February 23, 2012

Student actions a step ahead, but not enough

by Johan Boyden

The Feb. 1 cross‑Canada day of action by the Canadian Federation of Students was an important step towards the kind of broad, united fight for accessible education that is urgently needed right now.

Students are facing a powerful opponent - the agenda of big business. That means higher and higher tuition fees. Heavier student debt. Increased privatization. The corporate engines seem to be running on nitrous with the economic crisis these days.

If we agree on that, then the February 1st demonstrations should act as a wake‑up call for students in English‑speaking Canada, not just because of the scale of the protests. Crowds of a few thousand marched in several cities - below potential, but a good start. What was lacking was a clear, militant action plan to return to the streets, draw in a much stronger range of forces, and keep up the pressure.

That means ramping‑up actions on campus. Sit ins. Occupations. More rallies. But it also means bringing the struggle into the community and winning the moral support of the public which, at least in sentiment, is probably already there - but not yet in a visible way that cannot be ignored.

What's the best strategy? When I spoke to one student leader in Ontario, she honestly said she wasn't exactly clear on their next step forward.

But from the speakers and the mood at the rallies, it would seem for some top organizers the plan is to bring down the Harper Conservatives - by voting NDP in 2015.

Certainly the Tories are the main danger. The Conservative government are swinging their wrecking ball in parliament, but now with the full force of a majority. Their coming slash‑and‑burn budget will do even more damage. But the way to bring down this government is to build the fightback every day, working to prevent the Tories from implementing their pro‑corporate, pro‑war, pro‑imperialist agenda.

Moreover, in Winnipeg and Halifax the student rallies were actually protesting tuition increases brought about by NDP provincial governments. And when Brian Topp visited Greece for the conference of the Socialist International last summer, he returned to write a glowing editorial in the Globe and Mailpraising the now‑collapsed Papandreou government's austerity measures for the Greek debt crisis.

Despite their support of a Post‑Secondary Education Act, the NDP cannot claim to be a consistent defender of accessible education. Youth and students just can't wait for social democratic salvation in 2015.

Growing and deepening the resistance also demands the movement go further than lobbying, corporate media coverage and buy‑in (i.e. advertisements), or social networking. These tactics are similarly too narrow and not enough.

The student movement in English‑speaking Canada has got to make time for a full‑on offensive of coalition building and united action.

One key player has to be labour - as a movement, not just spokespersons at demos. Some students might ask where the Canadian Labour Congress has been all this time - a fair question given the current Georgetti leadership. But since the election of the Harper Tories, the labour movement, often at the local level, has often been at the core of the fight back.

The success of drawing together the threads of resistance in sustained, united mass action was demonstrated in the magnificent struggles in Chile last year. Chilean students have re‑defined the debate about the constitutional status of accessible education in their country.

One of the leaders of the Chilean student movement recently toured Canada. Camilo Ballesteros, who is also a member of the Young Communists of Chile, spoke of the need to interweave social networks with the people, the workers, social organizations, trade unions, and the youth "who did not make it into the University [and] were left kicking stones."

Unity, Ballesteros said, is not simply the goal: it is the only weapon we have.

This is the general direction that a number of student, labour and progressive forces in Quebec are already taking. The seeds of this political and strategic direction are also organically in the people's movements of Canada. With a militant united action plan by the students, and the political will to fight, they can flourish here too.

Johan Boyden is the General Secretary of the Young Communist League of Canada. Next issue, he will look at the growing struggles of students in Quebec.

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