Skip to content

Crash course in student activism

Student and labour unions host symposium

“Thank you for being here, and I hope we can stop this before it destroys what’s left of us.” That’s how Eric Martin, a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa, signed off to his audience in the Shatner Ballroom Friday, after giving the opening presentation in a marathon symposium on education and student activism hosted by SSMU, PGSS, and AGSEM.

Martin, who also works for the left-wing think tank Institut de recherché et d’information socio-economiques (IRIS), was introduced by a panel of VP Externals: Myriam Zaidi of SSMU, Ryan Hughes of PGSS and Michal Rozworski of the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill. Zaidi, Hughes, and Rozworski, sitting together, went after the McGill administration, accusing it of seeing students as “cash cows,” “indentured servants,” and “indentured employees,” respectively.

Thomas Collombat, a doctoral student at Carleton University sits on the information committee and pre-bargaining committee of the Syndicat des chargées et des chargés de cours de l’Université de Montréal (SCCCUM), spoke after Martin. The day’s keynote speaker was Angus Johnston, a history professor at the City University of New York and expert on student movements in North America, and runs the blog

Martin had harsh words for administrators, politicians, and business people. Referring to external representatives on universities’ boards of governors, Martin said, “They obviously have conflicts of interest, because they are capitalist pigs.”

In his speech, Johnson presented a vision of public education and student activism that was both dire and hopeful. Pointing to tuition increases at the University of California and elsewhere, Johnston said, “Its almost a misnomer to talk about public higher education anymore [in the U.S.].” He also noted an upswing in student mobilization against these changes, however. “They used to ask me why there isn’t any student activism,” he said. “Now they ask me that less.”

Eric Martin: Researcher with think tank IRIS
The McGill Daily: Do you think lobbying the government on a wide range of political issues is the right way to go?
Eric Martin: No, because if you’re lobbying them, you’re playing their game. You’re using their language, the language of economy. FEUQ [Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec] has been doing this for a long time: trying to convince the government that, for example, it’s worth it for universities to invest in people because they’re going to pay their taxes in the future, they’re going to pay seven times as much as anybody else, so it’s a good investment. When you use this language, you’re using the economic categories by which knowledge is being destroyed. So you’re not putting yourself in another theoretical vantage point from which you can attack. FEUQ, for example, and FECQ [Fédération étudiante collégial du Québec], have been using the knowledge economy as a positive term. They’ve been putting out press releases saying, “We love the knowledge economy, we just want it to be more for us and less for them.” So they’re in the same paradigm. They’re not attacking the categories of what’s happening, they just want a piece of it. I’m not sure if it’s out of ignorance, or bad political analysis, or dishonesty. I don’t presume of anything. [In terms of under-financing] they’re using the numbers of the principals; you have to be wary of this. You’re not supposed to get your numbers from the governing class, this is a very elementary trick. When you want to argue something, the left must make their own numbers. So the only way to attack this is to, first of all, have a good analysis of what’s happening and not saying, “Oh we’re lacking 500 million and if we put it back, everything’s going to be okay.” No, no, no. The problem is not resources or money; the problem is a sense of purpose about what we’re doing.

MD: So what do students do about it, in terms of tactics?
EM: It’s not sufficient to oppose the tuition hike: you have to oppose the whole model of universities in the economy of knowledge as a patent-producing factory. To do this you should use any means necessary.

MD: You said the response from students should be “violent.”

EM: I’m not saying to oppose this by violence against people; I’m saying that it has to be stopped. So there must be mass demonstrations, there could be some occupations [of buildings] or some economic blockages. You have to be combative because the way to fight this is not by going to the prime minister’s office with a nice little document with numbers. They know all about that. They don’t care. They have decided they are going to destroy education in Quebec and with it the very possibility of forming youth that will be able to critically resist what’s going on with capitalism. They’re bent on this. They have the principals with them, they have the business class, they have the political class, and the media have been put into the fold because they don’t understand what’s going on. This must be opposed. If you take away the spaces in which a society can think about itself, you are building a society
for authoritarianism.

Angus Johnston: History professor at CUNY
The McGill Daily: What have you found to be the most effective tactics for students trying to move their administration one way or another?
Angus Johnston: Doing actions where you’re soliciting the support of alumni and parents. On a bunch of campuses in the last year, universities have cut back on library hours, claiming that they didn’t have the money to keep the libraries open. And students have staged study-ins in the library, where they just go and they’re studying and they refuse to leave when the library is supposed to close. And it’s really hard to arrest students having a study-in in a library. It puts the administration in a box. And again, it’s not clear that you can have a revolutionary transformation of the university through a study-in in a library, but you can get the hours back. And another thing that that does is it puts the plight of the student, it puts the financial circumstances of the university, on the front page of the media. Because the media love a library study-in. And [the administration] are going to feel heat.

The idea is that you are operating from within your own experience and outside of [the administration’s] experience. That what you’re doing should be something that you feel comfortable with, that makes your opponent feel uncomfortable. It’s tricky to do that, and it’s getting trickier all the time.

MD: Over the summer, the Architecture Café was closed without real student consultation. Have there been cases that you know of the corporatization of food on campus?
AJ: I don’t know specifically about food stuff. But…at my campus, we had a record store on campus that was student-run, and it was constantly a fight to kept the university from saying, “Well, we need the space.” One of the things that’s really significant about that, in addition to the fact that it’s students providing a service for other students and it’s not profit-driven and all that, is the fact that it gives students an opportunity to be in a position of responsibility and leadership in terms of running these facilities, which is a tremendous opportunity.

MD: There’s a possibility that Quebec tuition will be brought to the national average in 2012. It’s not clear right now what student politicians and activists are going to do about it. What would you suggest?
AJ: I’m usually pretty skeptical about the idea of a global student movement, because I think students’ experiences are very different in different places. But, having said that, this current tuition spike is a global phenomenon. We’ve been seeing it going on in the United States: California is bracing for possibly another tuition increase. They’re now at well over $10,000 a year and they’re looking at the possibility that it could rise next month as much as ten or twenty per cent more. Britain is going through this right now. The new government has announced that they are planning to cut support for higher education by eighty per cent. I think what we’re finding is that the privatization issue is a global thing and students have been responding in a global way. Privatization is a nebulous term if you’re not already politically connected. If you don’t already have an analysis of higher education, then the concept of privatization is not going to be one that gets you out in the streets. But this ballooning of tuition – for a while in the United States we thought this was a one-year thing. But it’s becoming clear that this is just going to keep happening and happening. So I think there is an opportunity presented by this for a grass roots global movement.

MD: You’ve said that there wasn’t much media coverage of the University of California upheavals in recent years. How can students get their faces in print?
AJ: The first answer, which is the standard student answer, is to do something big, something really splashy. And that works to a certain extent. But in watching the media more…I’ve realized that keeping up a drumbeat of action is incredibly effective. Because the first time you have an action, in many cases you’re going to catch the media flat-footed. Or they’ll just think it’s a fluke, they’ll think it’s a one-time thing. But then when you have another action a few weeks later, they’re already primed, they already know what you’re issues are, they’ve already got their antennae up, and if they feel that it was a mistake to miss the last one, they’ll be sure not to miss this one. It’s an irresistible hook for the media…it takes it from being an anecdote to being a narrative.

—Compiled by Eric Andrew-Gee

Thomas Collombat: Union organizer at UdeM
The McGill Daily: In terms of job security, can sessionals [course lecturers] apply for the equivalent of tenure?
Thomas Collombat: There is no bridge between the two groups – tenure and sessionals. If a sessional is hired as a tenure – then de facto he doesn’t teach as a sessional any more. There is only one case of collective agreement: it is UQAM’s agreement between sessionals and university management, which says that sessionals should be given some kind of preference for hiring…but this actually jeopardizes the autonomy of the departmental assembly to choose who they want to hire: and they are very keen on their power to decide who they want to hire, so it doesn’t actually work. There is a very strict separation between the two groups [course lecturers and faculty]. UQAM is historically very departmental and controlled by tenure faculty – this is the case in most universities, but even more so in UQAM – so they resisted the idea that some kind of external rule would challenge their sovereignty to hire a new colleague.

MD: So does it make sense to merge the groups?
TC: Both movements are interactive. When sessionals started to unionize in the seventies, at first they wanted to be incorporated into the regular faculty union. Had they done that at that time – had regular faculty accepted sessionals into their regular faculty union – things would be very different today. There is a good chance that you would have some kind of collective agreement with some kind of career path. But things have developed differently: there are many sessionals who are not interested in a career, that are teaching a course for the experience, or for their resume or for another source of revenue, et cetera.

MD: Can you speak about the relationship between tuition hikes and sessional and TA wages?
TC: At UdeM, a sessional is paid $7,800 per course right now, but we’ve just signed a new collective agreement, so this will become higher in the next four to five years. By 2012 the average amount paid for one course for a sessional in [francophone] Quebec will be $9,000. And this is set in stone, because we’ve negotiated the agreements. At Carleton, CUPE 4600 collective agreement, the TA union had a clause in its collective agreement saying that wages were indexed to tuition hikes – so that if tuition went up, automatically TA wages would go up in the same proportion. But the university of course wanted to get rid of that, because it basically meant a tuition freeze for TAs (and most grad students are TAs because it’s included in our grad program). In Quebec it’s a different issue, since tuition has been frozen for a few years now, so it’s not a concern for unions. Up until three years ago, McGill was the only university in Quebec where TAs were unionized. It’s actually one of the rare cases where McGill was at the forefront of unionization. It’s very recent that TAs are unionized at UQAM, at Laval…and it’s by a different organization, by the public service alliance of Canada. I don’t know how they will react if tuition is unfrozen, and I don’t know how they will include some kind of indexation of tuition rates in a way that may compensate for some of the burden of the [tuition] hikes.

—Compiled by Rana Encol