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How do we build a fighting student movement?

By: 
Peter Hogarth

September 4, 2013

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is the largest and most progressive of the campus student organizations outside of Quebec. It represents over half of a million students from more than 80 university and college students’ unions across Canada. It was formed on October 18, 1981 as the merger of two national organizations—the National Union of Students in Canada and the Association of Student Councils—and student federations from Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Saskatchewan.
 
The intent was to create a united student movement in Canada, capable of providing student-oriented services and political representation at the federal and provincial levels of government. This came in the face of an announcement by the federal government of $2 billion in cuts. At the founding conference, the campaign against the cuts was launched with the slogan “access, not axe us,” calling for the establishment of an all-grant system and a public inquiry into the future of post-secondary education (PSE). Their mandate was to reach out to public sector workers and community groups to build solidarity in resisting the cuts to other social programs.
 
In 1995, the CFS led a 100,000-strong strike against Income Contingent Loan Repayment (ICLR) schemes that would have dramatically increased tuition fees. ICLR schemes were part of the 1995 federal Liberal budget, a budget that made the deepest cuts to social programs in Canadian history (that is, until the 2012 budget from Stephen Harper and the Conservatives). The CFS-led strike engaged and mobilized tens of thousands of students and workers, defeated the ICLR scheme, and helped encourage the 1995 Ontario Days of Action when workers organized general strikes in cities across the province.
 
Since then, the CFS has been actively lobbying on tuition-related issues, including holding several national days-of-action. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the only province where all public college and university students’ are members of the CFS, students pay the lowest average undergraduate tuition fees outside of Quebec. Tuition fees were reduced by 25 per cent in the 1990s and frozen since 1999, and the interest on the provincial portion of student loans has been eliminated due to the pressure the student movement applied to the then-Conservative government. Tuition fees in British Columbia were frozen between 1996 and 2002. Manitoba was also forced to reduce fees by 10 per cent in 2000.
 
The CFS also organizes on broader issues on campus, including campaigns against racism and Islamophobia, and for a woman’s right to chose. During the mass protests of 2003 against the Iraq War, activists inside and outside of the CFS mobilized thousands of students from coast to coast. These mobilizations—especially the 250,000-strong protest in Montreal—stopped the Canadian government from officially participating in war.
 
Undermining the student movement
Because of its role in building a progressive student movement, the CFS has faced stiff opposition from conservative and right-wing forces on campus. De-federation drives (where campuses vote to cut ties to the CFS) have followed claims that the CFS’ call for the abolition of tuition fees is unrealistic or undesirable or criticism that the CFS should not be involved in social justice issues.
 
The organizations that come to fill the void are inevitably organizations that are not progressive and are usually shills for the main two corporate parties of Canada. For example, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) was created in 1995 by the Liberal Party as a response to successful mobilization by CFS locals against the Liberal budget.
 
Ironically, some who consider themselves left radicals have encouraged de-federation campaigns on the basis that the CFS is not radical enough; these campaigns have failed to build a broad student movement and have instead played into right-wing campaigns that weaken the student movement. These campaigns also wrongly conclude that the CFS is a barrier to a more radical student movement in English Canada. But strong student movements are not simply called into being from above, but built from below by rank-and-file student activists—whether CFS members or not.
 
Organizing on campus takes lots of work, but can only be done by talking to rank-and-file students in classes and departments. We can’t turn our backs on mass student organizations or expect them to call a strike that has not been built from below (which would invite failure). If we want to spread the Quebec Spring, we need to learn the lessons and build a mass student movement from below, uniting with and strengthening the CFS. This doesn’t mean waiting for the CFS to take initiatives. Start a petition, organize a forum, find others who are committed to working for social justice on campus, and create a group that is dedicated to working on these issues. This core of activists can play a role in mobilizing other students and putting pressure on other student organizations to get on board as well.
 
Revolutionaries and the student movement
Students need their student unions. Students also need to be united by progressive organizations like the CFS, which have an orientation towards engaging students through large-scale campaigns.
 
The Drop Fees campaigns and national days-of-action show why it is important to defend the progressive student organization that exists and fight against the right-wing on campus, those forces that would have us organized in student associations that would rubberstamp fee increases and fail to mobilize and reach out to marginalized students on campus and beyond.
 
The very strength of a broad-based student union is also its weakness. Elected student leaders are accountable to all their members, including both left- and right-wing students. This reality can undermine the confidence of progressive student leaders to take positions on issues that fall outside obvious “bread and butter” education issues. It can also slow the speed at which elected student leaders are able to respond formally to such issues when they arise.
 
This helps explain why holding elected positions can have a conservatizing influence on even the most progressive student leaders. It is also why student unions and the CFS cannot come out and call for general student strikes simply because a few dozen activists have waged a determined Facebook campaign.
 
Some “radicals” will say this is evidence of the ineffectiveness of student unions, and that provincial and national student organizations are “part of the problem.” However, this criticism misses the point: a student union can only be as radical as its membership.
 
Student union leaders who embark on a radical course with no meaningful base of support from the membership will ensure a backlash, such as electoral defeat to the right, and possibly a de-federation campaign from CFS. This top-down “left-wing” strategy has to be discredited.
 
Alternatively, student radicals who condemn the CFS and see the solution as organizing outside and around student unions can cede ground to right-wing students who, if elected, won’t hesitate to put the collective resources of the student union to work on reactionary projects. Right-wing student leaders have opposed freezing tuition fees, blocked progressive initiatives, and squandered student resources, mostly on de-federation drives that are intended to divide and demoralize students and weaken the movement as a whole.
 
On every campus, there are right-wing students and left-wing students, but the vast majority fall somewhere in the middle, carrying a mix of both progressive and conservative ideas. What we need is not a handful of “radicals” trying to make change on behalf of students, but a network of “radicalizers”—who can win this middle majority away from the right and towards the left. This can’t be done through denouncing, bullying and intimidating them, only through patiently organizing and winning them to effective action and coherent politics through practice.
 
To be effective, radicalizers need to be in an organization that can generalize lessons across campuses, and link the student movement to broader movements including the labour movement.
 
This is an excerpt from the new pamphlet “Students, austerity and resistance”, available at Resistance Press Bookroom

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