By Garry Sran
Coordinating with other unions and the student movement to build a province-wide campaign for increased funding and against tuition fees is no easy task. But the foundation for such a project has been laid over the past year, in the months-long process of bargaining mobilization in our local. Without a doubt, this work has contributed to the gains that we won in our collective agreement, and shows the potential power of meaningful solidarity.
In my past experience as a student activist at the University of Manitoba, I learned that working with the broader community is the most effective way to win many gains for the student and labour movement. Working as part of a team with common goals on a campus generally known for its conservative environment, we were able to mobilize and organize to build broad support for both increased funding, lower tuition fees and fairness for workers.
We started by leading a campaign to reclaim student spaces and to defend students’ rights to organize. The success of this campaign led to our victory in student union elections. Through patient and systematic outreach among the majority of students (especially those who didn’t consider themselves activists), we slowly but surely changed the political culture at the university. And despite a racist campaign against my candidacy, I was elected student union president.
As president, I committed to make the student union an open, transparent and accountable organization, at the same time as fighting racism, sexism and homophobia on campus. In order to achieve these goals, we needed to build mass support among all students. Just like in any union, we needed to work with rank-and-file members. Based on their demands, we consolidated support, including financing, for key constituencies on campus, including the Womyn’s Centre, the Rainbow Centre, and the Aboriginal Students’ Association. By joining and supporting the struggles of representative groups on campus, we were able to build a strong coalition of supporters and closely coordinate campaigns.
We further developed this strategy by engaging and mobilizing the over 100 student groups and councils on campus. By creating a large network of diverse students and groups, united in our opposition to high tuition fees in Manitoba, we successfully launched a larger province-wide struggle to pressure the government to increase funding for post-secondary education. Again, we knew we needed to work with all students across the province. As members of the Canadian Federations of Students, we went from a politically dormant students’ union to become one of the top ten lobby organizations in Manitoba.
By the end of our campaign, we had won a province-wide tuition fee freeze, including a 10% across-the-board reduction, in addition to an increase that boosted funding for post-secondary institutions to historic levels. Finally, we won a 60% tuition rebate for students who agreed to stay and live in Manitoba after graduating. You can read more about the campaign’s success here.
At the federal level, we applied the same method of organizing, uniting students across the country around a common demand, and successfully defeated the Millennium Scholarship Foundation – a federal program that only saddled students with more debt. In its place, we pressured a conservative government to create a new national system of non-repayable grants worth $300 million, the first ever in Canada.
This kind of approach worked in the labour movement, too. As progressive student activists, we organized support for workers’ struggles on our campus. In 2007, the union representing food service, grounds, caretaking, skilled trades and engineers (CAW 3007) went on strike, after negotiations broke down with the administration. In response, we organized rank-and-file support among students to pass a motion at the University of Manitoba Students’ Union to back the striking workers, along with the University of Manitoba Faculty Association and four other campus trade unions. We echoed the workers’ demands for decent wages, good working conditions, improved job security and academic freedom – the first time that our student union had passed a motion to support an employees’ union at the university. With workers and students united, we were able to build a strong and successful movement. Read more about it here.
Despite what some activists say, there really is no such thing as a “conservative” campus or some departments or faculties that are more inherently conservative than others. We can build support for progressive and even radical demands anywhere on campus, as long as we organize in an open, inclusive and welcoming manner. That means being respectful of the differences that might exist among us, and not throwing up barriers to the participation of other members – based on whether they are activists or not, or what departments they come from.
“We need more than the left to win. We need the mass of our members, undergraduate students and other workers on campus. And we need to make it easy and rewarding for them to join us.”
That also means challenging the toxicity that exists in our own union – whether it’s a member getting shouted down at a general meeting, or facing personalized attacks online. This kind of behaviour makes the union inaccessible to most members, and undermines their confidence in our collective project for social justice in the workplace and beyond. Some of us might be used to this behaviour, but it needs to stop. As we organize, our primary audience should be those members who are not yet mobilized (or who are just beginning to mobilize), and not just those of us who are long-time activists. We need more than the left to win. We need the mass of our members, undergraduate students and other workers on campus. And we need to make it easy and rewarding for them to join us.
The last year of organizing and mobilizing in the local, especially this semester and during the strike, offers some rich lessons about how we can build a strong united movement across campus and throughout the sector. I am excited about the potential to build such a movement across Ontario – both among other locals in the education sector and among the student unions that are already organizing against fees.
As part of our bargaining mobilization, we have deepened our relationship with CUPE 3902, the Ontario University Workers Coordinating Committee, CUPE Ontario, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, and the Canadian Federation of Students, not to mention the stronger relationship we have built with unions and student unions on our own campus through the Cross-Campus Alliance. This puts us in an excellent position to play a leadership role in coordinating workers and students across the province, and helping initiate a province-wide campaign against fees that builds on the momentum of our strike. It also puts us in an excellent position to continue province-wide campaigns for contract faculty in our sector, and to amplify their experiences and demands among York students and the general public alike.
I am running as part of the #BetterUnion team because I share their vision for building an open, accessible and welcoming union, and their strategy for engaging and mobilizing the vast majority of our members – especially those who are not yet active in the local. In my experience as a student activist at the University of Manitoba, the same kind of approach worked there, and I have seen it work in our union, too.
I am confident that, based on all our collective experiences and skills, the #BetterUnion team has the potential to make the most out of last year’s bargaining mobilization, and to build the greatest unity possible among all members of our local. We can only achieve these goals if both of them succeed. A better union means an engaged and confident membership that feels welcome in all union spaces. Let’s work together to make this happen.
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