The York Federation of Students, the student union representing over 50,000 students at York University, is the largest student union in the country. The YFS has significant resources and is well-organized, with a significant budget and paid staff. It also has a history of activism and a past tradition of struggle for social change. However, over the past period there has been little movement through the student union despite the potential that exists for mobilization.
The main demand of the student union in the recent period has been to obtain a reduction in tuition fees. We can say that this campaign has failed to achieve its aims thus far, with tuition fees rising by a 40% increase nationally over the past decade, and with Ontario paying the highest tuition rate in the country.
Once a year, the YFS holds an annual general membership meeting, where it can be held accountable by its membership and where students can democratically vote and decide on resolutions which their student union executive should then take up as official policy. Often these AGMs are poorly organized with little promotion. Only a tiny fraction of the student population tends to attend or even be aware of the AGM and its democratic powers. For example, the AGMs for the student unions at Ryerson University and George Brown College were recently unable to attain enough attendance to maintain basic quorum, preventing the AGMs from passing official decisions.
Fightback has historically raised demands upon the student union executive of the YFS and other student unions, explaining that there was a pressing need to build a mass student movement to fight for free education and other demands affecting students and the working class. The failure to raise bold demands and mobilize mass action was leading to inactivity and passivity among students. Every year for the past decade, some excuse has been given for why this is not possible, often blaming the low-level of consciousness of the rank-and-file students.
In 2016, the Canadian Federation of Students, which the YFS is affiliated to and closely aligned with, recently came out in favour of free education and organized a day of action under that demand. This is commendable, and echoes Fightback’s campaigning on this issue for the last 20 years. But merely calling for free education is obviously insufficient to actually achieve it. For that we need more militant action. The day of action protest last year had no follow-up.
Fightback has consistently argued that the only way to eventually win free education is via the organization of student strikes. Quebec students go on strike, and it is not a coincidence that they enjoy the lowest fees in Canada. Fightback at York have explained the necessity of planning for strike action year after year. But the YFS leadership has resisted this call. The YFS executive have used every excuse possible to avoid organizing a mass student strike which would actually challenge the university administration and make education as a right a reality.
Radicalize the student union!
This year, the Socialist Fightback Students at York University decided to mobilize students for the AGM on the basis of a series of resolutions for free education, the abolition of student debt, the need to organize student strikes, the fight against racism and fascism, the need to shut-down far-right speakers on campus, access to free student housing, and the need to organize rent strikes.
It soon became clear that the AGM would be different from those of past years, with more in attendance and a more politically-charged atmosphere. Over 110 members were in attendance including a large contingent of Fightback supporters. Many were new students who had actually heard about the AGM from Fightback’s own postering efforts, which dwarfed the few official posters put up by the YFS leadership.
As the meeting came to order, a fight arose over the agenda. Fightback supporters submitted three resolutions. One on fighting the far-right on campus, one on free education, and finally one on housing. Each contained serious calls to action including organizing towards a student strike, shutting down the far-right, and a rent strike. The YFS executives had countered this by submitting their own resolutions on the same issues, though their resolutions were watered down, with little concrete proposals for mobilization and mass action planned. For example, the resolution on lack of affordable housing had as its proposal a $1,000 grant to a housing advocacy organization.
Our first attempt to fight this was to push our resolutions to the top of the agenda. We lost this vote, though it was close. Our second attempt was to simply place our resolutions on fighting for free education at the top of the agenda, considering it was the most pressing issue for the student movement in Canada. That too failed by a close margin. So we instead decided to amend the YFS executive’s resolutions which were identical in theme to our own, yet were vague in terms of their solutions and lacked militancy in terms of next steps for the struggle.
Shut Down the Far-Right!
The first big debate was the YFS executive-submitted resolution on the fight against the far-right and fascism. The resolution ended with the commitment that “Be it resolved that the York Federation of Students commit to organizing against White Supremacy both on and off campus.” This was acknowledged as an excellent step in the right direction, but more was needed. Fightback added an amendment which stated “Be it further resolved that if a far-right speaker is invited to speak on campus that the YFS organize mass mobilizations of students, workers, marginalized communities to shut down the far-right.”
It was not enough to simply oppose the fascist movement in the abstract, action is needed to stop it in its tracks. The room seemed mostly in favour of this. The right-wing however attempted to gut the amendment by changing the word ‘shut down’ to ‘protest.’ We opposed this. To what end were we protesting if not to kick fascists off our campus? This attempt at moderating the language of the amendment was defeated, and our own amendment passed by a wide margin! It was an excellent step forward, as it committed the student union to actively organizing a militant struggle against fascism. There was clear enthusiasm in the room for the idea of fighting against the alt-right in a practical and bold way. Many students who were new to student union activism voted alongside Socialist Fightback in its goal of actively shutting down speakers like Faith Goldy should they ever come to York University’s campus.
Strike for Free Education!
The next debate surrounded the resolution on Free Education. The proposal put forward by the student union leadership was largely focused on more rallies, stating “Be it resolved that the York Federation of Students commit to hosting several lead up actions before and after the February 1st day of action.” Though this was a step forward from doing nothing, it was vague and not bold enough. There was no date for future planned actions, and no way for the student movement to democratically participate in the running of the movement. Furthermore, it is not enough to simply rally. Various days of action have been proposed and carried out over the years to little effect.
A student strike was needed, as well as fighting for the cancellation of the student debt burdening students who have already graduated. Fightback activists therefore proposed “To include the demand for the cancellation of student debt.” In addition to this, we proposed “That the York Federation of Students organize a one-day student strike” as well as “The York Federation of Students use the initial strike action to escalate towards a week-long national student strike for free education.” It is only with bold demands like these alongside militant tactics that we can force the university administration to eliminate tuition entirely.
It was clear from this, and the way in which the YFS leadership carried out the debate, that they wanted nothing to do with bold demands like student strikes and the cancellation of debt. Our first attempt to amend the resolution to add the organization of a student strike and democratic assemblies to organize the strike was met with the chair ruling that our amendment was out of order. ‘Democratic assemblies of students have nothing to do with the resolution’ is what the students were told by the chair.
One has to ask the question, then, how are students supposed to organize their movement? Through backdoor meetings without mass participation? Though we argued our case, the chair stuck to her verdict, and the room was clearly upset and frustrated at this tactic. Fightback challenged the chair, demanding a vote. The challenge passed, and the chair was overruled. The chair was forced to allow a debate and vote on the proposed amendment.
The result of the vote was close, and so a recount was requested with a standing vote to clarify the difference in votes. The chair pointed out that the result was not in our favour because of the ‘proxies’ she had. Proxies are people who were not there but were in attendance while absent. This caused an uproar in the room. Someone from the crowd yelled out, ‘How is that democratic? How can people not here vote?’ After ten minutes of harsh criticism of the chair for this tactic, she retracted what she had previously stated, telling us that ‘Proxies don’t have votes’ which contradicted her earlier answer.
A recount was taken, and Fightback’s amendment for a student strike and democratic assemblies to organize said strike only lost by one vote! While it is disappointing to lose the vote by such a small margin, this is a clear expression of the growing discontent amongst everyday students who are not content to suffer high debt and tuition without some real action. We can be sure that the next time that the students have an opportunity to democratically express their will for militant action will be even stronger.
Access to Student Housing Now!
Another point of debate was the question of housing. As we have seen a huge increase in homelessness on campus as well as an increase in student poverty, we attempted to put forward an amendment demanding free housing for students, stating “that the YFS publicly raise the demand for access to free housing for students and mobilize for this demand (alongside the struggle against tuition fees).” in addition to “The YFS to organize a student rent strike as a means of achieving this end.” The existing resolution stated that “The York Federation of Students to provide a $1,000 dollar donation to the Affordable Housing Committee at York University.”
Though our amendment failed to pass, the original resolution which gave a certain amount of money to the housing committee did pass. This is a good thing and we are glad that our pressure on this issue has helped facilitate at least some partial action. It was clear that the issue of housing was important to many students in the room, particularly working class students who have to work in addition to school in order to make rent. The fact that the housing committee is getting more funding is positive. But it is far from enough. The Housing Committee has set its goal of building affordable co-op housing for students at York University by 2024 (http://housing.info.yorku.ca/). This is a laudable goal, but what about the current state of housing at York? On-campus rents are high, and instead of lowering existing rents and providing additional affordable housing the administration is selling off land to private developers. Just this year private housing was opened in the new QUAD apartments which are upwards of 800 dollars a month for a shared unit.
It is clear that without militant action, the administration and private companies will continue to makes profits from the students by charging extremely high rent. This is why, in addition to building affordable and co-op housing, we need militant actions up to, and including, a rent strike to lower rent today. By 2024 every current student will have long since graduated.
Students Must Control Their Student Union!
The final high point of debate revolved around democracy within the union. A resolution was put forward by the Revolutionary Student Movement demanding “The Annual General Meeting be held at a minimum biannually, with each AGM announced and promoted at least two months in advance as well as the agenda being publicly release two weeks in advance.” These seem like simple democratic measures that any reasonable person would agree with, but the chair ruled it out of order! According to the YFS by-laws, the number of meetings was set to one. The frustration grew as she explained that an AGM has no right to change the by-laws, and that only the by-laws committee could do anything!
This, along with the chair shutting down any serious debate on the topic, frustrated many students. It was in the context of this frustration over the shutting down of the democratic ability of the students to hold their leadership accountable that Fightback supporters joined other students in a protest walk-out from the meeting. This walk out made a clear statement about the importance of direct democracy and rank-and-file control of our student union.
Overall, there is no doubt that this was the most political AGM in years and the Socialist Fightback Students played a central role in that politicization. Our resolutions for free education, housing, and fighting the far-right shaped the debate in the room and encouraged action on these issues (even if not as militant as we would have preferred). It can be said that debates about radical ideas and methods of mass struggle defined this year’s AGM. Furthermore, our activists articulated the powerful desire among students for accountability and rank-and-file democracy in their student union, forcing the student union bureaucracy to back down on a number of occasions.
There is clearly a growing mood amongst rank-and-file students for militant action today and not in the never-never. The fact that the proposal for student strikes only lost by 1 vote means that this issue is growing in prominence year by year. It is inevitable that eventually the movement will be won to this idea. People literally cannot afford to suffer high fees and higher debt any longer. We therefore cannot afford passivity, servility and moderation in the student movement that allows these problems to persist. Join with Socialist Fightback Students to advocate for mass militant action now that can bring real change for students and workers!