Canada – Student workers strike against tuition hikes
Education for all is increasingly becoming a pipe dream. Right-wing governments cut their funding and pass the burden on to students. Working class youth face two choices: skip university and take a series of low-paid retail jobs, or attend and get so far in debt that after graduation your net pay is not far above minimum wage. Those who are mis-educated to believe that they are “middle class” are in fact just as poor as everybody else; debt serves as the great leveller.
In British Columbia, after the election of the right-wing BC Liberals, all sections of the working class are under attack. A third of all government employees are being laid off; Medicare premiums and sales tax have increased; hospital ancillary work and Hydro are being privatized; public sector workers face a 3-year wage freeze; new workers must accept a $2 reduction in the minimum wage, and university tuition is set to increase by 60% – 100%. At the same time the government gives $2 Billion of tax breaks to the rich and the corporations. The labour and student movement is facing its biggest challenge in decades.
At the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, student workers are beginning to fight back. Teaching assistants (TAs) and Markers are being attacked as both workers and students. Universities increasingly rely on low paid students; 1600 TAs, members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 2278, do 40% of the teaching at UBC. Most TAs are graduate students and paying tuition is a condition of employment. The 3-year tuition hike of ~$1500 adds up to at least a 16% pay cut. In addition, there is the public sector wage freeze to deal with, and the discontinuation of employer paid healthcare. With astoundingly bad timing, UBC President Martha Piper has recently been granted a 63% wage increase to an estimated value of $500,000, including a mansion and the service of a maid. The TAs and their Union have decided enough is enough and have taken an 87% strike vote against the tuition hikes. This is a clear message to the employer that cannot be ignored.
The struggle at UBC also sends a message to the rest of the labour and student movement about what tactics must be used. While many union leaders worry about poor attendance at meetings, the TA Union was worrying about breaking fire regulations for overcrowding. The results cannot also be written off by the inherent militancy of TAs; graduate students have never been counted as having the highest working-class consciousness. No, workers are not stupid – everybody understands when they are being screwed over. The difference lies in leadership. When workers are told by their leaders that there is no hope in winning, people will spend their time with their families rather than at union meetings where “nothing will happen anyway”. At UBC the opposite was true with a consistent mobilizing campaign in the press, with posters, face-to-face discussions, and raising support in the campus community. Union members feel that this struggle is their own struggle for justice at work, and access to quality education. More and more the movement gains a life of its own.
There is no guarantee of victory, however without mobilization there would be a certain guarantee of defeat. Teaching assistants at York University in Toronto struck for 11 weeks over the same issues; their slogan was “Fight to win!” They understood that weakness invites aggression. York TAs won a resounding victory that has had a radicalizing effect on the Ontario labour movement. Our fight is but a small part of the wider struggle for workers rights and free education, and yet it cannot be seen in isolation from the general movements in society. As explained in many issues of L’Humanité, these cuts and attacks are necessary for the capitalist system to restore its rate of profit. Consistent, uncompromising action is the key to victory.
President CUPE Local 2278 (in personal capacity)