Student unions as a weapon for the working class

By Jesse Cullen

Students play an unique and important role in our society (disclaimer: I am a student). By virtue of attending a college or a university, students generate wealth as whole industries and communities are built around post-secondary institutions. Protest02_GaryMusson_web-480x300Through college apprenticeships, university research, learning, and teaching, students produce social goods such as knowledge, skills, civic engagement, and innovations. In short, students are an essential part of our cultural, political, economic, and social institutions.
Historically, the typical university student was a white man who came from a middle or upper class family. Higher education was a place to groom future elites: industrialists, politicians, lawyers, and others who acted as cultural and political gatekeepers. To a large extent, this is still true today. However, as more women, working class, and racialized peoples have gained access to higher education there has been a concerted effort by governments, influenced by the rich and powerful, to limit academic freedom, cultural expression, and political activities on campus. These reforms have involved a dramatic reduction of public funding for post-secondary education which has shifted the cost of higher education from the public to the individual. Essentially, as access to higher education has increased, the function of education has become almost exclusively to serve the interests of the market.

This is why student unions are more important today than ever before – rather than acting as a resume-padding steppingstone for rich kids, there is huge potential for student democracy to improve the lives of people who are struggling. Governments and industry are keenly aware that as women, working class and racialized peoples gain greater access to post-secondary education, the more tightly controlled education must be. It does not take a sociology degree to understand that our interests conflict with those in power. So goes the grand compromise: we will get access but they will maintain control. Student democracy and student unionism pose a direct threat to that control.

Undermining student power

Student power has been eroded after decades of systematic attacks by governments and their surrogates in the ivory towers. First, the system stifles student democracy by economic strangulation. Unpaid internships, mandatory placements, and an increasingly casualized teaching faculty recruited from industry (accompanied by a declining number of tenure track professors) forces students into an intellectually suffocating environment. Students are thrown into, what seems like, a never-ending job interview where they are told that the slightest transgression may negatively impact their employability after graduation. This has a chilling effect on political activity on campus which disproportionately impacts working-class students whose ability to repay their massive student loans depends on their employability. While economic necessity is enough to enforce ideological discipline for many students, indoctrination and grooming techniques are used to ensure compliance for others. For those privileged enough to graduate without student debt, the academe intensively focuses resources on “leadership” programs, varsity and athletic opportunities, and other points of entry to elite positions within the institution. These programs ensure uniformity of thought and the suppression of progressive political activities.

When economic necessity and indoctrination fail to crush student democracy, it is common for Canadian post-secondary institutions to engage in sabotage to maintain control. Withholding membership fees, imposing restrictive and draconian policies that limit student representation and activities of student unions, closing student-run buildings, and attempting to influence student elections are tactics that universities and colleges frequently use to protect powerful interests. Durham College, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, University of Toronto, the University of Windsor and St. Clair College have all engaged in these underhanded tactics, just to name a few. Even when things seem peaceful, there is widespread, low-level interference in student democracy on practically every campus in Canada where a viable student union exists.

Rights and democracy

What adds insult to injury is that there are practically no protections for students against these tactics in Canada, except for relatively minor protections in British Colombia and Quebec. There has been a longstanding debate among student activists in Canada about how student unions should be structured, what their mandate should be, and what the most effective ways to mobilize their members are. But if governments and post-secondary institutions are simply able to disregard the will of students, our arguments are pointless. For example, I was recently told by an administrator at Durham College that students could vote for whatever student union they want but it is the prerogative of the college whether to recognize their chosen representation or not.

The first order of business is to fight for formal protections that force governments and post-secondary institutions to recognize the democratic will of students. That means making the case that students are workers and any formal association or affiliation students choose should be given rights and protections similar to those that trade unions enjoy. Those protections should include meaningful representation on decision-making bodies within a college or university. IMG_0989Elections should be run by students and representation on those bodies should go beyond tokenism. Students should also be given bargaining rights with governments and the institution they attend to negotiate fees, services, class sizes, curriculum development, terms of placements, and other issues. And students should also fight to end the practice of colleges and universities withholding fees to enshrine our collective social and political rights.

By first winning these protections, students will have a solid foundation from which to fight against tuition fees, student debt, and creeping privatization and corporatization. This new foundation would also provide a framework to unite with faculty, staff, and the broader community to fight for democratic control of post-secondary education.

Today, the student body is increasingly made up of working class and poor folks. Union density in the workforce has been declining for a generation and young workers have been disproportionately affected by the socioeconomic impacts of increased job insecurity, a lack of benefits, and low wage work. By defining students as intellectual workers and transforming student unions into vehicles for social, economic, and racial justice, a new generation of young workers will transform the union movement and challenge the conventional wisdom of neoliberalism. Because of their precariousness, a new student politics can only arise from within their ranks because their very existence represents a threat to the status quo.

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