- Interview by
- Eleni Schirmer
Across Quebec this week, 35,000 students enrolled in social work, education, nursing, and psychology programs are striking in protest of the critical — but unpaid — labor they provide through their internship training programs. Social-work interns manage caseloads. Education interns write and deliver lesson plans. Nursing interns see patients and complete charting. Yet none are paid for this work.
They are students, the argument goes, and therefore they should pay, not be paid, for these experiences. Yet students in male-dominated fields — engineering, for example — aren’t subject to the same logic; internships in male-dominated fields in the province are paid. This is a strike, thus, for students, for workers, and for women’s work.
The movement is quick to reject an official leader or spokesperson, but Eleni Schirmer, an educational policy studies graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison caught up with a few organizers — Isabelle Cheng, student in psychology and member of CUTE-UQAM, and Paolo Miriello-Lapointe, member of the Montreal Coalition for Paid Internships — to learn more.
Thirty-five thousand people are on strike this week across Quebec. Who are these people? What are they fighting for?
This Monday, about 38,457 students went on strike in Québec City, Victoriaville, Sherbrooke, Montreal, Trois-Rivières, and Gatineau (the number varies every day). These students are in programs like occupational therapy, education, midwifery, social work, journalism, community and public affairs, and the social sciences.
The central demand of the strike is for internships at all levels of study to be paid like any other job. Many of these internships are mandatory and take up hundreds of hours per semester, for which students receive zero pay. Unpaid work leaves the most precarious students among us to fend for themselves. 74 percent of unpaid internships are held by women. We also find more working-class people, parents, immigrants, and adults returning to school in programs with unpaid internships.
Additionally, students want their internships to be recognized under Quebec’s labor-norms law for protection in case of accidents, harassment, or assault of any sort in the workplace. Under the current conditions, internships are not considered employment under Quebec labor law. This means that interns have little or no protection from unsafe working conditions, harassment, and long work hours.
We see students forcing themselves to continue working in abusive environments out of fear of failing a class or not graduating. Female interns are particularly vulnerable to harassment and often feel they’re not in a position to report it. Many fields require students to do internships, and for women in those internships, there’s no true recourse to voice their concerns when they face harassment and bullying. They have to be silent in order to not have a long-term impact on their work or academic career.
This week’s strike has been years in the making. What has the build-up and organizing looked like?
After a strike attempt during Spring 2015 against austerity, the student movement experienced a high level of apathy. In an attempt to revive the movement, in 2016 different student groups in Quebec began organizing around the question of unpaid internships. Most notably, the Student Work Unitary Committees (in French, Comités Unitaires sur le Travail Étudiant, or CUTE, as they are usually referred to in both English and French) — a network of autonomous student committees existing across a variety of college and university campuses — began agitating.
We were concerned with unpaid internships, which we saw as part of a larger struggle. Inspired by the Wages for Housework international campaign in the 1970s and the demand for a wage for students in Quebec, France and the US, the CUTEs make the case that since school work is a form of reproductive labor and that all labor deserves a wage, students should demand a wage for their school work.
At the same time, doctorate-level psychology interns across Quebec in Fall 2016 won a financial compensation program for their internships provided by the provincial government. These interns hadn’t been organizing with the student movement and leftist groups, such as CUTE, but their wins caught our attention.
While we were inspired by their wins, we noted two main drawbacks to their victory. First, their compensation program has to be renegotiated periodically and is therefore unlikely to increase or even keep up with inflation without recurring mobilizing efforts. Second, the interns did not win a guaranteed compensation; they won a lump-sum amount for the entire province’s psychology interns. Depending on the university, interns may not receive the full amount promised. One university, for example, has proposed a conducting a random drawing for compensation. When viewed in light of the hundreds of hours these interns worked, the lump-sum grant was a nominal payment — hardly even a compensation.
So CUTE militants took this inspiration and began organizing with other groups. This time, however, we demanded not just compensation but a wage. We also demanded that interns receive the legal status of workers, in order to receive social protections from the state. The demand should include all internships in all fields of study to avoid hierarchies between different sectors of training and employment. Every hour of work is an hour that must be paid, we demanded.
Starting in 2016’s fall semester, we organized many workshops and mobilized on various campuses throughout Quebec to gain attention to unpaid internships and more broadly student work. In February 2017, we had the first day of striking. That day, we protested unpaid internships in front of the National Labor Meetup, a gathering of government, public administration, unions, chambers of commerce representatives. CUTE continued mobilizing across different regions across the province.
We set a strike day for November 2017, with more than 20,000 students participating. The following semester, 15,000 students went on strike in February 2018, and 30,000 students walked out of their courses and internships for International Women’s Day on March 8.
This provoked a reaction from the provincial government, which announced just a few weeks later that it would provide financial compensation for the fourth and final obligatory internship in education. While this proved that the interns’ strike could work, it was also seen as an attempt to divide students by granting a victory only to those in education, who are among those most involved in mobilizing. We took this as proof that our methods were effective.
Over the coming months, organizing efforts continued to spread into different regions, ultimately leading to a week of strikes from November 19–23, 2018, when 58,000 students went on strike. This sent an ultimatum to the government: Pay your interns now, or we will go on an unlimited general strike in the winter of 2019.
On the very first day of the week-long strike, Minister of Education and Higher Education Jean-François Roberge organized a press conference asking students “not to barge through an open door” on the grounds that the newly elected conservative Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government needed time to analyze the situation and come up with a solution.
While this was happening, the major national student federations, the FECQ (College Student Federation of Quebec) and UEQ (Student Union of Quebec, whose membership is composed of university student associations), seized the opportunity to meet with the minister behind closed doors and negotiate on behalf of the students on strike — although their constituent members, the local student associations, had not been involved in the strikes.
Unsurprisingly, militants in the Regional Coalitions quickly denounced these negotiations. Not only did the national federations speak to the media and meet with the government on behalf of a movement they weren’t leading, but they proposed weaker demands that only amount to a fraction of what striking interns are fighting for.
The Montreal Regional Coalition issued an official response accusing the FECQ of political co-optation, using the strike movement as an opportunity to advance its own agenda in a way that permanently divides interns based on whether or not they provide goods and services during their training.
Since then, the recent strike mandates have been voted on in a large number of general assemblies. Although many students will be striking on multiple dates throughout the coming weeks, most student associations have not adopted an unlimited general strike mandate. We are now waiting to see what the reaction of the government during this week of strike will be to determine our future strategy.
You’ve talked about how this as a struggle over feminized labor. Can you explain?
Since the beginning, we have been inspired by the different women’s strikes in Argentina, Poland, Iceland, New York, and elsewhere calling for solidarity between women and sharing their experiences of oppression based on the exploitation of their labor. The appropriation of women’s time and bodies, as well as the lack of recognition of their work, forces them into a situation of increased vulnerability to their bosses, parents, partners, and professors.
The strike for paid internships holds in its roots the recognition of this reproductive labor. It’s a matter of equal pay. We argue that unpaid internships reflect a gendered division of labor, based on a separation between what is considered to be either productive or reproductive.
While paid internships are found in traditionally male-dominated, “productive” fields, most of the unpaid internships are found in fields of study related to reproductive labor. And these internships are actually preparation for lifelong exploitation: the jobs of social workers, teachers, childhood educators, occupational therapists, sexologists, nurses, and midwives, among others, are all associated with unpaid hours, self-sacrifice, and a supposedly natural tendency for women to educate and care.
By asking for a wage, we want to break the “natural” association between women and free labor. And for us this symbolic recognition starts with a wage, to improve our material conditions.
So this is a feminist struggle in its aims. How has that impacted the processes of organizing this strike as well?
The struggle in 2012 left many militants, particularly women, bitter by the violence within the ranks of the movement itself. In 2012, when many spokespersons of national student unions leveraged their notoriety to jump-start their professional and political careers, countless student activists were left to mend their wounds and question the organizing methods that gave way to a concentration of power, and so much psychological and sexual abuse. How could a movement that seemed so progressive on the surface reproduce the oppressions it claimed to be fighting against? [In 2012, Quebec students led a six-month strike against rising tuition. Some female activist leaders were concerned with sexism they had experienced within the movement; later, activists came forward with accounts of rape and sexual violence.]
In reflecting upon the shortcomings of student organizing, for us the only way to challenge gendered division of labor and the creation of specific expertise held by male student activists was to organize the strike on more decentralized, autonomous basis. We wanted to include more people in the decision-making, avoiding separation between the students on strike and the ones representing them, and make sure women held leadership positions. We insisted on decentralized organization, encouraged task rotation — including for media representation, accompanying new people in new tasks. We know it is not perfect, but we are trying to build our movement on a more solid foundation — and it has paid off.
This is a Quebec-wide movement that has been organized with high levels of coordination and high levels of regional decentralization. Can you explain?
ASSÉ, the Quebec student federation that spearheaded the strike in Spring 2012, is actually on the verge of dissolution. Since the beginning of the campaign three years ago, a handful of CUTE activists in Montreal, Sherbrooke, Gatineau, and later on in Quebec and the Laurentides organized Regional Coalitions for Paid Internships. These became coalitions for interns, students, student associations, autonomous student committees, and individuals to coordinate their efforts towards an unlimited general strike.
While the CUTEs continue to organize autonomously, the campaign has effectively been planned through Regional Coalitions, independent of all national student federations. Regional coalitions were challenging nationalists and national structures based on the idea that they allow a metropolitan clique to set themselves up as a national coordination. It was an attempt to create a structure that can take in account different regional specificities (like local allyships and varieties of programs with unpaid internships) and decentralize decision-making.
The organization of the Regional Coalitions have been inspired and taken cues from Jo Freeman’s essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Committees are created based on the needs of the Coalitions, and delegates are named on a voluntary basis to ensure that militants take responsibility for the work that is expected of them. Since we don’t have official spokespersons, media requests for interviews are distributed among militants. We compose a new delegation each time we have meetings with the government. In both cases, women, trans and non-binary persons are given priority over cis men; ideally, they must be interns themselves. Tasks are taken up on the basis of interest, ability and responsibility.
Although this leads to certain militants regularly accomplishing the same tasks, efforts are made to ensure that different authors contribute to writing new texts and that militants get the opportunity to develop organizational skills such as facilitating meetings or organizing events. We use a website, email lists, and Facebook groups to share information as quickly as possible, including the rapid publication of meeting minutes.
What kind of solidarity and public support is the movement receiving? Where does its main opposition come from?
On November 10, 2017, we participated in the Global Interns Day by launching a declaration where we invited student groups, feminist committees, unions, and other political groups in Mexico, the US, and Canada to sign a declaration of solidarity with interns. As of now, seventy-three organizations have signed the “Enough! Stop the exploitation of interns!” declaration.
Since then, we also invited organizations and associations of professionals (unions but not exclusively) to stand publicly in solidarity with interns on strike and to respect strike mandates in their workplaces. This was a challenge at the beginning because many unions are built on professional identities, and our campaign was specifically challenging this view by putting together what is common between disciplines.
Nevertheless, once some unions started to take position in favor of the campaign, recognizing that austerity budgets and other cuts in health, education, and social services has led to the replacement of workers by unpaid interns, the others followed shortly. We can now count on the support of main unions in Quebec.
During our organizing, the main opposition received has come from some left-wing students and teachers about their opposition to the idea of students being paid a wage to study at school or during an internship. According to them, remunerating students would imply a commodification of knowledge and educational establishments. By this logic, then, we should ask faculty to give up their salary! That’s ridiculous!
Who would work without being paid? These are the questions that Silvia Federici asked to teachers opposed to the campaign during a conference in Montreal organized by CUTEs. For us, those who claim that a wage would decrease the time we can be free of commodity relations are operating from a pretty elitist understanding of freedom. We already know that capitalism relies on exploiting the unpaid work of millions of workers. Paying us for what we are already doing without pay can liberate hours otherwise dedicated to wage labor.
In 2012, Quebec students made history by leading massive strikes against tuition hikes. How does this strike continue that movement? Where does it diverge from it?
Among the student left in 2012, the discourse was essentially based on a critique of commodification of education, the announced increase in tuition fees being an illustration of the transformation of our universities. In that respect, there is continuity because both struggles were a fight to increase accessibility to higher education.
However, for the CUTEs, tuition fees are not the only the barrier to education. Education, and especially post-secondary education, is an institution of class reproduction. Therefore, a universal student wage goes further in offering decent study conditions for all.
Rather than being seen as customers of an academic institution who must work on the side to make ends meet during their training, CUTEs propose a conceptualization of studies as work. It places us in a different interaction with the public sector, as we position the state as a regulator of education and training of the future workforce.
We hold not just the private sector, but the state accountable for the transformation of our education. For example, the public sector is one of the most important employers of unpaid interns (hospitals, schools, museums, community agencies, etc. funded partially or in whole by public funding). Since the 2008 financial crisis, the number of unpaid internships has exploded in multiple fields.
The fact that this explosion corresponds to a period of austerity and weak economic growth reveals the true motives behind the absence of pay for so many internships: reducing costs for businesses and public services like health and education. This explosion also speaks volumes about their relevance within training programs: internships were not considered essential to learning a trade before becoming necessary for economic and political reasons.
How do you hope these strikes impact and shape future labor and student movements? What broader movements do you see this mobilization feeding into?
First, from an organizational perspective, we insisted on having as many interns as possible able to defend the campaign and organize on their own, without the intermediary of the student associations representatives or any politicians. For us, this autonomous organizing, building links between sectors, can be replicated in different workplaces, as the students involved now will graduate and work in community agencies, hospitals, schools, and social services. After all, the recognition of work during unpaid internships and student work is part of the whole struggle against unpaid and unrecognized work.
And this is the second aspect that we wish to transmit: we presented this campaign as the student facet of the broader fights for the recognition of reproductive labor. Our role as student activists is also to understand the unpaid internship and the exploitation of women’s work in relation to other feminist struggles and to avoid making them an independent problem or struggle.
We need to listen how the work of women has been made invisible, and we need to link our battle with the struggles of nurses, caregivers, mothers, sex workers, and migrant workers and recognize that we are inspired by them. That’s also what the labor movement can learn from women’s struggles related to reproductive labor but that hasn’t been considered as work by the state or by the labor movement itself. It’s time we collectively examine what keeps women in precarious and disempowered positions, where they can become targets of abuse and exploitation.