Tag Archives: university

Avoiding the shaft: no concessions for young workers

5 Jun

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 5.47.29 PMA couple of years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine; a department chair at a program at Ryerson.

I was telling him that my partner started teaching at Ryerson, in another faculty, and was being paid about $5000 for the course. This was to cover four months of weekly three hour classes, six hours of prep time per class, office hours, a month of exam re-scheduling (and re-re-scheduling), assignment marking and invigilation. The class wasn’t too big, just 30 students, but we had calculated that he was getting ripped off. Ryerson, of course, was getting a deal.

He was a unionized member of CUPE 3904. His work undercut the necessity of hiring new professors. If a full semester of classes (5) cost Ryerson $25,000 to offer, and an awful job market was forcing PhDs to take these exploitative positions, Ryerson had no reason to actually hire a professor who would cost a great deal more to the university at at least $75,000.

Years and years of this kind of logic and these trade-offs, aided by the government’s preference to fund scandals over higher education, has created this large underclass of workers at Ontario’s colleges and universities. The Toronto Star reported that it was partly the fault of this sector that half of GTA workers are in precarious work in a study undertaken earlier this year.

My friend told me that this reality was, in part, the fault of the professors themselves. Rather than going on strike to reject these concessions, albeit in a different union and bargaining unit, professors would take what they could, bargain their own contracts and maybe offer support where they could. And really, can you blame them? They’re under extreme, albeit different stress too. “Unless we shut down this place, they’ll keep relying on sessionals” he told me. “And you know how likely it is that we’ll shut this place down.”

I thought about this story when I saw that the Toronto Star union had negotiated a way to keep the radio room, the place where many young journalists get their start, by agreeing to a 32 per cent pay cut. The radio room is where journalists listen to the police scanner and follow the cops to then report the news. Lots of stories about crime and other Toronto-based news originate from here.

I took to Twitter to express how I didn’t think this was at all a victory. I was quickly scorned by someone who saw this as good enough: the radio room has been saved, young people will have jobs and really, what other choice could there have been?

Sure, I don’t know what the negotiations were like. I do know that the radio room costs $250,000 to operate, according to the J-Source article linked above, and that if all that money goes to salaries (which is unlikely, as there must be some equipment and other costs rolled into this amount), the new contract will save TorStar Corporation $80,000. To put this into perspective, here’s how the Corporation did during the first quarter of 2013:

“Total Segmented Revenue was $332.4 million in the first quarter of 2013, down $18.4 million from $350.8 million in the first quarter of 2012.”
This amount would also, roughly, be recovered by the sale of four, 4-page insert ads, distributed on four Saturdays over the course of a year, according to the Toronto Star’s rate card.

The Star, while still making a profit, made less of a profit in the first quarter of 2013. But is this smaller profit enough to justify outsourcing the radio room? No. Just like how $80,000 isn’t going to boost the shares back up the few cents that they fell during that quarter.

Of course, it’s not just the Toronto Star or the higher education sector where this is happening. CAW’s 2012 agreement with the “big three” automakers for example also deepened wage segmentation between new and old workers.

The trend to level concessions on the backs of younger workers deeply troubles me. I’m currently writing a book that makes the argument that this tactic used by corporations, and unfortunately agreed to by many unions, is going to be what eventually destroys (or addressing it head on to save) the labour movement.

Younger workers have never had it so hard in post-war Canada. With record-high unemployment levels, record-high student debt, the outrageous proliferation of unpaid internships and the reliance on temporary foreign workers as a way to boost corporations’ bottom lines, young workers are in a rough spot. What’s worse, their interests are often posited against the interest of older workers in negotiations and the young ones often lose.

Older workers don’t have it that easy these days either but they’ll still, at least, be able to retire at 65. Who knows how long into the winters of our lives we’ll be forced to work?

The effects that such cuts have on young people are obvious. What should concern older union activists, though, is the effect it will have on the labour movement in general.

If your first interaction with your union sees your wages slashed, benefits cut and your job made precarious to be able to preserve the wages and benefits of an older worker, no commitment to solidarity, in principle, is enough to convince the masses that this is a structure that works.

Older union activists need to be worried about the message that these concessions send to young people: while it’s true that many young people are happy enough just to have a paying job, this sentiment is not enough to extend support to the role that unions play more generally. If the labour movement is going to survive, it needs to build its support broadly.

This is why unions must use the collective force of their workers to refuse concession contracts for young or new workers. Just like workers at CUPW, who refused to accept concession contracts for new workers and who were eventually locked out by the corporation, all unions should be prepared for the messy and difficult battles of saving all good jobs.

Corporations know that this divide-and-conquer tactic works and they’ll use it every single time that they can. If the only way to resist it is to refuse to be divided, the path toward our collective victories should be pretty obvious.

Building broad support for the labour movement won’t be possible if our backs are the sites on which negotiations are played.

Is your union going above and beyond to protect the rights of young or new workers? Share the story with me, I’d love to hear it!

Photo taken from libcom.org

Drawing blood from stones: the relentless tuition fee hike

28 Mar

ABasQPsmallOntario announced a new tuition fee framework today. It’s the first time that the Liberal government has changed it in seven years

In 2006, Dalton McGuinty punched students in the face with a five per cent, on average, fee increase. It was supposed to last four years, but was extended, painfully, until 2012.

During the 2011 Ontario election, the Liberals introduced a grant to help offset the burden of these fees for some students. To those of us who spent days analyzing the Liberal proposal and strategy, it was clear that they had hoped to divert some of the negative attention on their tuition policy by offering a confusing, runner-up prize.

In the same vein, the kinder, gentler Liberal party, now lead by a grandmother rather than a seemingly ageless dad, is trying to help students out.

Today, they announced that the fee increases: 5% for most programs, 8% for the programs where university administrators want to screw students the hardest, has been replaced with 3% and 5% respectively.

McGuinty’s (and now Wynne’s) fee increases were historic: they pushed Ontario’s fees to be the most expensive and they allowed for different fees to be charged to different programs. Today’s increase puts tuition on track to double under the Liberal reign alone.

Now, students sitting in a second-year elective are paying a combination of a bunch of different fees for the same class. I say “a bunch” because I stopped counting at 10 different combinations, depending on the year they started, the actual year of the class, their program of study or their citizenship. Yes, added bureaucracy is necessary to keep track of these divisions. Yes, students will pay more and receive the same instruction as other students.

This was a clever idea: charge incoming students the most (because high school students don’t protest), charge engineering students the most (because they’re way too busy to protest), charge graduate students the most (because they’re too busy rocking back and forth under their desks to protest) and charge international students the most (because Jason Kenney will deport them if they protest).

For some, it has meant an increase of more than 71%.

High tuition fees are the best example of the insanity of austerity. Despite the fact that people who are better educated will earn more and pay more taxes (thereby paying for the cost of their education), Kathleen Wynne and her Neoliberal crew don’t care about the facts. They care about privatization. They care about eliminating the public system by stealth so that they don’t have to pay for it.

Indeed, Liberal, Tory… you know the rest.

Some “student groups” call it a step in the right direction. Of course, it isn’t. It’s a smaller step in the same direction. And, when walking towards a cliff, any steps in the direction of the cliff will lead to the same result. Wynne has smaller legs than McGuinty, this is just a difference in stride.

Actual students know that any tuition fee increase is simply going to exacerbate an already crisis situation. The Liberals hope that the pressures that are created by high tuition fees will be enough to continue to keep Ontario students quiet. And, it may. The crushing combination of high fees, high rents, youth unemployment and needing to, you know, live, depoliticizes and disenfranchises.

But, there is a breaking point. The question will just be how it manifests among Ontarians.

Today’s announcement does not come in a vacuum. The sustained political pressure that students have placed on the Liberals has helped to “win” this policy. The highly unpopular 30% off grant exposed a floundering, rudderless Liberal party that realized that they were losing the war over the message. Ontario students should take some comfort in that.

But the other political context, the waves made by the student protests last year in Québec must also be considered. The impact their protests had on Ontarians, to teach that another system is possible, cannot be understated. The Maple Spring created spaces in Ontario where student activists could actually talk about free tuition fees and be taken seriously by their peers.

That’s the power of a peoples’ movement: raising consciousness and building capacity. Ontario was lucky to benefit from some side effects. Québec students will be reaping the harvest of their work for years to come, and the story isn’t anywhere near finished yet.

But the 3% fee increase is a necessary reminder: Wynne, bowing to pressure and trying to distance herself publicly from McGuinty settled on a tuition fee increase lower than the past seven years. In Québec, Pauline Marois picked the same percentage to increase students’ fees, despite the fact that she rolled in on a wave that was absolutely opposing a hike. What’s the lesson here?

The line between demands made by social movements and minor policy changes is sometimes direct, sometimes crooked and most times non-existent. Marois tricked Québecers into voting PQ and turned around and went all Charest on them. Wynne was elected as the moderately progressive alternative and has turned around and gone all McGuinty on Ontarians.

Meanwhile, students in both provinces will be paying 3% more next fall.

Political ideology is the domain of the Conservatives. Today, the remaining Neoliberal parties are populist, gauging where public interest is and governing accordingly. Under these conditions neither Ontarians nor Québecers have any chance of witnessing fundamental change. Austerity and populism has too great a control over the brains of our politicians. Instead, we’ll have to force it.

What the student movement in Québec does is reminds us that these battles, if fought and won in the streets, will be won by the people. The campaign will last longer than a semester. It’s origins will be theorizable but it’s effects can only be told in retrospect. Its existence gives hope and a path to follow.

So Ontarians, how will you play your hand?

11 clues that the PCs’ 11 Paths to Prosperity is a joke

14 Feb

Commentary on their own satirical policy document, through tableau (Toronto Star)

While I’m not sure others did, I totally got the joke.

I saw people responding to the Progressive Conservatives’ White Paper on higher education and thought, “Boy, they’re going to be embarrassed when they realize that this is a joke.”

As the party panders to elitists, there are many clues dropped into the paper that can be hard to spot for your average Joe Blow journalist. Most Ontarians may think that Hudak’s proposal should be taken seriously.

Luckily, I’m no Joe Blow. I spent a solid six minutes identifying these clues so that you don’t have to sound like an idiot the next time you mention this plan to your local PC MPP at the Victoria Day Long-Weekend Fair. (In Georgetown, that event was called the Bang-o-rama. No one wants to look like a moron in front of Ted Chudleigh at the Bang-o-rama).

The paper, called Paths to Prosperity offers eleven paths that would drastically change how university and college education is delivered. Clue number 1 that this is a joke? One cannot take eleven paths at the same time.

Obviously penned by a staff writer at The Onion, Paths to Prosperity contains 10 other references that indicate that none of the document should be taken seriously. For example, it hilariously refers to private careers colleges as, “one of our most efficient paths to employment” (clue number 2: no they aren’t, though they are a path to lots of student debt).

The 24-page document starts off with a letter from Hudak that says, “[PSE] gives us all a chance to reach higher….” This is clue number 3: Reaching Higher has been the name given to the Liberal’s higher education policies since 2006. Had this not been written in jest, surely the pale and awkward fellow writing on Hudak’s behalf at PC HQ would have been caned by now.

Clue number 4 is that the Globe and Mail quoted the CEO of Colleges Ontario as having “lauded” the recommendation. Despite all other sectoral stakeholders agreeing that allowing colleges to slap the label “degree” on their diplomas is a stupid idea, CO’s unfettered support for anything that leads them closer to the rank of “real” administrator (like the president of Algoma University), is a clue that this document cannot be serious.

The PCs also include a graph that they cite from the Drummond Report, which Drummond cites as being from the Ontario Undergrad Student Alliance (OUSA). It represents the percentage change of several university costs over five years, in a pie graph. This is clue 5. Remember when you were young and you learned about graphs and you wanted to make everything into a pie graph even if there was no 100% total for the pie to be whole? Well, OUSA got all Grade 3 on us and made a graph that expresses several years of inflationary changes as 100% of something, then divides the pie to demonstrate that (shockingly!) professors’ salaries have been the largest point of growth. Maybe its because there has been more professors hired to handle the tens of thousands of new students in the system. Maybe its because professors get wages that have been agreed to by administrators through collective bargaining. Either way, a pie isn’t the way for an adult to represent this data. The authors must have snuck it in because it would be hilarious. Which it is.

Clue 6 is that they entirely neglected to talk about research, the core of the academic mission of all universities and, increasingly, colleges. That would be like presenting six streams to improve dairy farming in Ontario and forgetting to mention cattle feed or pasteurization. Or like analyzing this paper and pretending that it’s real.

Crazier than that, clue 7, is that they actually argue that many universities should stop doing research. You know, become more like colleges. Which makes sense in the context of clue 8, the promise to allow high school students to earn college credits from their high school credits.

With high school the new college and college the new university, we’re left to assume that in Hudak’s world, marriage is the new dating and retirement home flings are the new marriage. And then we die at 130 years old.

You probably didn’t read that far into the document, as it’s really hard to get through, but by this point, the joke is obvious.

For the few who are still reading, and who may still take this piece of satire for reality, the PCs envelop our critical faculties in the end with a black hole devoid of intellectual matter.

Their big idea is to tie student loans to the academic success of students. So, if you get As, you get more loans. If you fail, you’re out of loans. This would create a world-class system where the dumbest rich kids and the smartest poor kids could hopefully study together, breed together and cancel out the politically worst elements of society for the Progressive Conservative Party. Actually, while this is clue 9, it’s the only point that actually makes sense. A possible Freudian slip from the PC satirist author.

The penultimate clue, 10, is that they argue for elite education to cost more and regulated by out-of-touch, non-elected, unaccountable university Boards of Governors rather than government. This will mean a whole lot more rich kids will become lawyers, regardless of their thinking capacities, and a whole lot more poor kids will go to college, study online or not go to school at all.

If you were looking for the ultimate social experiment when income segmentation is intensified, the PCs got you.

Unlike Shakespeare, who littered his plays comic relief to save us from the depressing worlds of Macbeth and King Lear, the PCs have pulled a full-on SNL with Pathways to Prosperity, even down to the fact that the document runs a little long and the joke becomes tired before the end of the sketch.

Unfortunately, there will be people who don’t think this is farce. There will be people who claim to believe that these proposals would improve higher education, like Linda Franklin at Colleges Ontario, whose job is to parrot the megalomaniacal intentions of the Senecas of the world to become the Yorks of the world, at all costs to the quality they deliver.

If these recommendations were serious, they would not only not improve any aspect of the higher education system. Like Glen Murray’s hair-brained scheme “three cubed,” this White Paper would effectively block middle-income youth from universities, low-income youth from anything and give rich kids more of a free pass than they currently have.

But, it has to be satire. No one in their right mind would call a policy paper with implications such as these, a “White” paper in a non-ironic way (clue 11).

The neoliberal attacks on Québec higher education

4 Feb
Screen shot 2013-01-03 at 12.40.09 PM

The president of Université Laval has actually started his own campaign against the PQ’s cuts. It says: I SUPPORT the position taken by the president in the face of under-funding of Québec universities.

For a post-secondary education junkie like me, my move to Québec couldn’t have been better timed.

I left Ontario in June, amid inane ramblings emanating from the cerebral cortex of Glen Murray. His planned changes to Ontario’s higher education sector were outlined in the leaked document, 3 Cubed, that had been widely panned in the winter of 2012. Not one to give up after a failure, Murray repackaged his scheme and tried to shop it around again in the summer. This rollercoaster ride was giving me ulcers. Imagining Murray actually implementing his changes and further destroying Ontario’s higher education system made me want to throw my computer out of the window of my ninth floor office building and accidentally use such force that it would land on top of a bunch of dinosaur bones at the ROM, across the street. (With a good wind, maybe possible).

Luckily, Murray’s ambitions were stronger than the belief in his convictions (like all great politicians) and he jumped ship as Minister to (hilariously) run for the leader of the Liberal party.

Since October, with the elementary and secondary teachers in the crosshairs of Dalton McGuinty, all has been quiet on the post-secondary education front in Ontario.

But not so for here. Québec politics has picked up the slack where Ontario left off.

After last year’s mega doses of awesome, the combination of an election and the acceleration of semesters to catch students up who were on strike had the double effect of slowing down the student movement. Marois repealed Law 12 (Law 78) and replaced the tuition fee hike with an increase tied to inflation. For the students, both policies represented tangible and immediate victories of the work from the previous months.

The PQ is a party that is both populist and neoliberal. It bowed to the students demands not because its a party that fundamentally believes that higher education should not be bought and sold, but because the student movement made it possible for them to get elected. It was therefore impossible to immediately ignore their demands.

Once the new government settled down, though, the PQ implemented five per cent cuts, across the board, to university budgets.

With the victory of the student movement fresh in everyone’s minds, the argument flowed that the cuts were necessary to make up for lost revenue in with the tuition fee increase. While not true, the argument can be made to seem logical, and therefore, convincing. And, with university presidents and many faculty having opposed the student strike, this policy preys on divisions that already exist within the sector and weaken the bargaining position of the sector as a whole.

Higher education in all provinces is underfunded and Québec is no exception. Though nowhere near as underfunded as many university presidents claim, the intentional further underfunding by the PQ is a regressive move. Here lies the break from populism to neoliberalism: get elected, implement regressive cuts.

They didn’t stop there, though. They also cut the lifeblood of university research, FQRNT, by a whopping 30 per cent, after the applications for 2013 had already been submitted. This will fundamentally and abruptly alter research this year: professors will be expected to do just as much with less, fewer graduate students will be hired and competition will become more fierce among a group of people already competing for scare resources.

This, all while they host a summit on education to consult on the future of higher education in Québec. Similar to the Dog-and-Pony-Show of Bob Rae in Ontario in 2005, the PQ has let it be known that they prefer the current policy of tuition fees tied to inflation before the summit has finished its work.

So on the higher education continuum, so far, we have the Liberals trying to emulate the worst of Ontario’s policies and gut the best of Québec’s, which delivered them a shitkicking at the polls. Slightly to the left of them is the PQ who has basically tricked the electorate into believing they’re the “progressive” choice of the lot.

With Québec solidaire the only party with the clearest and most progressive policy out there (free education at all stages of life), they occupy the left.

This leaves the CAQ who, of course, devises a plan that is even more schemey than had been proposed by the Liberals. They argue at the summit that Québec should create two tiers of universities: one elite and one common.

The elite schools will be able to set their tuition fees at any rate and grants and loans will fill in the gaps to ensure that McGill doesn’t become overrun with rich Americans and Ontarians.

Of course, the only way that the state could actually do this is to significantly reduce the public funding offered to these schools. In Ontario, this idea floats around the tables of the Council of Ontario Universities too. Led by U of T president David Naylor, he argues for the creation of a funding model that would all U of T (and a few other schools) to deregulate their tuition fees, charge what the market can bear and become truly prestigious.

Unsurprisingly, the presidents of the the Brocks and Nipissings of the world tend to oppose these recommendations.

While Ontario is much closer to Québec in fulfilling this reality, both provinces would substantially damage their systems if they created a two-tiered system. (It’s unclear if the CAQ is ideologically in favour of creating such an elite system, or if they showed up late on the day that right-wing policies were being handed out and they were given a shitty one.)

Either way, I suspect that the CAQ’s dream of an elite Université Laval is about as likely as their likelihood of forming a majority government.

This is good news, but it doesn’t mean that the CAQ should be ignored.

In a minority government situation, there is a high possibility for the proposal of strange, regressive policies to be developed, voted on and passed.

This is why the students’ and faculty responses will be so important.

Queen’s and mental health: rendering the root causes invisible

16 Dec

It seems fitting to write about depression at this time of year.

While there are lots of triggers for depression, capitalism has ensured that our bank accounts either drive or exacerbate our emotions. During December, this translates into weeks of anxious planning to try and meet the expectations of people around us, most of whom have also been infected with the capitalist virus, eating their brains and removing the little voice that says “this obsession with accumulating shit is probably going to kill you and everyone you love.” Add to these stresses the difficulties of being a student and you have a potentially explosive situation.

Any recommendations that attempt to alleviate peoples’ mental health that doesn’t address this context will never be sufficient.

Instead, like a knee that’s been torn open by a fall, pusing and bruised, bloodied and full of sand, a recommendation to address mental health that doesn’t address the root problem is like taking a bandaid and sticking it into the middle of your dirty knee.

Even if the bandaid if of the highest quality, it’s not going to fix you up.

This was the mental image I held while reading the report “Student Mental Health and Wellness, framework and recommendations for a comprehensive strategy” from Queen’s University. It was released at the end of November and, with Idle No More exploding across Canada and my own exams to prepare for, I’ve only gotten to reading this report now.

When I saw “comprehensive” I was hopeful that indeed, this report would be comprehensive. But, like is so often the case when university administrators try to fix students’ problems, the report fails to address any of the root causes of the deteriorating mental health of students.

Of 55 recommendations, not one mentions tuition fees or oppression as having anything to do with depression. Not one.

Instead, the report is full of pilot program ideas and recommendations like ensuring that pharmacists on campus are paying attention to their clients, creating an “adopt a grandma/grandpa” program, or changing the name of Campus Security (because if you’re in crisis, a private security guard at Queen’s may be your best supporter!)

Pretending that tuition fees are not either the primary factor or a driving factor of students’ mental health is at best ignorant and at worst, a dangerous lie.

Administrators like Queen’s president Daniel Woolf are the loudest advocates, the most shameful cheerleaders of high tuition fees in Ontario. Their advocacy is driving their students’ depression. It’s embarrassing that they would even enter into such a discussion, let alone stand behind recommendations that obscures students’ real experiences.

While I was at Ryerson, we held sessions for students who were failing their courses to intervene before they would be forced to leave their programs. The most common reasons for students struggling were these: personal tragedy or crisis during the semester (death of a parent/fire/etc.), being in a program that they should not have been in (for a variety of social and familial reasons) and a variety of stresses driven by financial pressures. For students in the first category, the university’s policies made it nearly impossible for them to stay on track academically. Their crises were usually exacerbated by the fact that their tuition/living expenses surpassed $15,ooo.

Students in the third category were the highest represented at these sessions, and it was no surprise. With the highest tuition fees in Canada, high costs of living and no room for mistakes, Ontario students are under more stress than any generation before them or any other student in Canada.

God forbid you fail a class: that will cost you more than $1,000. Lose a semester and you’ve essentially thrown 80 $50 bills down a sewer grate.

What 19-year-old should have to study under such stress?

What university administrator can look at the faces of their students and not feel an overwhelming sense of shame?

Oppressive structures are also a driver of depression: institutional racism, transphobia, sexism, homophobia, ableism and social isolation (especially for international students who are also paying three to four times the tuition fees that domestic students pay). When the intersection of these oppressions are considered in tandem with the economic segmentation of Canadian society, marginalized students are dealt a double set of barriers prohibiting their successful persistence in higher education.

Pretending that these structures don’t exist is rendering them invisible, further marginalizing the students this report claims to help.

I should stress: some of these recommendations are useful and will help some students, if implemented. After all, even the most cynical exercise in public relations can sometimes produce a useful recommendation or two.

But if anyone in the university community thinks that Queen’s is addressing students’ mental health by pretending financially-driven depression and systemic oppression are not two of the biggest factors driving students’ mental health, they’re wrong.

The focus on mental health at Queen’s was sparked by six student deaths on campus in 2011, three that were confirmed suicides. In response, students were frustrated and outraged with the lack of supports on campus.

As if existing in another world, President Woolf wrote in a letter that was accidentally leaked that he looked forward to leveraging these tragedies to encourage corporate donations from companies like Bell Canada.

You couldn’t invent a response as blunt or offensive as this.

Talking about mental health is not easy and addressing students’ mental health is even harder. These issues are multifaceted. But if the drivers of student depression are not only ignored, but encouraged and exploited by university administrators, they must be held to account.

Their shameful actions are hurting the students who pay their outrageous salaries.

And this deeply depresses me.

General Assemblies, student movements and Québec’s cégeps

6 Nov

Half of the members’ meeting at Ryerson Students’ Union, Nov, 2010 (courtesy: The Eyeopener)

Having watched most of the Québec student protests from Ontario, I’ve obviously spent hours thinking about the differences between the Québec student movement and the Ontario student movement. And I’ve come up with a few theories that I hope to write into something…someday.

Luckily, others have similar questions as I do. Doug Nesbitt, PhD student at Queen’s and the local PSAC president, has done some thinking on this. And so, because I’ve spent most of my day dealing with the bureaucracy of the state in French and my brain is fried, I’m sharing with you what he’s posted at his blog. Nothing I write next will be as good as his analysis…

Doug focuses on the role of General Assemblies and how they have helped to build Québec’s movement into what it is today. I agree that GAs have been critical to politicizing generations of students. They have helped to circumvent conservative student leadership and maintain the necessary accountability of those students who “float to the top” of a formal students’ union’s executive.

But I can’t believe that it’s *just* General Assemblies. While GAs politicize students who attend them, what is the factor getting students in the door in the first place?

At Ryerson, our General Meetings would normally reach 150 students while more contentious meetings may have topped out at 400. At McMaster University last year, thanks to a heavy advertising campaign and the promise of the MOST AMAZING FROSH WEEK EVAAARRRR more than 600 students attended the MSU GA to vote in favour of an ancillary fee hike. It’s hard to explain how this is possible if we look only at the GA model and how it has fueled generations of activists in Québec. These Ontario examples don’t make sense.

I think that the most significant reason for the differences in the student movements in Ontario and Québec isn’t just the decision-making structure, it’s the role of cégeps.

During my time in the student movement, I always found graduate/second degree/college transfer students easier to organize. They came to their new educational tier with baggage: debt from a previous degree/diploma/certificate, experience (sometimes negative) from another degree (and even school) and maturity that grew out of their first round of post-secondary education. They spent more time in the system and were more ready to challenge what they had witnessed in their first educational experiences as being unjust, but not necessarily having the time, opportunity or willingness to act. I found my work to explain the effects of debt, tuition fees, large classes etc. was always easier with these students as they had an experience that we could link the facts to.

Imagine if Ontario’s colleges were full of students who had already done a few years at college? Imagine every student walked into a university already having experienced the soul-crushing bureaucracy of higher education? The context for organizing would be entirely different.

There’s a reason why cégep students lead the strikes in Québec. The dangerous combination of free higher education, a radicalizing movement and participatory democracy blew up into an amazing student strike. And every university student involved in the strike had been introduced to the student movement either directly or indirectly through their time at cégep.

This has to be said: identifying this difference isn’t to say that it is impossible for Ontario students to organize provincially in the way Québec students have. I think it’s critical that if Ontario students are going to figure out how best to carve out their own movement, the right analyses of the differences (and similarities) are necessary to lead to appropriate organizing techniques.

I have a lot more to say about this…and it’s later than I had intended to be up (and I wrote more than I intended to write) but I will flesh this out. I’m interested in feedback too, as always, but especially on this. The history of the student movement (or movements) hasn’t been told well enough…and who better to tell it than those of us who’ve been there.

Why students in the Rest of Canada aren’t a homogenous mass

8 Aug

Have you read this yet? It’s the subject of this post.

I think it’s necessary for the student movement in the ROC (rest of Canada for you ROC’ers) to examine the difference in student organizing outside Québec. I’m glad Brian Platt took a shot at it (actually, a good shot at it), although I think he missed some important aspects of the student movement outside of Québec.

I spent the last year of my job with the Canadian Federation of Students asking this question: what makes Québec’s model of organizing so effective? How have they succeeded in mass mobilization? While I think Platt makes some reasonable arguments, his main thesis, “anglophone student unions aren’t built for protesting” is untrue. Differences do exist between Québec students’ unions and the ROC but it’s not this simple.

Sandy Hudson and I came up with four reasons for why the Québec student movement has been so successful and what Ontario can learn from it, but that’s a topic for another bottle of wine.

On Platt’s piece. First off, there’s a huge difference between students’ unions that are structurally apolitical and politically apolitical (or politically oriented such that they support the government of the day). There are many students’ unions in Canada that are political apolitical, but not that many that are structurally apolitical. Universities like Queen’s, Western, McMaster and others in Ontario, for example, have vast resources, but fail to venture past a Liberal politic in their campaigns. This isn’t to say they couldn’t become politicized. Most college students’ unions in Ontario have also been depoliticized, but it has been more through the co-optation of student leaders, not necessarily thanks to the structures of their students’ unions.

From what I’ve seen, the students’ unions in Ontario that get away with being the least political (or most Conservative/Liberal) are the ones where their executive members are not elected at large. Or, where their representatives are selected structurally by the fewest people. In most cases, the president is elected at large, then he/she either appoints their vice-presidents or they are selected by board members who received fewer votes relative to what someone running for a VP position would receive. This is highly undemocratic and is a structure that keeps a dissenting politic out of the students’ union. The examples of this that I am aware of are at a few Ontario university students’ unions that are members of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, with two or three exceptions, and part-time students’ unions with a delegated class representative structure. Some college students’ unions are also organized this way.

Platt argues that the time spent on services is what really stops ROC students’ unions from mobilizing the way Québec students have. This is only the case where there aren’t enough activists involved in a students’ union. Of course, if your one activist is busy signing health opt out cheques and not mobilizing for a General Assembly, it’s a struggle between the two. But services are inherently political. The service centres that are strong in many Ontario students’ unions are what drive students to their students’ unions. Racialized student collectives, women’s centres, disability centres and others help to outreach to students and enable them to access the mainstream student political sphere. Where these services don’t exist, the student union is obviously and persistently less diverse. This is the case in many students’ unions in Québec and the movement is noticeably less diverse than it should be.

University and college services are political and should be organized and coordinated by students. The existence of profiteering health and dental brokers (one of which I’ve had the peripheral pleasure of being sued by, being locked into a contract by, settling with and then being locked in a contract again…some of the signatories to that agreement did get jobs, so at least they sold out for something, I guess), is one of the obvious examples of why students should control their services. A glance at Ontario’s UHIP system can show anyone how damaging for students’ interests and their pockets it can be when administrators control student services. And yes, coordinating these services takes a lot of time. This is why it is critical for active, service-heavy students’ unions to ensure that they are placing as much importance and as many resources into the campaigns work that they have.

I think it is also critical for ROC students’ unions to examine how students have organized in Québec and adopt the tactics needed to bolster similar efforts outside of Québec. Provincial solidarity is a major part and will make organizing in provinces like Manitoba or Newfoundland and Labrador easier (they also happen to be the other two provinces with the lowest tuition fees in Canada). In a province like Ontario, provincial solidarity is not remotely possible in the current state of affairs. This is a threat to the capacity of the Ontario student movement.

But the general assembly model is an important one that students’ unions should work to adopt. Organizing at the grassroots means going into each classroom, asking for them to select a representative and having open GAs at the departmental level where attendance is mandatory for class representatives, and encouraged for everyone else. Starting at this point would not only be constitutionally possible for local students’ unions, but would reach students in the classroom while they’re on campus. Minimizing students’ efforts to get them involved is critical, especially when tuition fees mean that you also have to work two jobs to stay afloat. Professors also become critical at this level, as access to their classes requires a level of support for the movement.

The most important critique of Platt’s piece, though, is that the ROC is not a homogenous mass.  The differences that exist among the students’ unions in Halifax alone cannot be ignored. Writing solely about one’s experience with the AMS at UBC (arguably one of Canada’s most bureaucratic and least political forces out there) and CUSA at Carleton (a service-heavy students’ union where campaigns this year have been eliminated by the current regime) doesn’t effectively capture the reality of the Canadian scene.

I was elected to the Ryerson Students’ Union where I think we did the best we could to balance our services (two businesses, taking back control of our student centre, the pub and the cafe, grade appeals help, health plan and five equity service groups, events etc.), but I know we could have done more. And, these things are always evolving. The current executive is probably doing more than we were able to achieve. While there are students’ unions I would consider to be comparable to RSU in size, scope and campaigns work, I’m under no illusion that RSU represented anything more than itself.

That’s the danger of these generalizations. Both applied to the ROC and to the Québec student movement, they are somewhat helpful, but not really.

Although, at the very least, I’ve just leaked 1156 words on this. Brian Platt gets all the credit for that.