2014-07-12 by Terence Yancey and Mícheál Madden [http://socialistorganizer.org/montreal-student-movement-convention-stresses-need-for-student-unionism/]:
Terence Yancey is a student at Santa Monica Community College. Micheál
Madden is a student at City College of San Francisco. Both participated
in the Montreal Student Movement Convention.
“Growing international student movement with the perspective of struggle points the way forward in the fight for public education”
Attacks on public education are taking place at an unprecedented level across the county, and much of the world. From school closures and standardized testing in K-12 education to skyrocketing tuition and student debt at the university level, these attacks in some form affect almost every community. While there have been pockets of resistance across the continent, struggles of student unions in Quebéc and the teachers union in Chicago for example, and even some victories, overall public education is finding itself, even more so than before, on austerity’s chopping block. Through these struggles, student activists are sharing the stories and lessons learned and building international networks to fight for public education.
In Montreal, student organizers hosted the Montreal Student Movement Convention to bring together student activists from across the continent to “unite North America’s progressive student organizations, share both tactics and struggles with other organizers, and learn lessons from the past to shape future movements.” The four-day convention, held June 19-22, was held at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). Several hundred students from across Canada and the United States attended. There were also students from Mexico, China, Australia and Russia.
The Significance of Quebec -
Quebec has strong significance within the student movement. In 2012, the provincial government attempted to implement a tuition increase of 75% from $2,168 to $3,793. Through the mobilization tool of their union, ASSE, students were able to build strikes on campuses all across Quebec, at first slowly, but then with gathering strength and momentum.
To form a united front with other student unions against the government’s intent to raise student tuition levels, ASSE temporarily opened its structures to form a strike coalition known as CLASSE. At its peak, the movement against the provincial government’s policies involved some 300,000 people in the largest march Quebec has ever seen.
Eventually the state was forced to hold new elections to steer the movement into a wall, with promises from the Quebecois Nationalist Party not to raise tuition that were betrayed once they took office. The movement receded after an intense seven months of struggle. While Quebec students at the conference were openly critical about the achievements and workings of their own movement, U.S. students were inspired by the energy and the lessons they drew upon.
Across the U.S., students are beginning to introduce the idea of student unionism to their campuses through advocacy groups in the various struggles facing their communities. At Portland State University, tuition increases, a proposal to deputize campus security and contingent faculty’s fight for job security mobilized organizers on the campus to begin organizing the Portland State University Student Union (PSUSU). In California, the lessons learned from the mobilizations against budget cuts and tuition increases during the Occupy movement, led organizers to begin the California Student Union (CASU) project, an attempt to connect the struggles across the state and build a sustainable and democratic infrastructure for continuity within the movement.
Student union supporters at Ohio University won their student government elections, and were able to expose the limits of student government’s ability to independently represent the student body. However, they were able to effectively use student government to the extent possible to acquire funds for student organizing, get their viewpoint out in the student newspaper and have the access to organize various departments and constituencies on campus. Ultimately, however, they concluded the student government only has “the illusion of power,” as true power lies with the administration.
The role student government plays, as it is usually run by resumé builders, is to rubber-stamp the administrations’ policies to legitimize them has having student support. At OU, there was even a strong network of student government alumni who would routinely visit the campus and meetings to try and enforce the status quo. What organizers were able to do within student government was express opposition to administrative policies and refuse to be a rubber stamp. However, when it came to actually stopping the administration from implementing policies harmful to students, they realized that student government wasn’t actually a political body, but rather an event-planning one.
Actually building a functioning student union is a long-term project that sometimes requiring years, even decades, of work and organizing. Quebec’s student unions exploded into existence in 1968 around the first successful fight to freeze tuition, in the context of a world burning with workers’ and peoples’ movements. The unions were not even legally recognized by the state until the mid-1970s.
Some of the most important organizing takes place within student organizations themselves to address problems and inequality within the movement. Convention organizers convened several panels on sexism, racism and trans-/homophobia within the movement.
Addressing Problems Within the Movement -
The struggle of feminists within the student movement in Quebec is particularly interesting and of great significance. A presentation given by Jeanne Reynolds, the female spokesperson for CLASSE during the strike, displayed how organization of women was integrated into every local structure within the union. There was great difficulty in first bringing women into the movement due to the attitudes of deferring to males for leadership and the process of building female confidence. Progressive speaking stacks are implemented at every meeting, which require an alternating male-female speakers’ list. A person is appointed every meeting to monitor and ensure that dialogue between all is respectful, and can receive secret objections through text message from anyone in the meeting. Local female committees were established to keep in touch with the actual conditions of feminism on the ground.
Women have won the recognition of their central importance within ASSE, but this does not mean that problems still do not occur. Issues of sexism and all kinds of attacks need to be constantly combated in any social movement. What is so impressive is that women themselves have built autonomous structures within this particular student union and have permanently crystallized their organization inside the movement. The first national women’s congress is currently being constructed in ASSE to represent the women’s committees at the highest levels in the union. To paraphrase Reynolds’ words, it is important to note that, contrary to women’s fears, no one ever abandoned the organization because feminist discussion and debate ensued, or because women pressed their issues seriously.
A Real Voice for Students -
Building and implementing student unions is a first step for allowing students to have a real voice in how their universities operate. In Canada, Quebec is unique in the way their student unions operate and in their success. In the rest of Canada, student unions are bureaucratic and tied to political parties; they operate with little input from their rank-and-file membership.
In Quebec, the student unions operate on a direct democracy model with general assemblies serving as the highest decision-making body. Throughout the convention, organizers from Quebec discussed their use of direct democracy and the importance of accessibility and inclusiveness to a strong movement. Building active and democratic universities requires active and democratic unions.
A movement to build student unions in the U.S., though in its early stages, is growing through the experience of student organizers in the U.S. coupled with the inspiration of the successful student movement in Quebec. Along with that, organizers are beginning to connect their struggles and view the attacks on public education from an international perspective. The growing international student movement with the perspective of struggle points the way forward in the fight for public education.