On March 13, the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) held a highly-attended General Assembly (GA) in the SSMU building. Over 1,100 students voted on whether arts undergraduates should go on strike in opposition to the Quebec government’s proposed tuition fee increases. The result was close; but the attendees ultimately voted against going on strike by a margin of 609 to 495, with 16 abstentions. Given that the quorum for the GA was 150, the result is constitutionally binding for the AUS. And yet, the crucial question facing arts undergraduates this week is whether, by extension, the AUS vote is also binding for departmental student societies.
Student societies such as the Political Science Students Association (PSSA) have argued that the AUS GA’s result is binding and have consequently decided not to stage a strike vote. But the Department of English Students’ Association (DESA) held its own GA last Monday, March 19, attended by 85 students, and voted to go on strike. As a consequence, there has been extensive picketing outside lecture halls, leading to numerous English classes being cancelled. Last night, the strike renewal vote failed, but other departmental student associations are set to vote on whether to join the strike or renew the mandate to strike later in the week.
These departmental strike GAs are unprecedented. When political initiatives are unprecedented, it does not mean they are without foundation, but it does mean that its legitimacy can only lie in a close reading of the AUS constitution. There may indeed be faults with the AUS constitution in its current form, and it could certainly be argued that the format of the AUS GA was far from ideal: a truly representative and feasible GA is only possible once an online voting system is introduced. But until the constitution is reformed, its stipulations that the GA is a politically binding legislative body must be upheld in the meantime if student democracy is to remain credible.
And a close reading of the AUS constitution leads to the conclusion that departmental GAs are unconstitutional in this case. Article 8.7 of the AUS constitution clearly states that “Departmental Associations shall recognize the supremacy of the AUS.” Since the AUS GA has already settled the issue that arts undergraduates will not join the Quebec-wide student strike, continuing to propose striking at departmental GAs is a failure to recognise the AUS GA as a binding legislative body of the AUS. It is an undermining of AUS authority over departmental societies.
The constitutional question is not one-sided. Departmental student societies recognise the higher authority of the AUS in their constitutions and the mandate for these organisations is supposed to be a promotion of educational and learning experience. The AUS’s broader mandate makes it a more appropriate forum for organizing strikes.
The Tribune therefore believes that departmental societies do not have a right in this case to propose strikes after they were voted against in the GA. Furthermore, there have been instances of student groups holding strike GAs for their departments that are not even affiliated with that department’s student association. The implications of these autonomous GAs further undermine the student democratic process.
It is also important to note that any picketing done by those who do strike should not go so far as to deny other students’ right to education. That would be excessively hypocritical.