- Ontario's TA unions are losing the battle to defend contract language which keeps tuition fees down
- At present, Ontario's student movement has neither the organization or strategy to fight tuition fees
York & Carleton: The Two Beachheads
For the first decade of the 2000s, tuition increase protection (TIP) language secured by CUPE 3903 at York and CUPE 4600 at Carleton was rightfully seen by Ontario's Teaching Assistants as something to strive for in the collective bargaining process. In short, TIP language prevents tuition fees from rising for Teaching Assistants (who were mainly graduate students - a minority of the student body). To date, this language has only been won and defended through hard bargaining and strike action.
But in the years following the historic 3903 strike of 2000-1 (which led directly to Carleton administration conceding TIP language for CUPE 4600), TIP language was not won by other TA unions and generalized across the province. Even the end of McGuinty's tuition fee freeze in 2005 failed to generate a renewed fight for TIP language in TA bargaining.
The Carleton setback (or defeat?)
|CUPE 4600 info picket, early 2014 (source)|
The York fight
|CUPE 3903 mass meeting: March 9 2015|
Either way, CUPE 3903's TIP language is now in grave danger hinges on the arbitration crap shoot and where this current strike goes.
Beyond York and Carleton? Nothing.
At this point, it is worth reconsidering the entire strategy of TIP language as a means for TAs (mostly grad students) of keeping tuition fees down so wages can climb with costs of living. The fact that such language is so rare among TA unions 15 years since the 2000-1 CUPE 3903 strike should be evidence enough that a new strategy is needed. To my knowledge, the only other local with something like TIP language is CUPE 2626 at the University of Ottawa (corrections and additions are welcome!). But we also need to address the problem of the Ontario student movement, or what is left of it.
The student movement: Organizationally split
The other campus story of this period, is the decline of a wider student movement in Ontario to fight tuition fees. There are many reasons for this. There is no united student organization in Ontario to wage a united campaign. Local student unions, which have resources and staff to organize such campaigns, are divided in their allegiances between the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, and the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. OUSA has never tried to use protest to win anything and haven't even been good on the need to freeze or lower tuition fees.
CFS-Ontario: a quick assessment of what matters
|November 2009 CFS-Ontario rally at Queen's Park|
CFS-Ontario has made commendable efforts at organizing activist assemblies. These have brought together several hundred students from across the province. But being based in Toronto instead of being held locally, those attending were too often student union executives routinely bogged down in administrative work and internal politics and without the time or energy to do on-the-ground organizing. To build a real base of activists, these sorts of assemblies need to be built city by city and focus on "rank-and-file" students and activists, not just student union executives.
What remains outside the provincial organizations?
Local training and organizing work like this is desperately needed at many campuses because local student unions themselves vary wildly in their priorities and politics, often shifting year to year. Affiliations to either CFS or OUSA is often a focus for right-led student unions, and sections of the student left inside and outside student union structures.
Outside of student union politics, there are no multi-campus organizations of individual students focused on fighting tuition fees. Such groups do exist here and there, from time to time, and a lot of creativity and invention is exhibited. But this work is never connected to a multi-campus organization with a long-term strategy.
Rough sketches of a new strategy
|A General Assembly strike vote during|
the 2012 Quebec student strike
TA unions and student unions should be working together towards the same goals of lower tuition fees. This should be a permanent collaboration and political priority. An example of how this hasn't happened even in the best of circumstances was the 5,000-strong Queen's Park rally against tuition fee increases on November 5, 2008. Over twenty buses brought down at least a thousand undergrads from York, organized by the undergrad York Federation of Students. A day later, five thousand members of CUPE 3903 went on strike. The two moments and movements were totally disconnected, and a lot of potential social power left untapped.
|February 27 2015: CUPE 3902 general meeting votes down|
contract offer to go on strike
And as much as TA unions need to organize undergrad support during bargaining and in the chance of a strike, TA unions need to show the same on-the-ground solidarity and commit to organizing efforts around a wider tuition fee battle.
We know from Quebec and around the world that only mass student strikes can win on tuition fees in this day and age. And the industrial relations route in Ontario is not working anymore: it is too sectional (dividing students and workers, dividing grads from undergrads, domestic from international), too fragile (the 4600 and 3903 setbacks) and too marginal (most TA unions don't have this language). It's time for an entirely new approach based on long-term strategy, mass participation, and the dual use of student power and workers' power.