions, potlucks, banner making, and attending other actions.

Our strike has been part of the wider student mobilization and social movement against the harsh austerity measures imposed by a morally and ethically questionable government. A government that does not even hide defending the interests of the rich and powerful over the interests of the rest of the population, particularly those who are already marginalized and disenfranchised.

The neoliberal austerity measures we are fighting against are affecting us all, in Québec and abroad. To quote the principal of the Institute, Geneviève Rail, in a memo that was circulated to all members of the Institute:

"austerity has a disproportionate impact on women and marginalized people. Furthermore, austerity means incredible funding cuts to education generally, and to Concordia in particular. As SdBI Principal, I am extremely upset with the government and see Concordia University and our SdBI as being severely and negatively affected by austerity.”


Austerity is a feminist issue

As students on strike, and as people taking part in the wider anti-austerity struggle, we are actively fighting state violence, something that, as feminists, we believe our Professors and Principal of the Institute can probably all relate to or at least understand.

This violence manifests itself in many ways.

  • It manifests in the visible police brutality and repression of dissent taking place on the streets and on campuses, with rapidly increasing amounts of resources invested in securitization while severe cuts are imposed on social services, education and healthcare.

  • It is the proposed political expulsions of 9 students at UQAM and the surrounding Universities that do not condemn this action

  • This violence is also cuts and bureaucratic reforms in the healthcare system which will be detrimental to women doctors and which endangers the accessibility of abortion and reproductive health services.

  • It is the social-economic violence that already marginalized groups will face through these cuts such as: cutting services for people with disabilities, low income housing funding, child-care services, employment support for youth and immigrants, gross cuts to education and so on.

  • This violence is expressed also in the displacement of state investments from social services to infrastructure building and extractive endeavours which are part of a long-standing colonial and environmentally destructive project on Indigenous lands.  

The list could go on and on, but our point here is that those who are serious about their intersectional feminist politics should be serious about resisting the neoliberal, patriarchal, and colonial austerity project that is being implemented right before our eyes. The reasons behind our strike are a mise en action of the feminist critical thinking that we have developed during our studies at the Institute.


Striking is not a cute thing we do only when it’s convenient

Though we have had various levels of support from our Principal and full and part-time faculty for the first weeks of the strike, this stance has changed drastically in the past few days.

Not only are we fighting state violence, but on top of that we now are forced to fight institutional repression here at Concordia, and here at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute.

The pressure coming from the government and the administration continues to be deflected back onto students. Our strike has been labelled as “counterproductive” by the Principal of the Institute in a public email. We were even labelled “bullies” for upholding a strike mandate that has been voted democratically in our General Assemblies. In fact, our mere presence in the space of the Institute was labelled “intimidating” by the Principal of the Institute, who has newly barred students from using the Institute’s space for organizing.

We understand that the SdBI, as a small, underfunded, and undervalued institute at Concordia, is under pressure from the Administration and the Quebec government more generally to end our strike. We understand that the SdBI is receiving threats that their professors, precarious workers like those we seek to support through our strike, and like many of us, could lose their jobs or not be paid for their labour if they attempt to accommodate or support striking students.*

What we do not understand is why they might choose to accept these conditions wholesale. Instead of working with us as we put ourselves at risk to challenge those above them in the university hierarchy, some have proceeded to repress our resistance to these forces. We do not understand why, if members of the SdBI are against our strike, they must couch this in accusations of counterproductivity and bullying instead of engaging honestly with the pressures we all face.*

Many faculty members have retracted their material support of the strike. Instead of extending deadlines for final assignments, and thus transferring the pressure higher up on the university hierarchy and helping us get the semester extended, many professors, even full-time tenured professors with job security, are, directly or indirectly, forcing students to choose between failing their classes, or respecting the strike. Some have begun complaining that we are only making them vulnerable or inconveniencing them in their work schedule.

They say we are not taking responsibility for our strike. On the contrary, we ask for assignment extensions so that our classmates do not break the strike. We ask for assignment extensions so that our professors will work with us to pressure the administration. This is our strike, undoubtedly, but it has never been divorced from the faculty. We have put countless hours into finding ways to support our professors in this situation. We have done our best to communicate our democratically voted mandate and its implications clearly and openly. We only expected minimum solidarity from them by respecting their students’ strike mandate within the limits of their contractual obligations, and by not using their power to punish students. Most of them have not met these minimal expectations.

We understand that professors don’t have to do this, but in a program where most of our learning is focused on social justice, collective organizing, challenging power structures and privileges, we -perhaps naively- thought that if they did not want to actively support the strike, would at least not use their power and position to repress the strike movement and punish students for their political activities.

Much of our efforts have been centered around protecting professors’ labour rights; though we may have been out of class, we have spent countless hours researching and reading their labour unions’ collective agreements, meeting with CUPFA executives, obtaining information from other faculty unions across Quebec, and even using our time to push to be able to provide student evaluations for part-time faculty. We know that elsewhere in Quebec, professors support their students - the standard response is one of solidarity.

Students acting in accordance with the strike mandate have received personalized intimidation from professors. Some professors have failed to meet with the strike committee, despite our attempts to accommodate their needs, and despite our desire to work together to find solutions.

Feminist concepts have been deployed in favor of the interests of those in power. For example, access to education and labour precarity have been cited as reasons to end the strike, and women’s disproportionate vulnerability to austerity has been contradictorily claimed as a reason to stop fighting against austerity.

What would it mean for the Institute to truly be in solidarity with the WSSA student strike?

Solidarity should not be defined by those in power, but by those with whom one claims to be in solidarity.

We are happy that the Principal and professors can speak from a (and we quote) “privileged position” as administrators, as tenured academics, even as part-time teachers. One thing we have learned through our studies at the Institute is that political change might not always come across as “convenient” to those in privileged positions.

Being privileged means a responsibility and accountability towards those you claim to support.

  • Passing institutional violence and disciplinary measures onto striking students is not support. It is not neutral. Passing pressure down the University hierarchy onto striking students is taking a stance -- a stance against the strike, a stance against the legitimacy of collective decision-making through general assemblies.

  • Setting hard deadlines for assignments during a strike is not support, it’s an invitation to violate the collectively determined strike mandate.

  • Claiming repeatedly that there is no hard deadline for turning in grades in during conversations with students and then sending emails to everyone with a hard deadline is not support. It is an invitation to strikebreaking that does not even allow for clear communication among striking students or the development of trust between students and professors.

  • Telling those who organize to fight for social justice that their struggle is “counterproductive” is not support, it is paternalistic micromanagement. We recognize that this movement is not perfect (to say the least), and we have a lot to learn from the mistakes we made. This is not a reason to punish us for trying. Support is not something you withdraw when you see that the wind starts blowing in the other direction.

  • Deciding to academically penalize striking students is not support, it is discipline. Blaming students for the consequences they are facing for striking by using a rhetoric of “it’s your strike so deal with the consequences” is hypocritically erasing the power that professors, the Principal, and the Institute as a unit have taken in enforcing those consequences. If this power is used against striking students, we cannot accept that you claim to support the strike. That is simply not true.

You tell us that “We need to work alongside (and not against) our institution to pressure the government into stopping the funding cuts.” We ask you to work alongside (and not against) us in enforcing our strike in our struggle to stop austerity measures.Telling us that our strike against austerity is a noble cause while using your power to end it is not support. This is not what solidarity looks like.

As we move into the most intense and crucial time of our strike, we ask that the Principal and our professors critically examine their political commitments. We ask that those who spend time teaching us about feminism and solidarity reconsider whether their actions and decisions are in line with their theories. We ask that they use language of “support”, “solidarity”, “sisterhood” and “allyship” with accountability to those they claim to be in solidarity with.

We ask that they recognize the legitimacy of the decisions made by our democratic collective decision-making structure. We ask for real support — like the extension of the semester, like pushing deadlines after the strike is over, like not punishing students who actively mobilize for the strike or professors who choose to support us.

Thank you to those who have consistently materially supported us, our fellow striking students at Concordia, our allies at WSSA McGill and at UQÀM, some members of the wider Simone de Beauvoir Institute community, and staff, and those few professors who have done what they can to help us through this process.

WSSA Mobilization - Concordia

“Feminist education - the feminist classroom - is and should be a place where there is a sense of struggle, where there is visible acknowledgement of the union of theory and practice, where we work together as teachers and students to overcome the estrangement and alienation that have become so much the norm in the contemporary university”
bell hooks (1989) Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Sheba, London, p.51

*The paragraphs followed by an asterisk are inspired from WSSA McGill Strike Committee's letter. We want to thank the WSSA McGill Strike Committee for sharing it and encouraging us to adapt parts of it in a spirit of solidarity and common struggle. <3


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