pastedImageThe academic workers strike at York University has entered its sixth week. This has generated significant unrest and confusion among undergraduate students on the campus. Most of those walking the picket lines are graduate students. Their struggle has served to inspire a layer of undergraduate students into action.

The most radicalized undergraduates have been organizing solidarity through picket line visits, holding rallies in support of the workers, information pickets, postering campaigns and calling on the undergraduate students to join the fight for good jobs and free education. Out of this movement, an undergraduate sit-in or “reclamation” was organized at the end of the third week of the strike.

Among the broader student population, there is confusion about the significance of the strike and what it means for them. These students have a number of grievances: rising tuition fees, rising of cost of living, student debt, scandals among the top administration coupled with high salaries, and the fact that classes were not cancelled during the strike, which has added a big element of chaos to the school term.

The administration kept the classes open to undermine the striking lecturers and teaching assistants, while also hoping the chaos fomented would drive a wedge between undergraduates and the strikers. This has encouraged a layer of professors to cross pickets and to pressure students to do likewise, threatening them with failure in classes if they uphold their right to respect picketlines. Keeping classes open also had the effect of encouraging scabbing. All of this shows that the Administration’s rhetoric concerning care for students is empty.

We can say that thus far the administration has failed. There has not been any right-wing movement on the campus (as had occurred in 2008) against the strikers. Among the generally passive student population, the tendency is towards sympathy with the strikers and anger at the administration. However, the most significant element is disorientation and confusion.

Where is the undergraduate student union?

The York Federation of Students (YFS) represents about 50,000 undergraduate students at the university, making it the largest student union in the country. The student union leadership has a responsibility to provide leadership and a way forward for the students. There is a clear mood of questioning, anger – but also confusion – and this presents a significant opportunity.

This executive of the YFS considers themselves left-wing, and in the recent election they ran on a pro-strike and pro-free education program. The re-elected president of the YFS, Rawan Habib, has been particularly vocal on these matters – having spoken at student rallies, at a town hall hosted by Fightback for the student union elections, and at the picket lines.

The YFS has expressed their support for CUPE 3903 on their social media and at a pro-strike rally organized by Fightback. Their executive has visited the picket lines in solidarity with the strikers, and has staffed “strike FAQ” tables on the campus to answer students’ questions. Rawan has even stated that she “looks forward to 2019 when the students will set up their own picket lines.” This shows there is a basis of unity between the striking workers and the students at York. The YFS has a duty to campaign to mobilize its 50,000 members.  

The YFS should utilize its resources, reach and authority to mobilize its members into this struggle. The YFS leadership could easily get many hundreds of undergraduates to the picket lines. They could get many hundreds out to emergency members’ meetings or assemblies regarding the present strike. They could easily get undergraduate students who are itching to fight around their own issues into the struggle for good jobs and free education. This is an opportunity to widely agitate for the demand for student strikes, and to spread the strike movement to the undergraduates.

Fightback has repeatedly called on the YFS, in writing, in person and at the rallies where they have participated, to take this line of action. While time has been lost, the opportunity still exists to spread the strike. Undergraduates are looking for answers, are asking questions, many are sympathetic to the strike, and all of the students are paying close attention to the strike.

On April 12, the YFS compiled a petition outlining a list of demands directed at the York administration. It demanded that students have the option to opt-out of and receive full refunds for full year and winter term courses. It also demanded that students receive bursaries to cover any additional financial losses incurred due to the strike, such as extra transportation costs, rent, and food. It also links this struggle to the broader struggle for free and accessible post-secondary education. We agree with these demands, but one important demand that the petition is missing is for the administration to end the strike by agreeing to the just demands of the workers. This would remove any ambiguity as to whether the student union stands on the side of the workers. As the strike drags on, this list of demands can gain the support of the thousands of frustrated undergraduate students at York.

A petition is not enough. As we can see with the current strike, the administration is not going to accept the demands of the graduate students and lecturers without a serious fight. The YFS needs to go beyond circulating a petition for the administration to agree to these demands. The students must enter mass mobilization. Words must translate into actions.

In order to fulfil its list of demands and to support the striking graduate students and lecturers, the YFS should immediately, 1) call for an emergency members meeting to plan the struggle, 2) convene a rally on campus and, 3) launch a campaign to reach out to and mobilize students. The only way to achieve our demands, as seen by the struggle of lecturers and graduate students, is to organize rallies and move towards strike action.

The YFS should raise the demand of for free education and good jobs for all, and mobilize for student strikes among the undergraduates to this end. There are common interests between most undergraduate students and graduate students/lecturers. We would all stand to benefit from free education and good jobs. The YFS should forge a common front of struggle between all students and workers on the campus around these demands.

Additionally, the YFS has been critical of the unelected, millionaire board of governors. In its recent statement, it points out that the Board of Governors views students as “basic income units”, and that students are suffering because of the stubbornness of York’s senior administrators. At our Fightback rally, the YFS president pointed out that “I didn’t vote for Rhonda Lenton!” It is clear to all that the Board of Governors does not work in the interest of those of us who work and study on this campus.

The Board of Governors is an undemocratic institution whose primary purpose is to squeeze as much as possible out of students and workers at the university, and organize education and research to suit the needs of the capitalists. The YFS should call for the abolition of the millionaire Board of Governors, and call on undergraduate students, side by side with graduate students and lecturers, to fight for worker-faculty-student’s democratic control of the campus. This can be done by strengthening the picket lines and shutting down the campus.

The undergraduate students would readily seize the opportunity to struggle around these demands if the YFS were to give a lead. The student union has significant resources and reach, and if it put this to use it could easily hold mass meetings and a mass rally within a week or even days of calling it. There is a real anger and frustration among the undergraduates, most of whom come from working class backgrounds, and this needs to be directed at the administration, the Liberal government and the ruling class.

The YFS executive has made clear public commitments, and it must act on them by seizing the present opportunity to advance the movement and win the struggle. Now it the time for the student union to mobilize undergraduates to take mass action and join the strike movement.

What can be learned from the Sit-In Movement?

A layer of more radicalized students have been a regular presence at the picket lines and on campus. There have been several undergraduate rallies, including at the central hall (Vari Hall) and at the meetings of the Senate. During one of these rallies at the Senate, a group of undergraduate students associated with the “Students for CUPE 3903” initiated a sit-in at the Senate Chambers. This was in response to president, Rhonda Lenton, and the Senate Executive ruling that the Senate vote to close down classes would be “consultative”, whereas in the past it had held the power to close down classes.

This sit-in was generating enthusiasm among students as well as the striking workers on the picket lines. By the second day, dozens and dozens were participating in the sit-in and at times over 60 people were at the occupation. Many union members were participating in the struggle and there was discussion about the union holding meetings at the sit-in. There was also significant mainstream media coverage of the struggle.

Unfortunately, since that time, the sit-in numbers have dwindled to a tiny handful with perhaps 8 or 9 students participating. This experience provides important lessons for how the most radical layer of students can build the struggle and organize effectively.

The first error of the sit-in was the reformism of the politics it put forward. The demands of the sit-in were for the closures of all classes, for the administration not to push concessions on the strikers, for a refund of tuition for the winter semester, and for the university president Rhonda Lenton to answer questions regarding $20,000 of personal expense spending. While Fightback certainly supports these demands, they are quite limited, and have not had the effect of generating enthusiasm for struggle or raising the political consciousness among a significant layer of students.

When Fightback was participating in the sit-in, we managed to move resolutions and push the sit-in to adopt the demands for free education, good jobs for all, abolition of the millionaire Board of Governors, student-worker democratic control as well as linking the struggle on campus to the fight against Liberal and Conservative austerity, and against the capitalist system more generally. This was reflected in the statement issued by the sit-in on the second day of struggle. Unfortunately, these demands were abandoned and were never raised prominently since Fightback faced a Stalinist witch-hunt and expulsion at the sit-in (which you can read about here).

This can seem contradictory given that the occupation was made up of the radical students, including those associated with Maoist/Stalinist and anarchists politics. However, they have adopted an opportunistic method that tries to find short-cuts by watering down the demands and politics of the movement. The idea behind this method is that the struggle will be more popular and and more people will support it if the demands are more “moderate”. This actually reflects an attitude that looks down on the mass of students and workers, assuming that they cannot understand broader and more radical demands. However, as is clear from the results, this approach actually undermines enthusiasm for the struggle.

The small clique of activists at the sit-in tend to be affiliated to the Revolutionary Student Movement (RSM), which is a Maoist/Stalinist organization, and the Ontario Public Research Interest Group (OPIRG), which tends to be influenced by anarchist and intersectionality politics. The irony is that despite their radical image, their program is actually to the right of the student union leadership of the YFS. The student union leadership, at least in words, ran on an election program which included student strikes, and a few months ago organized a successful rally for free education.

The petition launched by those at the sit-in is even more limited in its demands, as it only raises a tuition refund for the winter semester. The fact that the petition has attracted significant signatures with 4,500 students signing on, shows the anger among the students at the  administration and the potential for a broader mobilization.

However, the very limited participation in the sit-in shows that the demands raised have not had the desired effect. Far from encouraging participation, watering down the politics has meant that the sit-in has been left with a tiny handful of students, and has only generated a very passive sympathy among the students as a whole.

In order to enthuse students and get them involved in the sit-in, the occupiers need to make bold demands. While we support a tuition refund, limiting their demands to this when the student union leadership has come out in support of free education and student strikes, is actually a step back for the movement. Revolutionaries need to always push the movement further by making bold demands; for example for free education, good jobs, student strikes and the abolition of the board of governors.

Against Sectarianism: Spread the Movement!

The other major fault of the sit-in activists is the narrow outlook of their mobilization. An effective struggle can only occur if the mass of students are brought into the struggle. At present, as we have seen, the sit-in involves a miniscule group of students, often around 8 or 9. This cannot possibly have the effect of winning the demands of the sit-in. In fact, it has the effect of making the initiative of left-wing, radical students seem ineffective, weak, isolated and the actions of a fringe sect.

It is vital that the undergraduate movement strive to bring in new people, and mobilize the broader students into action. This means actively encouraging democratic participation in the movement. When students and workers feel like they have a say in the movement, they are far more likely to be committed to the movement. Moreover, the creativity and ideas of those participating strengthens the movement. Through debate on political and organizational questions, the consciousness of participants is raised.

RSM HQUnfortunately, the initiators of the sit-in who are part of the “Students for CUPE 3903” group took a very small-circle and elitist approach. They barred democratic rights from most students. They even denied workers who were participating in the sit-in from having voting rights! They limited democratic rights to the “original” occupiers, which is limited to somewhere around 10 people. This is recipe for exclusion and keeping the movement tiny.

The only logical purpose of this method is to keep the original tiny core in firm control of the “movement”. Its result is to keep the movement small and discourage participation. At minimum, hundreds and hundreds of students have become politicized by this strike. Their participation should be actively welcomed and encouraged, rather than met with an elitist attitude, and told that they must only take orders and be denied a democratic say. It is a fact that many workers on campus who enthusiastically came to join the sit-in and were hoping to have democratic rights were denied this.

It should be added that originally, when Fightback was participating in the sit-in, such democratic rights extended to all participants. However, the clique linked to the RSM and OPIRG decided to hold a secret meeting. This clique secretly decided to disenfranchise everybody but themselves, as the so-called “original occupiers”. This is a completely sectarian approach which has the effect of isolating the radical students.

The radical students must also actively demand and pressure the mass student unions to join the struggle and put their resources to use. In this case, the YFS leadership had campaigned on being pro-strike and pro-free education. The advanced layer of undergraduate student activists should have put pressure demanding that the YFS translate their commitments into action, especially during this crucial struggle. This should have been a natural step as the student union belongs to its members and was built as a means to organize collective student struggle

While Fightback was participating in the sit-in, our intervention resulted in the release of a statement putting direct pressure on and raising demands with the YFS. Unfortunately, after Fightback was undemocratically barred from the movement, these demands on the leadership of the YFS ceased. The YFS has been able to remain aloof from the present struggle, making a minimal effort to support strikers and mobilize students, while avoiding holding any student union meetings so that the rank-and-file can have its say.

Some activists argue that we should not make public demands on the YFS because the student union is reformist and moderate, so radical activists should keep their hands clean and not bother with the union. It is certainly true that the YFS leadership is reformist. However, placing public demands on the student union leadership allows the rank-and-file to see the limitations of the reformists. Raising rank-and-file consciousness creates pressure, which can push the student union to take action. At the very least, it prepares the ground for the radicalization of the student union in the future.

The irony is that the activists at the sit-in actually adopted a program to the right of the student union leadership. This is an example of ultra-left sectarianism and reformist opportunism going hand-in-hand. Watering down the demands did not build the movement one bit, while refusing to raise demands on the student union allowed the leadership to remain relatively passive during this struggle.

Finally, the sit-in remained isolated because the clique around the RSM-OPIRG were prepared to organize a political ban and witch-hunt against Fightback, which we have previously written on. The main political lesson from this episode is that different political trends within the student and labour movement must have full freedom to raise their program, argue for their ideas, distribute leaflets and newspapers, promote slogans and march with their banners. Any attempts at political censorship harms the movement, stifles consciousness, divides the struggle and creates an entirely bureaucratic way of organizing.

While it is tragic that the sit-in has quickly reached a dead-end, with only a miniscule layer of students participating, it must be stated clearly that significant potential existed for the most advanced and radical layer of students to build a real movement. While that hasn’t occurred, it is important that we draw the key lessons from this experience.

Fight Austerity & Capitalism

While Rhonda Lenton is the face of the ruling class in the struggle at York University, this struggle is linked to the broader policy of the capitalists to carry out austerity cuts. Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberals have been cutting funding to education for a whole period, and this is linked to the pressure to reduce wages, jobs security and hike tuitions on campus.

Lenton is trying to destroy the union today so the workers don’t have the organization they need to fight back when the government decides to cut post-secondary education funding further in the future. If Doug Ford is elected in June, we can expect even worse from the Conservatives. Further cuts to education will mean skyrocketing tuition and lower quality education for students, as well as an expansion of precarious employment and worsening working conditions for staff.

The Wynne government, which is attacking students and teachers at York University, is doing the same at all the universities and colleges across Ontario. This is the same government that enacted undemocratic back-to-work legislation against college faculty, privatized Hydro-One, and is underfunding hospitals. Millions of working class people across Ontario are sick of the Liberals, and with good reason.

A movement led by the students and teachers on campus which is well organized and based on correct ideas can set an example for broader society. Linking the fight on campus to the fight against Liberal austerity, and the capitalist class more generally, can spark the broader working class into action.  

This is what happened in Quebec in 2012, when hundreds of thousands of workers joined striking students in the streets in what were called the “casserole protests”. This movement brought the Liberal party in Quebec to its knees and lead to a tuition freeze. This is just one of many examples in history of a student movement sparking more general movements of the working class.

In the fight for free education and good jobs an important question comes to the fore: how do we pay for it? The Marxists point out that the wealth exists. As of 2016, abolishing all existing student tuition fees would cost $8-9 billion. This seems like a lot, but not in relation to CEO pay. In 2017, the top Canadian banks paid their executives 13.3 billion dollars in bank bonuses alone. That’s not including pensions and salaries. It is estimated that Canada loses about 8 billion dollars a year in tax revenue due to offshore tax havens. If for just a single year the rich paid their taxes in full like the rest of us, and bankers didn’t receive bonuses, there would be enough money to provide free education and to also forgive most student debt.

The point is, however, that as long as the capitalists privately own the main banks, industries and corporations, they will control the wealth produced in society and will distribute it in a manner that benefits them. All of the wealth that exists in society is created by the working class. The corporate monopolies should be nationalized so that the working class can democratically control the wealth created. The struggle for free education and good jobs should therefore be linked to the struggle for workers’ control and collective ownership of our workplaces/campuses and to the struggle for socialism.