Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Worst Case Ontario? TA unions and tuition fees

The following piece tries to develop two observations in order to point towards a new strategy for fighting tuition fees in Ontario. This strategy is only sketched out and not developed. Hopefully this has some relevance to students in other provinces.
  1. Ontario's TA unions are losing the battle to defend contract language which keeps tuition fees down
  2. 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)
Since the Great Recession, which has seen the Ontario Liberals tighten education spending even more, these two locals have suffered serious setbacks in TIP language. CUPE 4600 lost a strike vote in early 2009 amidst the last CUPE 3903 strike and a bitter two-month Ottawa transit strike. Fear had set in and the membership was on the ropes. TIP language was weakened significantly. Tuition fees are no longer frozen at a fixed index year, but now a rolling index set at each individual grad student's starting year at Carleton. Carleton has since front-loaded fees to this starting year to keep this index year high. This is being grieved, but the CUPE 4600 indexation language has been rendered almost entirely ineffective.

The York fight
CUPE 3903 mass meeting: March 9 2015
As for CUPE 3903, in 2013 the employer/administration decided to reinterpret the TIP language and raise tuition fees on international students by $7000. This is now in arbitration and 3903 TAs remain on strike largely because the membership is seeking a retroactive rollback of these fees and stronger TIP language. This is the case after TAs rejected an offer of freezing fees for the duration of the new contract in the absence of a total rollback and stronger TIP language. Those favouring this compromise (or concession as some called it) argued it would conserve the union's forces for the next round of bargaining. But while TAs rejected this offer, CUPE 3903 contract faculty accepted their offer, and it now remains to be seen whether or not York TAs have the strength to win the retroactive rollback and stronger TIP language. And due to the Ontario Liberal intervention in the 2008-9 CUPE 3903 strike, there is now precedent in the sector for back-to-work legislation. It is not clear to me, at least, how York TAs are going to win this fight when back-to-work legislation ensures York won't bargain fairly in a prolonged strike situation.

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 long relied on a dual strategy of lobbying and annual days of action. But this approach has stopped getting results as the protest track has become routinized, which undercuts lobbying efforts. This is not to say protests and rallies shouldn't be organized, but they don't exert power or pressure beyond persuasion unless connected with walkouts or strikes (like the CFS-coordinated defeat of income contingent loans in 1995).

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
Considering the fragmentation and paralysis of the Ontario student movement and the undermining of the TIP language beachhead, it seems clear that a new strategy is needed: one which can fight tuition fees for all students.

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
Part of a new strategy would also mean looking at largely untested tactics (in Ontario) like student walkouts (which pave the way for student strikes), and syncing up student actions with TA info pickets and labour actions. Student unions or tuition fee campaign groups could be organizing mass meetings to accept or reject tuition fee increases, and use these meetings to build a feeling of solidarity and collective consciousness while building power for walkouts and strikes.

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.

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