December 5, 2012

Which way forward for campus mobilizing in Ontario?

Peter Miller is a student activist in Guelph, Ontario, and a former Board Member of the Guelph student union – the Central Student Association. He is active in a local grass-roots mobilization committee and currently works as a reporter for the online student newspaper, The Cannon. Peter is also the club organizer of YCL Guelph and a member of the YCL Ontario provincial committee.  Rebel Youth caught up with him after a presentation about student politics to young workers and students at a meeting of the Toronto YCL.

Considering what you said in your presentation, there seems to be a range of strategies and tactics being proposed in the student movement today. From a campus outside of the big city centres, how do you see things?

Right now the student movement is generally fighting in isolated pockets across Ontario. There are not many coordinated actions on access to education so far that are being set up for next semester and this is worrying, because we have found that students like to know that what they are doing is connected with other students across the province or the country, in a united mass struggle -- which is also needed for the students to win their demands.

In the current context, the best way forward is to work on year long student mobilization committees across Ontario while calling for a common fightback strategy. All of these committees need to work on growing their base, and mobilizing students. It is also important for mobilizing committees, and student unions, to rally behind the Canadian Federation of Students to have a united plan for action. The CFS debated this question at its Ontario convention this past August, which I attended. One proposal was basically for calling Days of Action while also having a plan for broadening and escalating the struggle so students, together with their allies in labour and social movements, can push and pressure governments to make concessions, by being much more visible on the streets.  The fact that this proposal failed to win the convention and instead we have seen training workshops and lobbying is something the student movement needs to reflect on.

Actions by students in Ontario should be for specific goals, like grants not loans, and freezing and reducing tuition, while committees make it public and convince people that education is a right and there should be no tuition fees. We can't simply demand a tactic like an occupation, rally, day or action, a day or week-long strike (or even an 'unlimited' strike like they did in Quebec) without associating it with goals and a strategy. It is important to have tangible goals like stopping hikes in tuition fees in order to mobilize students. Already, most students view education as a good thing that we need more access to, not less. Through growing struggle and education, students will continue to radicalize and in the future, we will be able to make the demand of free education a real public debate as our movement grows substantially. Struggle will also help the vast number of students from working class backgrounds gain a stronger class consciousness realizing that they have common social interests and need to work in ways that build solidarity (including rejecting racism, sexism and homophobia) and oppose the big business agenda so that the balance of power is pushed enough to be shifted substantially.

With mobilization committees many students can join and contribute. I personally believe that departmental organizing or faculty organizing is something to look towards in the future. Once the Ontario student movement or local student mobilization committees reach a critical mass, they should look at organizing departments where students can decide democratically the future actions that they do collectively. We saw in the Quebec student movement that this way of organizing was a great way to mobilize students, and helped their student strike.

In the meantime, I believe that it would be effective for campus-wide mobilization committees to have something like sub- committees of members focusing on mobilizing students from particular parts of the student population. Student populations are really large, and can be hard to outreach to. We have to find away to get to specific areas like students in residence, or students in particular departments like geography, or a particular college like the arts. This way mobilization squads can grow in volunteers, and also grow in their capacity for action.

We are also starting this process at Guelph by bringing a vote to the Annual General Meeting of our student union and asking students to vote in favour of rallying to stop the hike in tuition fees at the University of Guelph. We are optimistic the vote will pass, and see this as a great step in order to get more students involved with the struggle.  And by getting as many people as possible involved in the organizing process fighting for demands, student movements can also grow beyond the campus, as we also saw in Quebec.

So then what is the mood of the students today? How do they see the problems they are facing?

There are a lot of students today who are facing a bleak future; graduating in a lot of debt, and facing low paying, part-time jobs, and high youth unemployment, while decently paying union jobs are being left behind and diminishing. Unfortunately, in Ontario right now, many students are seeing these problems, but are facing these problems on an individualized level. Debt is often taboo to talk about, and many students feel like the only way they can deal with this is by forgetting about it. I believe there is also a lot of cynicism amongst working class students. They see tuition fees rising along with their debt and are often angry about this but are not sure how to act. It’s time for the student movement in Ontario to mobilize students and help them become a collective force that, with labour, scares the shit out of the ruling class!

How does the YCL coordinate itself in the student movement?

The YCL is coordinating itself in the student movement right now by helping to organize student mobilization committees across the province. YCL members have helped or contributed to lead these committees in Guelph, Hamilton, Windsor, and Ottawa.  In Toronto, where the student movement is arguably strongest in Ontario, the YCL club is more oriented on young workers and solidarity but hopefully we can do more on campuses and my talk will help a bit in that work. The Quebec Student Movement has taught us and also given us the push to create mobilization committees that are year round, and focusing on escalating action instead of event-based campaign committees that mobilize for a rally, which often would fall apart afterwards.

As you can tell from what I have already said, our perspective is also that the student movement and the CFS needs an escalating plan of action for a broad and united fight back which should open a broad democratic debate about free, accessible, quality, public, not-for-profit education and also bring the political reason for the student movement’s struggle into the hands of the students themselves.  We are also somewhat unique in openly demanding that the student movement urgently find greater unity with Quebec and Aboriginal students on the basis of their rights to sovereignty and self-determination as nations.

Tell us about your experience organizing a locally-based campus committee for accessible education. What has worked? What hasn't? What is your strategy?

It has been great helping organize the Guelph Student Mobilization Committee (GSMC). Our message has been receptive to students. Our basis of unity includes the strong ideological position that education is not a privilege it is a right, should be fully public and free. Many students recognize that increasing tuition fees are a huge problem and we have seen this because our committee is growing and many students have signed up to be informed about our events. In the first two weeks of school we had over 200 students sign up for our committee.

Work this semester has focused a lot on educating students. We have done 10 to 15 minute educationals on rising tuition fees, the privatization and corporatization of campus, and the importance of education being a social good in over 20 classes along with much more 2 or 3 minute class talks to promote events. We have also spent time distributing flyers and talking to students about the current situation we are facing. GSMC has hosted successful events, including hosting Hugo Bonin, a former executive of CLASSE to speak about what Ontario can learn about the Quebec Student Movement. We have also had banner drops, a rally for accessible education to the MPP’s office and an action where we built a cardboard F35 Fighter Jet to talk about our government’s increasing spending on the military while neglecting post-secondary education.

These actions have been great, and helped a lot with recruiting more members for the GSMC. However, we have learned that we could be more affective with a more focused campaign. In the winter semester we are calling our campaign “Freeze the Fees 2013”. We are calling on administration at Guelph to not raise tuition fees by the 5 percent that it rises each year and instead to reduce fees. We are focusing on mobilizing students and getting them involved in two rallies during the semester, a long with other smaller actions. The rallies will be by Board of Governor’s meetings to pressure them to stop the tuition hike. One tactic we have chosen to mobilize students along with our class talks, distribution of flyers, and other tactics, is to get students to vote in favour of one of our rallies at our student union’s annual general meeting. This way, we can have more students feel involved in our campaign. As well, by focusing on a tangible goal of stopping the hike and also keeping our principles and basis of unity that calls for free education, our committee is confident we will be able to mobilize students better than we did last semester.

Tell us about what other work the YCL is doing in Guelph.

The YCL in Guelph is working on other campaigns. We have monthly education sessions that are just beginning to be open to the public for community members who are interested in Marxist Theory. We see this as a good way to recruit new YCL members. We are happy that we now have our own office on Guelph campus. There was office space available in the University Centre and a member on our club facilitated a strong application from the Guelph YCL to the Guelph Student Union and because of this we were able to get the space.

To recruit members, the Guelph YCL also makes sure to table during different events, like club days. We are also happy to say that we are close to gender parity.

We also have set up different actions this semester. For instance, Warren Farrell, a misogynist men’s issues writer who has written books like “The Myth of Male Power” and provided rhetoric to put men against women, was going to come to campus, and YCL members were going to flyer his event, telling participants to boycott, but interestingly there was not enough interest in the event on campus and the event was cancelled.

The YCL is also helping plan an anti-war and pro-peace protest at Lourdes High-school later in December, because Peter MacKay is receiving a leadership award at the school. We also have members that are involved with organizing in the Palestinian Solidarity Network at Guelph that puts together Israeli Apartheid Week along with other actions.

Finally, the Guelph YCL has just started connecting with the Guelph District Labour Council to pursue creating a youth labour council in Guelph. In the council we would like to have the unemployed and also precarious, non-unionized workers on the committee in order to reach out, organize, and do actions with workers in Guelph not unlike the Wal-Mart worker’s committees popping up in the United States that have been such a great success so far.

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