Student Unionism: A Worker-Centered Strategy for Labor Renewal

In the run-up to the AFL-CIO National Convention, the blogosphere is buzzing with debate about how to reverse labor’s decades-long decline in member numbers and power. In the proposal that follows, Erik Forman argues that we can build labor’s future in the present by organizing student unions modeled after Quebec’s ASSÉ to combat the student debt and tuition crisis, in the process incubating the working class leaders of the next labor insurgency. Interested? Read the proposal, and get in touch.

In Spring 2012, Quebec student unions struck to beat back a proposed 75% tuition increase at the public university system. They won. The government agreed to maintain tuition rates of $2168 for the 2012-2013 year, the lowest in the US and Canada, planning annual 3% increases for the future. The “Quebec Spring” involved over 400,000 students and workers mobilized through student unions allied with a broad labor and community coalition. The success of the Quebec student movement stands in stark contrast to the fate of students in the United States, who have seen tuition increase by more than 1120% in the past 30 years. [1]  With one year at a public university now costing an average of over $15,000, higher education has slipped out of reach for millions of working families.[2] As US activists seek to build a mass movement for accessibility to education, and as corporate influence on politics and the erosion of the juridical framework for student associations lock students’ voices out of the halls of power, the Quebec student unions offer a model worth emulating.

Beyond the urgent need to turn the tide of skyrocketing tuition, integrating a union-building strategy into the US student movement would trigger systemic change benefiting labor and many other social movements. Student unions could effect an end-run around barriers to reaching young workers in the workplace, bringing a new generation into the labor movement even before they enter the workforce. Politicizing and training a massive wave of future workers in union organizing techniques would lay the basis for a broad labor upsurge in years to come in emergent industries, particularly sectors that require specialized tertiary education such as healthcare, education, information technology, and certain branches of manufacturing. Because many students also currently work in low-wage sectors such as fast food and retail, it is likely that campus organizing would also boost organizing in these areas almost immediately. Beyond the walls of the workplace and campus, student union participants would bring union ideas to the kitchen tables of their parents’ households across the US, changing the conversation about labor unions and the public good. In addition, student unions would be unfettered by Taft-Hartley and other regressive labor laws, allowing them to offer much-needed tactical support in labor disputes.

This proposal outlines the events of the Quebec Spring, defines the Quebec student union organizing model, examines the probable impact of student unions on US society and labor, offers a basic one-year organizing plan, and forecasts potential outcomes of an organizing campaign.

Background: the Quebec Spring

On May 22, 2012, over 400,000 students, workers, and community allies took to the streets of Montreal in the largest demonstration in North American history against neoliberal austerity and restrictions on freedom of assembly. The march was in support of a student strike that began on February 13th shutting down most of Quebec’s higher education system in protest of a planned 75% tuition hike. At its peak, over 300,000 students were boycotting classes and participating in daily actions against the tuition increase. The strike continued into the late summer in spite of over 100 injunctions and “Special Law 78” which banned picketing around universities and imposed severe restrictions on demonstrations. Facing escalating economic disruptions from a robust coalition of labor unions, student unions, and community organizations, the center-right Liberal Party called special elections hoping to reassert its legitimacy. It was a miscalculation– through painstaking community organizing, the students and their allies had fully delegitimized the Liberal Party’s neoliberal rationale for the tuition hike. The Liberals lost and the Partí Quebecois came to power on promises to rescind Law 78 and the tuition increase. On September 5th, one day after taking office, the PQ made good on their pledge. They cancelled the 75% hike, and imposed an annual increase of 3% instead. For the 2012-2013 year, annual tuition at the public university system remained $2168, the lowest in the US and Canada. It was a victory for the largest class-based student movement in North American history.[3]

The Quebec Model

The main engine of the 2012 Quebec student strike was ASSÉ (l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante), which embraces a syndicalist organizing model. ASSÉ is a federation of 70,000 students in 35 democratically-run, dues-based, mass-membership associations of students organized on the basis of department, school, college, or university systems. ASSÉ and its affiliates use escalating direct action to win demands around tuition, quality of education, class sizes, and accessibility, while also advancing social causes such as environmentalism, anti-sexism, anti-racism, and anti-militarism. During the 2012 strike, ASSÉ initiated CLASSE, a temporary federation of associations with a total membership of 200,000 students united to win the strike. Some Quebec student unions make use of a 1983 law that sets up dues checkoff and other structures, some do not. Student unions exist in most countries around the world. The Quebec student unions are widely seen as the most organized and effective globally.

Why build student unions in the US?

In the past 30 years, university tuition has increased more than twelve-fold in spite of opposition by student activists and student government representatives. Current US student organizing simply lacks the power to stop or reverse the stratification of the US education system, much as the labor movement lacks the power to impede the stratification of our society. Only by building a mass base and developing the capacity for mass collective action will the US student movement be able to bring sufficient power to bear on policymakers to win fundamental change.

Beyond the dire need to address the crisis of accessibility to education, replicating the success of the Quebec Spring would trigger a sea change in US culture and politics, cutting the Gordian Knot of several interlinked crises for the US labor movement:

1. Generation Gap. As of 2010, workers ages 18-35 constituted 36% of the workforce, but only 25% of union membership.[4] Only 5.4% of workers ages 16-24 were in unions as of 2001, compared to 13.9% of all workers over age 16.[5] As current union members age out of the workforce, labor will face the challenge of replacing experienced union members and activists with young workers who will likely lack familiarity with the labor movement. A mass-based student union could close labor’s generation gap by acquainting a new generation of workers with union values and culture before they enter the workforce. As the example of Quebec illustrates, student unionism can become the wellspring of a renewed progressive labor movement by acculturating young workers to the power of solidarity and collective struggle, the practice of democracy in a mass organization, and techniques of union organizing. A new wave of pro-union youth would buoy efforts to organize young workers in emergent industries and bolster already-unionized sectors.

 2. Political and cultural isolation of labor. Recent attacks on public sector collective bargaining owed much of their effectiveness to successful right-wing framing of unions as a “special interest groups,” turning non-union workers against their unionized neighbors. This is no historical accident, it is the product of a decades-long ‘war of position’ waged by corporate elites against labor and its allies in civil society, with a particular emphasis on influencing the education system. For example, Walmart and other Fortune 500 corporations have funded the growth of Enactus, formerly known as Students in Free Enterprise, which boasts over 62,000 student members on 1600 campuses in 37 countries.[6] Enactus projects soft power for corporate culture on university campuses and acts as a recruiting pipeline for management. Labor can break corporate hegemony in the education system and society more broadly by repositioning itself as defender of the public good and supporting a mass movement against skyrocketing tuition and exploding student debt.[7] Mass-participation student unions would bring union culture into millions of new households across the country, changing the conversation about the role of unions in society.

3. Legal restrictions on union activity. The existing small student activist groups have already provided crucial support for campus-based labor unions and international anti-sweatshop campaigns across the US. Unfettered by Taft-Hartley and other anti-union restrictions, student unions involving much larger numbers of students could serve as a potent auxiliary for workers engaged in labor disputes.[8]

4. Increased barriers to new organizing. As globalization and technological change atomize the workplace and as employers adopt increasingly aggressive and sophisticated ‘union avoidance’ mechanisms, conventional union organizing is encountering increasingly insurmountable barriers.[9] The organization of large numbers of students into unions would alter the underlying dynamics of US culture, instilling union values and schooling young workers in union practices before or as they are entering the workforce. Such a project would effect an end-run around union avoidance techniques, and root unions not in workplaces that may disappear as technological change accelerates, but in the workforce itself.

Faced with shrinking budgets and increasing barriers to new organizing, a project to bring millions of young workers into the union fold is a wise move to incubate the labor movement’s future in the present. A campaign to build student unions would lay the foundation for a broad labor upsurge in the years to come as students bring their pro-union perspectives and organizing skills into the workplace, paralleling the upsurge in activism that the labor movement experienced as 1960s activists entered the workforce in the 1970s.[10]


Outline of a One-Year Organizing Plan

The foundation for a broad-based student union movement could be laid in less than a year. The following scalable plan offers a basic framework that would be modified based on interest and outcome of each phase:

Phase 1. Development of US-specific training materials and outreach to partner organizations. September 2013.

Drawing on the Quebec Model and proven union organizing techniques, we can develop a training for US student organizers, determine regions where organizing could achieve a high impact, and establish ties with existing student organizations. Organizing would prioritize community colleges, colleges, and universities with a predominantly working class student body, rather than the elite colleges and universities where most student activist groups are currently based. One possible high-impact target would be for-profit colleges and universities, which are responsible for some of the worst abuses of students. Labor unions could also sponsor targeted efforts in college systems that train nurses, educators, IT professionals, and other workers entering industries we seek to organize. This combination of targeted, top-down outreach to potential high-impact organizing sites and bottom-up coalition-building with existing organizations will lead to the creation of a network of student union initiatives in a cross-section of the US education system.

Phase 2. Recruit and train initial cohort of organizers and trainers. September-December 2013.

Through existing student conferences and special weekend sessions on campuses, we can train a cohort of organizers and trainers to launch student union initiatives or integrate union organizing techniques into existing student organizations in Fall 2013.

Phase 3. Organizing. September 2013-June 2014.

Student organizers will apply the student union model to their campuses, launching new student union initiatives or strengthening existing projects. These initiatives will be directed toward developing the leadership of a corps of organizers through carefully chosen department and campus-level issues, while reaching out to students across their college or university system to build an international movement around “big picture” tuition and student debt demands. National organizers will provide coaching and support through this process to maintain morale and steer organizers away from obvious pitfalls.

Phase 4. Convergence in Quebec. May/June 2014.

Activists in ASSÉ, the primary organizational mover of the Quebec Spring student strike, have invited student union organizers from across North America to a convergence in Montreal in May 2014. This convergence will likely be a formative experience for many activists who have never traveled outside the country or met as many like-minded young people. This experience will reinvigorate activists and form a cohort of new working class organizers with a long-term movement-building perspective.

Phase 5. Evaluation and planning. Summer 2014.

Following the first year of organizing, students will hold strategy conferences over the summer, evaluating the successes and failures of the first year of organizing, training a new wave of organizers, and laying plans for the year to come.

Potential Outcomes

While it is impossible to predict the outcome of a complex social process like an organizing campaign with complete accuracy, we can forecast several possible results from this basic organizing plan. The worst-case scenario is that few organizers adopt the student union model, fail to follow through on plans, and burn out. This is a risk in any organizing project, and can be minimized by providing consistent support and quality training. A more likely outcome is that at first, several dozen students in 5-10 college or university systems will build fledgling student unions over the next 1-2 years involving students in the hundreds or low thousands nationwide. This will expand the base of support for organizing and core of organizers, laying the basis for expanded student union organizing in years to come, moving us closer to the goal of winning accessible, quality education for all working people, and creating a new generation of pro-union young workers to buoy labor organizing for years to come.

Since this proposal was written, a network of student organizers in the US and Canada has formed to build student unions across North America. If you are interested in participating, get in touch.


About the Author

Erik Forman spent two months in Montréal researching student union organizing techniques in Spring 2013 to develop a model for building syndicalist student unions in the United States. For six years, he was a shopfloor organizer in the IWW’s groundbreaking union campaigns in fast food at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s. Forman has conducted organizer trainings in more than 22 countries for the IWW and other unions, and currently lives in China. He tweets from afar @_erikforman.





[3] St- Pierre, Renaud Poirier and Ethier, Philippe. De l’école à la rue: Dans les coulisses de la grève étudiante. Montreal: Écosocieté, 2013.


[5] The College Board, 2001. “Trends in Student Aid.”


[7] For an in-depth discussion of social movement unionism, see: “Social-Movement Unionism: A New Union Model for a New World Order?” Peter Waterman. Review (Fernand Braudel Center), Vol. 16, No. 3 (Summer, 1993), pp. 245-278. Published by: Research Foundation of SUNY for and on behalf of the Fernand Braudel Center. Article Stable URL:

[8] For a discussion of the legal restrictions to effective collective action, see: Burns, Joe. Reviving the Strike: How Working People Can Regain Power and Transform America. New York: Ig Publishing, 2011.

[9] Bronfrenbrenner, Kate. “No Holds Barred: the Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing.” EPI & American Rights at Work Report, 2009. Accessed at:

[10] Brenner, Aaron; Brenner, Robert; and Cal Winslow. Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt During the Long 1970s. New York: Verso, 2010.

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