Whether studying at Simon Fraser University (SFU), the University of Toronto (UofT), Concordia University, l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM), or any other educational institution in this country, we are faced with the same harsh reality; debt, soaring costs of living, and rising tuition.
As we look around us today, we realize that we may very well be a generation who can expect to live worse than our parents. This is what capitalism offers us.
In our parents’ days, great struggles forced concessions from the bosses of big business and their state, building up welfare, universal healthcare and subsidized education. This was the social wage, benefits which raised everyone’s standard of living, and made pitiful wages slightly more bearable. In those days, the prolonged boom after the Second World War provided a material basis for these gains. Under these circumstances, with a world full of profits from rebuilding and expanding global trade, the ruling classes across the advanced capitalist world chose to pay for these reforms rather than face the risk of being overthrown.
Mass movements threatened a much more menacing possibility than accessible education, free healthcare and social services: their trajectory was toward a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. In 1968, that danger was strikingly proven by France’s heroic working-class revolutionary movement and the student revolt which announced it. The 1972 Common Front general strike in Québec was a burning example closer to home, with workers occupying their factories across the province and even taking over radio stations. But in the 70’s, capitalism’s era of continuous expansion came to a close. Since then, the golden age of reforms has given way to naked profiteering. The bosses and their state are waging war on all fronts to reclaim the profits conceded to the working class through the social wage.
All of the fruits of our parents’ struggles are now under threat, and this is a very real danger for the average student working for the minimum wage. Today, it is worth less than it was 30 years ago – if you account for inflation – and rising tuition will mean crushing debts are about to get much worse.
Students in Québec and at the University of Toronto have responded with heroic demonstrations that have been met with fierce repression by the administrations and the police. In Toronto, U of T students staged a peaceful sit-in against rising tuition fees, demanding an audience with the university president, David Naylor. Campus police, at the command of the administration, violently broke up the protest and charged 14 students with forcible confinement and assaulting a police officer. Apparently, administrators were so afraid of the students outside, that they decided they had been kidnapped, forcibly confined to their building. The desperation of the administrators is incredible, but the threat to these students is very real. They deserve the support of the movement across Canada, as heroes being harassed by cowards in suits.
In Québec, a strike movement swept the province in 2005, involving 230,000 students, when the government tried to cut $103 million dollars from grants and bursaries, and convert them into loans with interest. The government had to back down, but the strike exposed divisions in the student movement, which have weakened it in the face of fresh attacks.
Once again, students in Québec mobilized for strikes, this time in response to a tuition hike. Unfortunately, the divisions continued. The main union federations refused to work in common with each other, choosing to call separate, smaller demonstrations rather than participating in a united protest movement that could actually defeat the government’s offensive. Still, this movement is young, is learning its lessons, and is showing the way forward.
One leap forward was Common Front’s success at Dawson College, where most student union leaders were hostile to the strike. This rank-and-file organization (named after the movement in 1972) succeeded in winning students over, who flooded to what would usually have been a small general assembly with less than 100 students. 700 showed up and voted almost unanimously for the three-day strike, the only English-speaking school to do so.
It took repression, riot police, hundreds of arrests, the threat of expulsions for students, and threats of firings for teachers who supported the strike; but the student movement in Québec has been pushed back for now. L’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ) ended its campaign for an unlimited general strike for free, quality, accessible post-secondary education, and many in Québec are left wondering: “what next?” Québec’s spectacular history of students’ and workers’ struggles has been expanded, with new lessons for all students across Canada.
The movement for free education cannot be an isolated provincial movement, let alone one restricted to the 40,000 members of ASSÉ out of the 450,000 students in Québec. As of this year, the federal government is spending $1 billion a year on the war for oil in Afghanistan, and total military spending has reached $18.2 billion a year.
That would be enough to restore full funding to our debt-ridden universities, and eliminate tuition fees, in all of Canada’s provinces and territories. Throw in the $88 billion dollars in offshore assets that the corporate elite have hidden in tax-havens, and well, you see where this is going.
Unfortunately, this is a government of the captains of industry, not you and me. And, same as the other gangsters in the rest of the world, they will not discuss or negotiate anything which could hurt their profit margins. Only mass movements, similar to the movements of the 60’s and 70’s, can force them to give us increases for education, the minimum wage or any of the social programs we desperately rely on. Even healthcare is under threat.
There’s the reality of it, the student movement is no longer about students as students, or simply about the cost of education. It’s about the cost of living. Working students must be a part of a wider movement, and we have to reclaim our student unions to show we’re ready to play our part in the general fight back against the dismantling of the social wage.
Inflation has done its part in cutting our wages, the government is doing theirs in raising our expenses. We, and our parents, are paying for their greed. It’s time for all of our student unions to mobilize a united student movement, together with teachers and workers’ unions, against the pillaging and looting being carried out by the capitalist class. Rank-and-file tendencies should be built in every student union, however big or small, to remind them of their roots, organize the struggle and show them how it’s done. From your local student union, to the 500,000 strong Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), every union should join in this fight. We can make it happen, even in cases where the current student politicians are embroiled in corruption and fraud, we can bring our unions out of the muck and onto the road of a determined battle to win against the bosses and their state.
Only a socialist student movement, united amongst ourselves and with teachers and workers across Canada, can go forward now.
For a liveable minimum wage,
For free, quality, accessible, education,
For a Common Front of working students across Canada,
United we will win.