“Good Citizens” and the University: Wealth, Health and Tax Evasion

By Umair Muhammad
Thanks to files from Justin Panos

photo credit: CBC.ca

The British-Canadian billionaire Victor Dadaleh received an honorary doctorate from York University earlier this year. The decision to award the doctorate was met with a fair amount of controversy. It seems that Dadaleh, who told students to be “good citizens” in his acceptance speech, does not have a record of being all that great a citizen himself.

The Panama Papers, a cache of leaked documents from the firm Mossack Fonseca, revealed that Dadaleh was at the centre of a long-running bribery scheme. The scheme, involving mining company Alcoa of Australia and high-ranking members of the Bahraini government, was a decades-long affair in which Dadaleh made off with tens of millions of dollars.

Details of Dadaleh’s role in the affair were widely reported shortly prior to him receiving his honorary doctorate from York University. Despite this, the university went ahead with its decision to award Dadaleh the doctorate. Prior to awarding the doctorate, York had decided to name a building after him and inaugurated the Dadaleh Institute for Global Health in his honour. What did Dadaleh do to deserve such recognition? He donated $20 million to York. In other words, Dadaleh bought recognition.

It is something of an irony that Dadaleh, having had his devious activity uncovered thanks to a leak of documents from a company specializing in offshoring services, will have an institute of global health named after him. Offshore tax havens, it just so happens, are terrible for global health.

Consider, for instance, the phenomenon of debt-fueled capital flight in sub-Saharan Africa. In Africa’s Odious Debts Leonce Ndikamana and James Boyce describe how money borrowed by African states often ends up leaving those countries and going into private bank accounts owned by government officials and other well-connected individuals.

Ndikumana and Boyce estimate that for every dollar that is borrowed by African countries, 60 cents exits as capital flight in the same year. Often enough, the same financial institutions that lend the money to African governments assist individuals in making off with it. Resources needed to fund such things as public health are lost. All the while, common people are forced to pay back loans they obtained no benefit from. During the years 2005-07 Nigeria, Mauritania, and Cote D’Ivoire spent twice as much on debt servicing than they did on public health; Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Gabon spent three times as much on debt servicing compared with public health; for Guinea it was seven times as much!

In Treasure Islands, Nicholas Shaxson higlights “the terrible human cost of poverty and inequality in Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the world connected with the apparently impersonal world of accounting and financial regulations and tax law.” Will the terrible costs of tax havens be highlighted for students at the the Dadaleh Institute for Global Health? Likely not. As corporate money is increasingly relied on to fund universities, the quality of the education students receive is no doubt increasingly impoverished.

York University has avoided responding to inquiries about Dadaleh’s sordid history. York president Mamdouh Shoukri was asked by reporters if Dadaleh was a good role model for the university’s students. While walking away, Shoukri replied, “Yes, yes he is.”

It seems that Shoukri has a rather low regard for York students. Otherwise, he would not commend to them the likes of Dadaleh as a role model.

As shameful as President Shoukri’s regard for students is, it is not surprising. The fact that York has little concern for its students, not to mention its employees, is made clear by looking at the kind of people that are at the top of the university’s administration. Consider the examples of Greg Sorbara, York’s Chancellor, and John Hunkin, a member of the Board of Governors.

Sorbara was Ontario’s minister of finance from 2003 to 2009. When a Private Member’s Bill was introduced to raise the minimum wage to $10/hour, Sorbara actively opposed it. During his reign, the minimum wage in the province remained at $6.85/hour, the same amount that had been in place during Mike Harris’ government. Moreover, Sorbara continued the Harris-era tax cut regime by completely eliminating capital gains taxes.

Long before becoming finance minister, Sorbara held the position of Minister of Universities and Colleges from 1985-87. He initiated the series of policy studies that led to the deregulation of tuition in Ontario. Tuition in the province has risen by more than 200 percent since that time. As a result, students in Ontario graduate with an average debt of $27,000, the highest in the country.

John Hunkin is a former CEO of CIBC. During his tenure, the bank paid $80 million to settle claims that had to do with it having helped Enron conceal the extent of its debt. CIBC was caught by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for having assisted hedge funds in making improper, market-timed mutual-fund trades in 2003. Despite having had an inglorious reign, Hunkin took home $50 million when he retired from CIBC in 2005. That same year, the bank paid out-of-court settlements that amounted to $2.83 billion.

President Shoukri no doubt thinks that, along with Dadaleh, Sorbara and Hunkin are good role models for York students. Having been given role models like these, it should come as no surprise that students continually face the prospect of higher tuition while York’s employees find themselves facing off against cutbacks and worsening working conditions.

Universities are not cooperative enterprises, where the top-level administrators have the interests of lowly employees and students in mind. On the contrary, constant vigilance and collective struggle on the part of students and workers is required to ensure that a humanized environment exists in our universities.

Umair Muhammad is a member of CUPE 3903, which organizes Contract Faculty, Teaching Assistants, Graduate Assistants, and Part-time Librarians and Archivists at York University in Toronto. Umair is the author of Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of Individualism.

Lessons of the 2015 CUPE 3903 Strike

By Kyle Bailey


It has now been over one year since the end of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 3903 strike at York University in March 2015. This strike began when 3,700 teaching assistants, contract faculty, graduate assistants and research assistants voted to walk the picket lines. The decision came just days after a historic strike vote by 6,000 teaching assistants and other student academic staff in CUPE 3902 Unit 1 at the University of Toronto.

At present, the legacy of the strike is controversial. Members of CUPE 3903 are divided over the crucial question of whether this legacy should be regarded as one of victory or defeat. The purpose of this article is to use the benefit of hindsight to critically reflect upon the politics of the CUPE 3903 strike at York and its aftermath.

It aims to provide a plausible assessment of both accomplishments and limitations of the strike with a view to identifying how the union can respond more effectively to current and future challenges. Such an assessment will hopefully be capable of catalysing renewed debate about the kind of union strategy, organization and tactics that are necessary to enable university workers to fight back and win against their employers.

Poverty and Precarity

Members of CUPE 3903 choose to strike because of the poverty and precarity which has become the norm within universities. Alongside decades of chronic government underfunding, university administrators have sought to maintain financial stability by growing student enrolments while cutting back full-time academic staff. The result has been the degradation of academic labour through the growth of a more segmented workforce and a sharp fall in the number of permanent faculty per student.

Universities in Canada now operate like corporate businesses in an environment marked by permanent austerity and conditional financing.[1] This is expressed in the commodification of scholarly research, cuts to state funding, reductions in university autonomy from government, the deregulation of tuition fees, the erosion of collegial self-governance and the growing power wielded by boards of governors and senior administrators.

The majority of classes at York are taught by low-paid and insecure contract faculty aided by teaching assistants (TAs) earning poverty wages. Contract faculty possess similar skills to their tenured colleagues and undertake a similar workload. However, they face massive obstacles to career advancement as a result of unclear hiring practices, course-by-course contracts, insufficient funding, inadequate healthcare benefits and lack of access to collegial governance structures.

The growth of contract faculty has occurred alongside an increase in the number of teaching assistants. Although guaranteed work for the duration of their study, teaching assistants earn wages well below the poverty line once their tuition is deducted and routinely engage in unpaid overtime. In contrast to popular depictions of academe as a privileged ‘ivory tower’, poverty and precarity are issues facing university employees in the contemporary capitalist university.

Insubordinate rank and file

Conflict between the executive committee and union militants was a central feature of the CUPE 3903 strike at York. Both before and after the strike vote, the then executive committee—known as ‘The Slate’—sought to avoid a dispute at all costs. They prioritized collaboration with the boss over workers’ interests by seeking to divide and rule the different units of the local and by pushing for concessions at the bargaining table. The Slate was resisted by a militant minority who conducted small-scale campaigns against concessions and in support of democratically decided bargaining proposals.

This dynamic was visible at a ratification vote held on March 9th. The Slate actively campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote and their supporters distributed leaflets pointing to ‘real and significant gains for all three units of the local’.[2] Militants responded by circulating leaflets providing information about how there had been no progress at the bargaining table and calling on all members to ‘strike to win’ and ‘vote the rat down’.

It was also on display at a general assembly held on March 18th. At this meeting, a group of militants pushed through a motion to prevent the executive committee from pro-temming two of its supporters to the bargaining team. When elections were held later that evening, anti-Slate candidates were elected with overwhelming majorities.

3903 members also organized against racism, sexism and ableism. A Black, Indigenous and People of Colour Caucus was formed,[3] while the Silence is Violence at York group came into being after a member of the union executive committee was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a colleague.[4] Members of the 8th Line Committee tasked with organizing alternative duties for members who couldn’t picket waged an uphill struggle against the ableist biases of CUPE.

The strike also saw efforts to construct solidarities across social and institutional divides. Members of CUPE 3903 and CUPE 3902 distributed 40,000 copies of The Penguin strike newspaper in metro stations across Downtown Toronto. Making the case that the strikes were in defence of accessible and high-quality education for the community as a whole, the articles emphasized the common interests of workers and students in opposing capitalist austerity through broad-based social movements.

Ordinary union members turned out to picket lines every weekday for an entire month. In what were sometimes brutally cold weather conditions, they faced real physical hardships and were vulnerable to criminal attacks by motorists.[5] Some of the picket lines also established their own popular decision-making structures and sent representatives to Strike Committee meetings. When the Senate Executive voted to resume a substantial number of classes on 11th March, many lines responded by escalating their tactics. Blocking thousands of cars per day, they effectively fought the administration to a standstill.

A mixed legacy

The CUPE 3903 strike was a landmark event for TAs, GAs, RAs and contract faculty, many of whom had never before withheld their labour-power from the bosses who exploit them. For one whole month—on and off the picket lines—they saw that the power of trade unions does not reside at the bargaining table, but rather with the solidarity and struggles of working people in resisting capital’s domination of the workplace. Yet, the strike produced mixed results.

On the one hand, the new collective agreements ratified on March 31st brought real material gains. These included the reinstatement of tuition indexation for graduate students, the reversal of a $7,000 per year increase in the cost of international graduate tuition, recognition of LGBTQ as an employment equity category, a $200,000 per year direct childcare benefit fund, wage rises and minimum funding for all graduate student-workers and the extension of a range of existing benefits.

On the other hand, management retaliated after the strike with a strategy of undermining and violating the new collective agreements at every turn. Most notably, they used legal ambiguities to slow the implementation of the $7,000 tuition rebate for all but a handful of international graduate students. On this occasion, a newly elected 3903 executive slate was able to successfully enforce the contract through legal arbitration.

More recently, York management has unilaterally imposed a new ‘Fellowship’ funding model on the union. This change will destroy 670 unionized Graduate Assistantship (GA) jobs in September 2016 by replacing the work component of graduate student funding with a student fellowship covering the cost of tuition. It amounts to blatant union-busting, the goal of which is to devalue the labour of graduate student-workers and make their working conditions more precarious.

The limits of legalism

By attacking the union, management shows that its promises to graduate students cannot be trusted. Yet, by undermining the collective agreements, the implementation of the Fellowship Model threatens to lower morale of members and overall trust in the union. Following on from their most recent success, the response of the 3903 executive committee has once again focused on contract enforcement through legal arbitration.

But the ability of the union to enforce the contract reflects the balance of power between workers and management here and now, not when the contract was initially signed. As such, it is impossible to win in the peace treaty what cannot be won on the battlefield. While a legalistic strategy dependent on capitalist labour law may or may not secure short-term gains, it is guaranteed to lose in the long-run.

The ‘no strikes, no lockouts’ union clause which forms the backbone of contemporary capitalist labour law is systematically biased in favour of the employers. In this system, the fundamental purpose of collective bargaining is not to empower the mass of workers, but rather to disorganize and control them in the interests of the bosses’ bottom line.

The consequences of dependence on capitalist labour law for CUPE 3903 are potentially severe. If the union fails to roll back the Fellowship Model in arbitration, it risks a downward spiral of concessions in which current claw backs lower union morale and thereby reduce the capacity of the union to resist claw backs in the future. Without an assertion of countervailing power by rank and file members, collective bargaining gains will be clawed back by management one by one.

Organizing to win

To challenge the capitalist assault on postsecondary education at York, CUPE 3903 needs to shift the balance of power in favour of workers. This will require campaigning against claw backs in preparation for a vigorous contract fight and future strike. However, the current systematic absence of rank and file organization within 3903—the flipside of an unhealthy dependence on capitalist labour law—poses a significant barrier to achieving this.

When members used their votes to sweep rank and file candidates into executive office in the wake of the March 2015 strike, they expressed their preference for a different kind of unionism. But it takes more than a change of personnel at the top to transform deeply rooted union practices and structures. What is needed is a radical break with past union strategy and tactics that places rank and file democracy and organization at the forefront of the struggle.

Power on the shop floor can only built democratically from the bottom up. Rather than relying on a small number of executive officers, staff and union activists who see their role as servicing workers’ interests by doing the work for them, the workers themselves need to become conscious of their role as the primary agents in their own struggle. Simply filing a grievance or taking problems to arbitration cannot build power. A union is not an insurance plan. It simply cannot work unless all members participate.

But it is only through organization that members become the union. This requires concrete changes to encourage sustained participation by the majority of union members. Union democracy is a continuation of good organizing, which means helping members to achieve their self-identified goals. From this perspective, the fundamental purpose of the union is not merely to enforce the contract, but to build power by organizing workers and developing their consciousness through daily struggles within and beyond the workplace.

If CUPE 3903 starts organizing to build union democracy, then it can successfully resist management claw backs and make the case for worker-led alternatives to capitalist postsecondary education.


[1] For more information, see Jamie Brownlee (2015) Academia, Inc. How Corporatization is Transforming Canadian Universities, Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

[2] The argument put forward by the Executive Committee is outlined in the communique ‘Executive Committee recommends a yes vote’, which is available on the CUPE 3903 website at http://3903.cupe.ca/2015/03/09/executive-committee-recommends-a-yes-vote/

[3] The complete statement of the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour Caucus can be read online at http://3903bipoccaucus.noblogs.org/post/2015/03/28/ciao-mondo/

[4] A survivor-led group adopting an anti-carceral and intersectional feminist approach, its mission is one of ‘radically altering the culture of violence on university campuses across Canada’, where ‘the material consequences of the culture of sexual/gendered violence on campuses are magnified for those living at the intersections of gender and race, class, ability, sexual identity, or any other means of marking some bodies as “different”’. https://silenceisviolenceatyork.wordpress.com/about/

[5] On 6th March, two picketers were injured in a deliberate hit-and-run attack by a motorist that left one hospitalized. The incident began when the driver left his vehicle in an attempt to intimidate picketers and physically remove a barrier. Later returning to the vehicle, he proceeded to drive through the picket line, hitting the two members in the process.

Supply on Demand: Working in the Ontario Education System

We’ve all heard horror stories about how hard it is to find a steady job as a teacher in Ontario, and the statistics back it up. In 2010, a survey by the Ontario College of Teachers showed that as many as 68 per cent of teachers in their first year after graduation were unemployed or underemployed. Things haven’t changed much since then. Below, Will Crawford, a recent OISE graduate, shares his thoughts on working – and organising – as a supply teacher in Toronto, Ontario


ClassRoom: Can you introduce yourself? Why did you become a teacher?

Will Crawford: I’m a 25-year-old supply teacher that is trying to get a full-time position as soon as possible. I did an undergraduate in African Studies and Political Science and a teaching degree at OISE in 2015.

My teachable subjects are History, Politics and ESL. I’m also working toward an English qualification.

I got into teaching because I thought it was the best way to interact with a broad section of the population and to teach ideas that are often exclusive to those that can afford university. I thought about being a professor at one point. But I decided that it would be more impactful to teach a much more diverse group of students about the political system and such ideas as solidarity and empathy. The students I teach are not necessarily going into the liberal arts or social sciences, but they are learning ideas and mechanisms to cope in this world and succeed, especially for students that are from marginalized groups. Learning about capitalism or racism, and how these things dominate the world, are much more immediate issues for some students than others. And for those these ideas aren’t immediate to, like students from more privileged backgrounds, I feel it’s more effective to instill in them an understanding of oppression at a younger age, in the hope that they’ll change their point of view and behaviour. As a university professor, you’d have less of an opportunity to engage with students that aren’t already somewhat interested in your subject and ideas.

CR: How hard was it do get into a teaching job? What kind of work did you do between Teachers College and your first supply gig?

WC: As I noted, I finished my teaching degree at OISE in 2015. I was hired as a “short term occasional teacher” (a teacher that gets jobs that are only one-day long) in November 2015. But I didn’t start work until February, 2016.

In the meantime, I worked as a caterer and then as a mailroom clerk for a temp agency. I also worked part time moving furniture, which was a job that I had already had for a few years.

I was told it would be nearly impossible to find a teaching job in Ontario, and it wasn’t the easiest. I applied to many boards and only heard back from one. Although, I’m relatively lucky because I received a job offer within six months of graduating. I’ve heard stories of people looking for a supply job for years after graduation.

Even though I’m in a school board now, it will still be a long road to getting a full-time contract position. I first have to stay on the “Short Time Occasional” list for 10 school months. This means that I will have to continue working jobs that change day-to-day. In this situation, I often don’t know what work I will have beyond the day I am working.

After ten months, I am eligible to apply to the “Long Term Occasional” (LTO) list. The jobs on this list are ten days or longer. If you are working in one of these jobs, you are given the benefits and the pay of an entry level teacher. However, you have to apply to new LTOs when the job ends or when the semester ends. So your job security is only as long as a semester or a year.

People end up working LTOs for years back to back before they are given a contract position. This is particularly true for liberal arts and social science teachers. With the push for the back-to-basics reading, writing and arithmetic model, large amounts of funding have been removed from these subjects and allocated to math and science.

CR: Can you give us a run-down of a normal day or week? Do you get enough hours? How much notice do you get?

WC: The way your week pans out depends on the time of year. September is particularly slow, while, April to June is a busy time. A normal week for me so far usually entails 4 to 5 supply calls, which is enough. The days are about 6 hours long and the pay is good. It’s a relatively good job in terms of pay and work conditions.

However, the number of days can vary at any time. Often, I only get notified of a job the day before or the day of the job at around 6 am. I don’t know if I will have any work beyond that day. I did have a couple of weeks where I only had 2 or 3 calls, which is hard to live on.

As a result of this lack of job security, I have little choice but to work other jobs. Right now, I still move furniture part-time and tutor. Balancing these schedules has proven to be difficult. About 4 days a week or more I am working one of these jobs in the evening or on the weekend.  This has become increasingly difficult because my moving job has become less flexible and is demanding more availability without the guarantee of a set schedule or number of hours. I’ve had to do some serious maneuvering and back and forth with my boss at that job to hold on to my position there.

CR: How many schools have you worked at?

WC: So far I have worked at three schools. There is a preferred supply list at each school. If the administrators like you, calls from that school will go to you first. Between these three schools I get a lot of work. Some people in the Union [the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation – ed.] take issue with this list because they feel that the allocation of jobs should be done through seniority. I think there is a point there, but I also think that that it gives new people a chance to go to the schools and start to make contacts for more work. During your probationary period you are assigned four schools to start and they give you your first jobs. If getting a call from these schools was based solely on seniority no new supply teachers would get any work. Also, if you go to fewer schools you’re better able to get to know the students, which is a major requirement for successful teaching.

CR: What are the conditions like? What are the students like?

WC: Conditions vary with the schools. Some administrators are more cooperative than others, and some have more progressive philosophies in terms of management and teaching than others. Some administrators I have dealt with have been very pro-hard discipline and police, resulting in large amounts of suspensions and police involvement. This disciplinarian attitude often guides their management style as well.

Sometimes administrators are also dismissive and uncooperative. I had a difficult time getting my assigned vice principals to complete my evaluations, which allow me to teach at more schools when completed. The Board and the Union are often little help, so you are really left to fend for yourself navigating the job and the school board, even when it comes to getting required evaluations.

Conditions also vary when it comes to students’ experiences at schools. Two of the schools I go to have fairly good conditions. One has a large IB program, which is a type of advanced placement. It also has a large Special Ed program that seems to be fairly well staffed. Another school I go to has many Academic courses and also seems to be fairly well funded.

On the other hand, the school I go to that is considered the “bad school,” in terms of students, seems to be underfunded. It is in what is considered to be a marginalized neighbourhood and offers mostly Applied courses. In some classes I have taught, students are not allowed to take textbooks home because there are not enough for both classes taking the subject.

Overall, the kids are generally cooperative. Sometimes it’s hard to get them to focus, especially with phones in the class, but most of the kids are good kids. In some schools, often in Basic and Special Ed courses, there a few kids that have no investment in school and do not want to learn. These students often idolize criminal culture and drug dealing. A lot of the time they are labelled as bad kids and are constantly suspended. In some cases, they are referred to the police. I find that these students can be cooperative if you talk to them and try not to get upset by the things they say to you. It’s best to play any insults or things they say off as a joke, or if they are of a more serious nature, ask if anything is wrong and ask if they need help. The less you yell or get mad at these students the more responsive they become. The only time I get mad at them is if they threaten other students. In other cases, I find getting them into trouble does little to help and further marginalizes them. A common practice in the education system.

CR: Have you had much opportunity to build relationships with students and coworkers? What does that mean for you as an educator?

WC: In terms of building relationships, at times it can be difficult to get to know your co-workers. You are often in different departments and different schools so you never really stay in one department long enough to get to know co-workers. Also, supply teachers are not trusted by some teachers due to previous bad experiences. There are many nice teachers that want to be helpful, but you are generally awkwardly on the outside in every department due to the fact that you are not regularly there.

Also, as supply teachers we are often isolated from each other because we are usually in different departments from our supply colleagues. This has an effect on our ability to develop collective action strategies.

Overall, a lack of relationships with co-workers affects how well you can navigate the industry and improve your teaching.

Building relationships with students has been easier because I have only gone to three schools. I have gotten to know students in the Special Ed department in one school the best, because I have taught their classes quite a bit. They often say hi to me in the hallways and I am better able to teach them because of this relationship.

However, you may go to one school for a long period of time and start to develop relationships and then you are not sent to that school for weeks. This happened to me once. I was going to one school and getting to know the students and I have not been back there for almost a month. I don’t know how well the students will remember me when I do go back.

Your ability to build relationships in the classroom effects how well you can teach them and support their specific needs and learning styles, as well as your ability to assist them with social and emotional issues. This is why moving around schools can make it difficult to effectively support students.

CR: What are the major issues or complaints that you or your coworkers who do supply teaching face?

WC: The major complaints of supply teachers generally revolve around job insecurity, lack of benefits and issues around summer pay.

First, you have no guarantee of hours, which prevents you from planning ahead. Without a guaranteed income, it is difficult to do things like move into better housing or travel because you never know how much you will make on your next paycheck. It is also a way for administration to keep supply teachers in line. If you make a mistake or do anything that the administrators do not like your hours dry up and you stop getting calls.

Another complaint is lack of benefits. While most other teachers have great benefit packages, we have no coverage whatsoever.

Finally, the summer presents every supply teacher with an issue. We do not get any work in the summer, and unlike other teachers we are not paid through those two months. This presents us with an issue because we need to find summer jobs, which can be difficult because few jobs are only two months long. Even seasonal jobs are usually a minimum of four months.

CR: How plugged in are supply teachers to the teachers union? How are your interests represented?

WC: Supply teachers are not very plugged into the Union. In fact, the Union is probably the most disappointing aspect of the teaching profession. In the OSSTF, supply teachers have our own district unit. As far as I can tell from talking to the President of the Occasional Teachers Bargaining Unit the only way for rank and file members to get involved with the Union is at the Annual General Meeting (AGM). At this meeting, members are really only able to vote for the executive or run for election.

At the AGM, there is also a question period, where members can ask questions of the President, while being directed by the meeting’s Chair. However, the Chair effectively muzzles anyone that questions the president too hard. Also at this meeting, we were addressed by representatives of the provincial office, who were condescending throughout the meeting and fairly uninterested in what was being discussed. It seemed that they were simply there to tell us that we would never understand what they won for us when bargaining with the government.

In terms of union outreach, they are very aloof and do not do much to promote their meetings or to attempt to get you involved. I heard nothing from the Union, until I called them about six weeks into my employment and then they still did not give me any information or a union card. I still have no card and the only information that I was given about the Union was a letter that had the date of the AGM on it.

Finally, participation in this Unit is abysmal. Out of over 1,000 members, maybe 150 people came to the AGM. There is also very little participation in the Executive. Out of maybe ten positions up for election, only one position had two candidates running. All other candidates ran unopposed for their positions. At the meeting, the President noted that over the last 7 years only three elections had more than one candidate in the race. That is included the elections for President.

Overall, I do not think that supply teachers’ interests are well represented based on the dismissiveness of the Chair during the questioning period and the lack of interest in the rank and file from the provincial office. Also, the lack of opportunity to participate and voice our interests shakes my confidence in the Union’s ability to adequately represent us. Based on these issues, it is clear why people do not get involved with the Union.

CR: Teachers have been a powerful force within public sector unionism, and there have recently been some very inspiring examples of reinvigorated teacher unionism, such as the success of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) within the Chicago Teachers Union and the recent Detroit teacher sick outs. What kind of potential exists for supply teachers to contribute to teachers struggles? What are the barriers?

WC: At the moment, my outlook on the ability of supply teachers to get involved with the struggle is somewhat bleak.

First, the OSSTF is so distant that I think most supply teachers do not see any of the effects it has on their life. The Union does not advertise their wins or make an effort to engage new members. Due to the lack of information from the Union, most supply teachers do not know where to get involved. And even if they did know where to get involved, the opportunity for direct involvement is so limited that there is no real way for a new member to make an impact. This lack of opportunity for participation is made even more evident by the disrespect of the executive and reactionary behaviour of the Chair I witnessed at the Annual General Meeting.

Also, supply teachers are scattered throughout the board, limiting our ability to get to know each other and organize any sort of collective action. While the Union could be a good place for supply teachers to meet, they do not offer space or time for this other than the Annual General Meeting, unless you are in the executive.

Finally, the insecurity and irregularity of a supply teacher’s job prevents supply teachers from taking any action. If we are involved in any action that challenges the administration, administrators can stop calling us, eliminating our hours and essentially our jobs.

That being said, there are a few possible steps to take to gather Occasional Teachers together through the OSSTF. Right now there is a major focus on gathering new teachers and attempting to educate them about the Union and its workings. The Executive is fairly desperate at this point to gain more participation in activities, despite the fact that there are few places for these teachers to plug themselves into. Because this is such a high priority for them they are looking for small number of rank and file teachers to assist in organizing intake events for new members. If someone is able to get involved in these activities, they could use this as an opportunity to gain the contact info of some supply teachers.

From there, events could be organized outside of the Union structure to get people involved in establishing more active and independent committees to develop strategies for dealing with employers and the Union.

Another option for a more active and progressive segment of the OSSTF’s Occasional Teacher’s Bargaining Unit is to run for election and attempt to take control of the Executive. Hopefully from this position they will be able to make it a more participatory and representative organization. This would allow more teachers to get involved and affect they types of actions the Union will take. However, at the moment we are not there and this is a bit of a gamble, because it is still a very executive-centered strategy. This is something that would have to wait until the next AGM.


English Teachers of the World! Unite?

Overseas ESL teaching is an increasingly attractive option for young North American workers facing bleak employment prospects and experiencing a more general phenomenon of downward social mobility. Working conditions vary widely by country and education system, and the temporary nature of much of the work poses particular challenges to potential union organizers. In this interview, ClassRoom spoke to KJ, a former IWW member who teaches English in Korea.

KJ: Before we start, I want to say that there should be a distinction made between foreign ESL workers and Korean ESL workers. The native speaking requirement (that foreign teachers must come from certain countries such as Canada, America and Britain) is blatant racism and discrimination and therefore workers are split into two groups with different working conditions and benefits.

ClassRoom: Right, that’s a great point. When we talk about overseas ESL teachers, we generally assume native English speakers from anglophone countries. But of course there are lots of English teachers from an assortment of backgrounds, and it also makes sense that employers would try to exploit these differences to their benefit. How did you originally find your job?

KJ: I had a summer job teaching English at a summer camp at my university. I really enjoyed teaching and my ex-girlfriend gave me a recommendation to a recruiter who placed me in a public school in Korea.

CR: What made you decided to travel to Korea and teach English?

KJ: I couldn’t find any work at home and I could either move west in Canada or go to Korea and do something that I know I enjoy. After moving here I found I really enjoyed it and decided that I would stay longer. I have a long-term relationship here and I’m basically a lifer while other people mostly stay a year or two.

CR: Do you have any sense as to why this has become a popular option for so many university educated Canadians?

KJ: There is no work at home and most jobs back home don’t allow me to use my knowledge of the English language and literature. However, I have noticed that a lot of people like Korea because of the easy jobs and the partying culture among foreign teachers. It’s quite popular to go to Korea for a year and party without consequences and then head back home. Maybe it’s my bad experiences with this group of teachers but I can’t see these people wanting to organize a union or show solidarity.

CR: What are your wages like? Benefits? Working conditions in general?

KJ: At my current job I have a rent free two bedroom dormitory room, free meals three times a day and overtime pay. I work at a public school that receives special funding though, and private schools are quite different. Also, I have no teaching degree and only a Bachelor’s and a CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) while my Korean co-workers have PhD’s and masters degrees.

The biggest problem with working conditions seems to be dealing with co-workers. Often there are conflicts between Korean and foreign workers over cultural differences. At schools with multiple foreign teachers there are often conflicts between foreign teachers over petty things. Alcohol is often forced onto other teachers during company dinners and I have had to deal with unwanted advances from drunken teachers. Housing is another big issue that I’ve heard people talk about since your apartment can be impossible to sleep in, the owner can intrude into your space or it can be unhealthy and unsanitary.

CR: In your opinion are most ESL instructors in your workplace satisfied with their working conditions?

KJ: First, there needs to be a differentiation between private and public schools. Public schools are quite generous with good working conditions while private schools frequently steal wages. My boyfriend worked in an English academy and had to take the academy to court after they refused to pay his wages. This is a common issue that almost all private academy workers have experienced. Academies frequently close and then open as a new academy and teachers are frequently fired for no reason to avoid paying wages.

Lots of foreign ESL workers like to complain but I think there has to be a distinction made between complaining just to complain and having a grievance. I’ve listened to lots of complaints but they all seem to boil down to complaints about Korea and not about working conditions.

CR: What are the prospects of labour organizing among ESL workers.

KJ: In order to organize workers in Korea, discriminatory hiring practices need to be addressed. Teachers are placed into two categories by place of birth: native and non-native. Native speakers are paid much more and get better benefits simply because of where they were born which happens to divide teachers by race. This is the issue that needs to be addressed before any organization of ESL workers can happen. In order to make a union that organizes the entire shop floor, racist distinctions need to be erased.

The transient nature of foreign ESL workers is a problem since most people only stay a year or two before leaving. However, Korean ESL workers speak English and would be able to cooperate with foreign ESL workers. My belief is that demanding the erasure of the native speaking requirement would be a good way to unify foreign and Korean ESL workers.

I think industrial unionism is the only way to organize ESL workers because of the transient nature of the workforce and the high turnover. Traditional unionism wouldn’t work since each workplace has either a few ESL teachers or has a high turnover of ESL teachers. If you set up collective bargaining then the academy would just shut down or most of your members would leave anyway. Since wage theft is so common, an industrial union that could help teachers take their boss to court or confront them about stolen wages could be very effective. Organizing the worker rather than the workplace is the only feasible way I could see organizing ESL teachers.

CR: How would you characterize the labour movement in Korea?

KJ: The labour movement in Korea is very militant and vocal but it is inextricably tied up with nationalist politics. There is a popular leftwing protest culture but it is tied up with Korea’s history of colonization under Japan and the American backed dictatorships. The American beef protests are a good example of how these movements are made up along nationalistic lines.

[Check out this blog post for a brief analysis of protest culture in Korea – CR]

CR: Are there any factors, such as language, that would pose barriers in forming connections between ESL workers and the local labour movement?

KJ: Korean nationalism can be incredibly insular and there is an undercurrent of racial politics. Furthermore, the issue of Korea’s relationship with Japan underlies these large movements which makes it uncomfortable to participate in the Korean labour movement. Lots of Koreans speak English and I think it wouldn’t be too hard to coordinate, but I don’t want to support nationalism.

CR: Why is ESL education in such high demand in Korea?

KJ: The Korean SAT (수능) has an English section. Every moment in the Korean education system leads up to the 수능 test and students will actually demand that you return to teaching 수능 if you stray from the textbook. 수능 determines pretty much everything in students’ lives because which university they get into is so important for their lives.

There is a belief that native speakers of English are superior teachers of the language when this has no basis in reality. A large majority of foreign ESL workers are under-qualified with no knowledge of the English language or how to teach. Additionally, foreign ESL teachers are desirable because an accent that sounds American, British or Canadian is seen as desirable and superior to other English accents.

CR: What are the aspirations of your students?

KJ: To do well in the 수능 test and to get into a good university. I should clarify that this is the wishes of their parents as parents put so much pressure onto students to do well that they openly joke about killing themselves. I have had multiple students break down crying and have a nervous breakdown because they got 49/50 rather than 50/50 on an essay.

CR: Do feel that your work has any connection to broader histories of colonialism?

KJ: Yeah for sure. English is the language of colonization and it became a global language because of that. The industry has as much connection to colonialism as everything in Canada that’s on stolen land does. I would say that the native speaking requirement is rooted in racist ideology and I wouldn’t be surprised if that has roots in colonialism.

KJ lives in Korea, where he has worked as an ESL teacher for two years. He was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World in Canada before moving overseas.

“Just Don’t Do It” – An Interview with Eric Dirnbach on Campus Anti-Sweatshop Organizing

From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s the campus anti-sweatshop movement was one of the largest and most prominent student movements on college and university campuses in Canada and the United States. The campaign against sweatshops grew to be a major force within the broader anti-globalization movement.

Organizers targeted university administrations which had licensed university apparel with companies such as Nike, Fruit of the Loom, and Champion. They had some considerable success in forcing administrations to cancel contracts with sweatshop profiteers, and pressuring contractors to institute corporate social responsibility policies.

As Eric Dirnbach, a veteran of the campus anti-sweatshop movement, discusses below, lessons from the success and limits of the campus anti-sweatshop movement have relevance to those organizing on campuses today.

ClassRoom: Can you tell us about your involvement in campus anti-sweatshop movement?

Eric Dirnbach: I got involved in the movement in the mid-90’s when I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan and have been involved in some way ever since.  I recently wrote about some of my thoughts and experiences over the years here and last year some students at Michigan put together a great extensive summary of the campaign there as part of a class history project.

In the mid-90’s I had been involved in the local solidarity campaign in support of the workers during the Detroit News and Free Press strike and had also been active in the leadership of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), our graduate student instructors union.  I had also recently joined the local Ann Arbor branch of the Socialist group Solidarity and we were looking for projects to work on around campus.

In the news at the time there were stories about Nike apparel sweatshops in Asia and the University had a large athletic sponsorship contract with Nike.  It seemed that there was a great opportunity to connect these issues and see if we could get the University to take a stand on the labor problems at Nike factories.  We felt that the University relationship was very important to Nike and that moving our administration to take some action on this would matter a lot to the company.  The major complication in this arrangement is that Nike and the other apparel brands generally didn’t own the factories but used a network of separate contractors. Thus the companies claimed they had no direct responsibility for the labor conditions there, even though everyone knew they had tremendous power in the relationship.

We formed the “Just Don’t Do It Coalition” in alliance with a number of other groups on campus.  Our early demands were for Nike to improve working conditions in the factories and require a living wage or else the University should cancel or not renew the Nike contract.  For the year or so where I was heavily involved, which was the 1997-1998 academic year, we mostly did educational activities around campus – holding rallies, bringing in speakers, and handing out flyers at football games and around campus.  We also met with the Athletic Director and spoke about the issue at a Board of Regents meeting.  I think we did good work that year, learning more about the issues, raising awareness on campus, meeting more supporters, and also connecting with the campaigns on other campuses.  Around that time we helped form the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) which became the national organization for this campaign.  We also connected with national groups working on this issue like Global Exchange, Campaign for Labor Rights and UNITE, the apparel and textile workers union.

In the Fall of 1998 I needed to step back since I was taking on the role of President of GEO during the year we were going to negotiate our new contract.  So luckily around that time I met with a group of students who had just done the AFL-CIO Union Summer program and talked with them about the sweatshop issue and we reformed the group as Students for Labor and Economic Equality (SOLE).  The group continued to organize and famously occupied the University’s President’s office for 50 hours in the Spring of 1999.  I was not involved in the occupation but spoke at the support rally outside and was really proud that the campaign had progressed so far.  More information about this action is here.

Afterwards the University agreed to move on improving the labor standards it would require of its vendors and also mandate the disclosure of factory names and locations.  Further negotiations and campaign pressure was necessary over time to continue to move the University on this issue, for example, to get it to join the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).  This further activity was after I was no longer active in the group but the details are included in the Michigan anti-sweatshop history site.

CR: What did your organization look like? What sort of relationships did you have with other progressive groups, either on campus or in the broader community?

ED: During my time there the campaign wasn’t at first very well organized or strategically thought out.  I think there was the sense that we just needed to take some time to educate the community about the issue and develop more allies before we could take any next steps.  I think we prepared the groundwork for later actions that proved decisive.

The campaign was partly a coalition involving a number of supportive groups. Looking back at a news article from the time, these groups supported our big demonstration in October 1997 at the Michigan football game: Solidarity, the Huron Valley Green Party, the Coalition of Asian Social Work Students, the East Timor Action Coalition, the Free Mumia Coalition, UFCW Local 951, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Vietnamese Student Association. Some of these groups also continued to sponsor other events as the campaign continued.  But really most of the campaign work was done by a core group of student organizers, meeting weekly or biweekly, which might have been as large as a dozen at one point, with a faculty advisor who worked with us.  Later on when SOLE formed, the core group grew larger and they had about 30 folks involved in the 1999 occupation.

I think something we could have done better is more outreach and relationship building with the unions at the university and in the area.  A labor rights campaign like this is a good potential issue for a student-worker alliance and I think the USAS groups have done this kind of outreach in later years much better.

CR: What concrete victories were you able to achieve? What sorts of tactics did you find most effective? Least effective? How did you choose your “targets?”

ED: There were modest but important victories that brought the University of Michigan, along with many others, down the road toward addressing the significant sweatshop labor problems in the college apparel supply chain.  Our theory from the beginning was that universities as a whole have a lot of power in their relationships with Nike and the other major companies and that they could be made to assert that power to improve labor conditions. I think history and experience has shown that we were correct.  Over the next few years after our campaign more companies put together codes of conduct and disclosed their factory locations.  In general their stance changed from arguing that they had no responsibility for the factory labor conditions to acknowledging that they did.  

Over time this campaign also moved almost 200 colleges to join a collective organization, the WRC, which collects factory information, monitors the factories and forces a remediation of the labor problems.  The WRC has been the best and most effective independent factory monitor, and working with USAS, has provided great assistance to workers organizing in factories.  Having the WRC as a successful central institution in this campaign is great because it also maintains an important role for students at the center of this struggle, since students are part of the governance structure.  There are many instances where this student movement, through campus pressure, has continued to help factory workers organize and improve their working conditions. Examples include supporting the workers at the unionized, living wage Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic, pressuring Fruit of the Loom to reopen a factory in Honduras and maintain a bargaining relationship with the union covering thousands of workers, and forcing Adidas to pay $1.8 million in severance to thousands of Indonesian workers at a supplier factory that shut down.

But it’s important to remember that we were really asking for some fairly modest action on the part of colleges.  We wanted them to require better labor conditions from their licensees and to join the WRC.  These are important wins but they aren’t particularly expensive obligations for colleges to take on and they haven’t dramatically changed the wages and working conditions in the industry as a whole or the power relationships between apparel brands, factories and workers.  The vast majority of the global industry remains committed to the sweatshop business model, but the student support and worker organizing has shown that improvements can be made.  This campaign over the years has been a real lesson for me in the power of solidarity.

As far as tactics and targets, the early educational efforts were essential to build broader support but disruptive tactics like the office occupation were essential.  The Michigan administration was the direct target, since we wanted to get them to change University policy on how they dealt with apparel licensees. College campuses are soft targets in that they are generally run by liberal administrators who would like to avoid conflict and are worried about the school’s public image.  Enough good organizing on campus can usually get some victory, but disruptive tactics will likely be necessary.  I saw this again and again at my union GEO where we were usually able to settle good contracts after conducting brief strikes.  The major apparel brands like Nike were the indirect targets since ultimately we wanted them to change their policies on the labor conditions in their supply chain factories.

CR: What would you consider to be some of the more important shortcomings, if any, to this model of organizing?

ED: I think we used our relatively privileged positions as students at the University in a strategic way to provide solidarity and try to force reforms in the factory system that supplied us with the branded college apparel. That seemed really important to me then and still does.  Our position as students informed the kind of organizing we could do.  For example, since we weren’t located at the classic workplace point of production, we couldn’t do traditional worker strikes or job disruptions.  Student workers on campus were in a position to do that and also the regular campus workers, but we didn’t really explore that possibility.  Students could also do class walkouts but again we weren’t at a level of strength to accomplish that in a meaningful way.  The building occupation was something that could be done effectively by a relatively small group.  

I’m not sure what the shortcomings were unless someone wanted to make the argument that students organizing is of secondary importance compared to workplace or community organizing.  I would say that organizing is important wherever someone is located.  Students have historically played a crucial role in protesting problems on campus and in society at large, whether it’s the anti-war or anti-apartheid movements, demanding a more inclusive curriculum, fighting racism, sexism or homophobia at school, or supporting labor struggles on campus.  There’s a lot of important organizing work that students can do during their time at school.  The list of student movement accomplishments over the past decades would be pretty impressive.

CR: Lastly, recently a number of student organizations have joined the Fight for $15 and Fairness movement, demanding minimum employment standards for all campus workers. What sorts of lessons can the struggles around anti-sweatshop organizing offer to these new organizations?

ED: That sounds like a really great campaign.  Colleges are good places for organizing because the potential for winning is great and also they should set high standards for working conditions.  Unfortunately many colleges have turned toward a neoliberal corporate model and it’s crucial for students and workers to fight back against that.

I think the lessons from the anti-sweatshop work are nothing too sophisticated and could apply to many kinds of campaigns.  Most important is to forge a strong coalition, involving students, campus workers and faculty, with a clear and winnable set of demands.  The campaign starts with education and outreach and escalates the pressure with disruptive actions which could include student walkouts and worker strikes.  If the administration sees a campaign that is growing, gaining confidence, taking action often, and increasing the disruption, they are likely to negotiate with the coalition.

Eric Dirnbach is a union researcher, corporate campaigner, labor activist and writer in New York City and a member of the IWW NYC General Membership Branch. He has published in Labor NotesNew Labor Forum, Public Seminar, Waging Nonviolence, Working USA and Z Magazine.  He can be found on Twitter at @EricDirnbach.


“We are prepared to do whatever it will take to save our program.”

This article comes to us from Caroline Kovesi by way of the Halifax Media Co-op.

Note: Since this article was published on February 8, the Women’s and Gender Studies steering committee has received confirmation from Mount Allison’s administration that the “WGST program will receive a 12-month McCain Postdoctoral Fellowship to sustain the program through the 2016/17 academic year.” Also, the university has promised to discuss the program’s “long term sustainability” in the coming year.

SACKVILLE, NEW BRUNSWICK — I met my first “real feminists” in my first year at Mount Allison. I soon came to the conclusion that if two of the professors I admired most were feminists and I was not, maybe I was missing out on something important. I audited my first Women’s and Gender Studies (WGST) class in the summer after first year because I knew I would be unable to take this course at Mount Allison due to the limitations of my particular degree. By the end of the summer I not only realized that I had long held feminist values, but that I was proud of this aspect of my identity. I became comfortable presenting myself to the world as a “real feminist” too.

It was in my WGST course where I first learned why there is no such thing as reverse racism. Why asking women to take self-defence classes is not an appropriate response to pervasive rape culture. How hegemonic masculinity relates to the military industrial complex. How police do not make everyone feel safer. Afraid to show my ignorance in sociology classes back home, I found a safe space in my WGST class to ask questions about opinions I was embarrassed to hold. I continue to employ concepts I was introduced to then in my sociology classes today.

Last Monday, Mount Allison’s WGST Acting Director Dr Lisa Dawn Hamilton e-mailed minors registered in the program following a meeting with the Dean of Arts, Dr Hans vanderLeest. Dr Hamilton had been informed that there was no budget allocated to the program for next year, and that consequently, none of the four core WGST courses would be offered either. Since then, students and faculty have mobilized and expressed collective outrage about the decision.

An online petition has garnered 6800 supporters, the WGST Student Society organized a letter writing campaign, started the hashtag #WGSTcuts on social media, and protested a meeting of the Board of Regents with the participation of over 50 students. The program’s Steering Committee has developed a website dedicated to the cause, faculty and librarians of Mount Allison have published an open letter to the administration, letters of support have poured in from universities across Canada, and the story has been picked up by CBC, CTV,Huffington Post, The Coast, Buzzfeed, and the New Wark Times.

In response to the media coverage and community members’ vocal dissent, Dean vanderLeest has since conceded to funding two core WGST courses next year through two part-time stipends. The Director of Marketing and Communications, Robert Hiscock, and Dean Hans vanderLeest have issued statements and compiled a Frequently Asked Questions page in an attempt at damage control, insisting that the program cannot be cut without due process – which has not yet been undertaken – and that no budget has been set at present.

However, neither students nor faculty have been fooled. Both assert there is a hidden agenda that intends to starve the program of funding in order to drop its enrolment – which has tripled in the past two years. This would then provide the administration with “evidence” that could be used to justify the formal elimination of the program. Dr Hamilton has made it clear that two stipends will not suffice – neither making the program sustainable nor exposing WGST students to enough feminist theory to accurately represent a WGST minor.

This administrative move comes at a time when issues relating to gender, sex, and sexuality are increasingly coming to the fore. Neither the Dalhousie dentistry scandal nor Saint Mary’s University’s orientation rape chants have become any less concerning or faded from our memory.

Last year, CBC reported that, “Mount Allison University has the second highest rate of sexual assault reports among Canadian universities and colleges over a five-year period”. Though this may be indicative of students feeling empowered to report these cases, an anonymous Google form set up to collect students’ and faculty’s anonymous testimonies of sexual assault, harassment, misogyny, and gender or sexual identity-based discrimination on Mount Allison’s campus suggest otherwise.

Professors discuss experiences of “sexual harassment and homophobia coming from high-level administrators, often in public venues, in front of other colleagues and staff,” the campus bar is described as “a terrifying place to be a woman at Mount Allison,” more than one student reports institutionalized trans-phobia, and students assert they have been discouraged from pursuing recourse following cases of sexual assault.

It is clear that there is a very real and immediate need to offer WGST courses in order to help students understand these situations and their root causes. There is also an unmistakable connection between a campus that enables (and arguably at times engenders) such a culture, and the devaluation of the WGST program.

The institutionalization of sexism in higher education has been well documented. As a young woman who intends to make a career in academia, I am well aware that the odds are stacked against me. I am more likely than my male counterparts to find myself stuck in a vicious cycle of precarious contract positions, as well as to be perceived as less capable and intelligent than them when competing for the same positions.

Upper level administrators like Deans and University Presidents who make decisions about tenure, university policy, and university governance are statistically more likely to be male. Feminists use the term “patriarchy” to describe these systems that create, reinforce, and replicate male privilege and power. Mount Allison’s President, all three of our Deans(although one is currently being replaced by a female faculty member), our Vice-President,Finance and Administration, and fifteen of twenty-four Board of Regent members are male.

In other words, it is primarily men who have decided that we no longer have funding available for our WGST program. While our president receives an annual salary between $305 000 to 329 999 – comparatively, the Prime Minister of Canada earns $327 000 – we are told that the budget does not have room for our WGST program, despite its core courses having been taught by a full-time faculty member for 14 of the past 16 years the program has been in existence.

This, on top of the fact that there are currently 192 students enrolled in WGST classes, is suspicious.

Not only does a move like gutting – and then likely eliminating – a WGST program contribute to the replication of power relations both within and outside of a higher education setting, it also symbolizes the kyriarchical priorities of the university. It is clear that the university places little value on the voices, histories, experiences, criticisms, and challenges of women and other marginalized groups.

It is difficult to imagine a discipline in the Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) field would ever be placed in a similar situation or be expected to run a program with half its courses paid for by two stipends.

Students are also currently advocating for an Indigenous Studies Minor at Mount Allison. If the university appears to have no qualms about cutting a well-established and burgeoning program, it is unlikely it will be open to new programs that teach alternative knowledge systems and are needed just as urgently as WGST.

Mount Allison University brands itself as a progressive, small liberal arts college. It was the first university in the British Empire to award a woman a university degree. Their decision to cut – or at least place in an extremely precarious position – the WGST program represents a major leap backwards in its progress and commitment to service, also calling into question their commitment to fostering social justice.

As a woman, when the university announces such a decision and then deliberately misdirects and miscommunicates to students about it, I hear that I am less valued than other members of our community. I hear that a predominantly male administration can undo the work of a woman with an unwavering vision in a single move just two months after her death.

I hear that having the tools to identify intersectional inequalities and inequities in society isn’t seen as necessary to our education. But thankfully I also hear a call to fight, and if the past week bears any indication, I see that many others have heard the same.

We are prepared to do whatever it will take to save our program, fight institutionalized sexism and patriarchy, and show the world that we have an arsenal full of lessons taught by programs like WGST ready to employ. On the first day of my WGST class three years ago, my professor had us listen to Ani DiFranco’s “Alla This.”

I leave you with the following lyrics from her song:

“I will look at everything around me/And I will vow to bear in mind/That all of this was just someone’s idea/It could just as well be mine”

Caroline Kovesi is a fourth year student at Mount Allison working towards an honours in sociology and minor in philosophy. She is a mental health advocate, and dedicates much time to organizing and participating in events and campaigns on campus that have a social-justice and anti-stigma focus. She also recently began a blog to explore ideas and experiences related to mental health and illness, accessibility, higher education, disability, feminism, and activism called “for the love of a bear.”


Thinking About Education Workers’ Struggles and University Education after Capitalism

In October 2015, the Toronto General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World hosted the Working for Each Other, Working for Ourselves organizing summit, which brought together revolutionary public service worker-organizers from across Canada and the United States.

The Summit’s opening plenary, “Public Service Workers’ Struggles and Public Services After Capitalism” attempted to begin conversations about what public service work—including education—would look like if capitalism was defeated and a system of social and economic organization that prioritized people’s needs was implemented. Here’s how the panel was introduced:

“This summit is about us all struggling for a better world. We hope it serves as a contribution to the development of a fighting, revolutionary movement of working people that might be capable of overthrowing capitalism and systemic oppression once and for all.

It is easy to articulate what we are against. We are against the violence of the system in which we live – and the environmental destruction, poverty, misery, and humiliation it produces. In the words of the preamble to the IWW’s constitution, ‘There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.’

The preamble to the constitution also asserts: ‘It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.’

The focus of this summit will be on developing the skills necessary to build a movement capable of ‘doing away with capitalism.’ However, we also want to take some time to consider what, exactly, it is we are fighting for.

We, a small group of revolutionaries, members of a small revolutionary union, could take this time to explain our grand vision of a world in which capitalism has been defeated. Unfortunately for us – and maybe fortunately for you – we don’t know exactly what that future society that we might call the collective commonwealth, or socialism, or what-have-you, will look like. What we do know concretely, is what our own lives and work are like under capitalism, and what we aspire for our lives and work to be in a just society.

So, we have prepared a few short testimonies which explain what it is that we do for a living and why, what some of our issues and grievances are, how we think our jobs would be different if we were part of a larger and stronger movement and what our jobs might be like if we won.“

We’ve decided to post the remarks of one of the panel’s participants, an IWW member involved in the 620 IOC, which publishes ClassRoom.

What is your job?

I’m a teaching assistant at a Toronto university. I’ve taught politics, social science research methods and labour studies courses for 5 years.

What is the point of your job?

I help students develop reading, writing and critical thinking skills. In theory a liberal arts education will expose them to lots of new ideas literature that will help them cultivate themselves as free, creative individuals. Unfortunately, in actual practice, I basically help give my students the skills to get entry-level jobs. There’s not much levelling involved. ­The students who are good at school generally do well and the ones that aren’t don’t. Many of my students are the first generation in their family to get a university education. Most will end up working in jobs that have no relation to what they studied in school.

What are the major grievances/issues?

I really like my job and if it wasn’t for this job I wouldn’t be able to afford grad school. That said, the wages are low. And the neoliberalization of the university means that more and more people like me are going to continue on in academia in low paying and precarious academic teaching jobs.

How would your job be different if you had a fighting union at work and were part of a fighting labour movement?

I have a good trade union. However, it has its limits. If my union was a part of a bigger, broader, fighting labour movement we could conceivably win free tuition. This would be a significant amount of money saved for people like me who pay to go to school and work. It would also mean my students would get to spend more time focusing on school and less time juggling work schedules.

What would your job be like if we won and there was no capitalism?

As a PhD student I study prison labour. I hope that if we win, I would have to find something else to study. My students would be more diverse if certain populations weren’t systematically excluded from university education. But moreover, grading, one of the things I hate the most about my job would be unnecessary. I would get to teach students who are going to school because they want to learn, rather than any other reason—like improving their general chances of getting a job. Instead of being a short 4 year period in some people’s’ lives, university could be something many people do throughout their lives, pursuing education related to the things that interest them regardless of what they do for a living.

How ‘Friedrichs’ Could Actually Unleash Unions from Decades of Free Speech Restrictions

The article below, originally published by In These Times, comes to us from Shaun Richman, a former organizing director with the American Federation of Teachers.

As the spring semester starts up at the City University of New York, union activists continue the painstaking work of preparing for a strike authorization vote. Faculty and staff at CUNY have been working without a contract for over five years. While Governor Cuomo disinvests in the primary college system for working class New Yorkers, management proposes salary increases that amount to decreases after inflation.

The parallels between the struggle to save CUNY and the struggle over the future of Chicago Public Schools are obvious, with one major exception: it is totally illegal for teachers to strike in New York. The last major union to violate the draconian Taylor Law, TWU Local 100, was fined $2.5 million for waging a 60-hour strike that shut down the city’s subway and bus system in 2005. On top of that, the union’s ability to collect dues money was suspended for a year, its president jailed for 10 days and each individual striker was fined two days pay for each one day on strike.

But in an interesting twist, the anti-union Friedrichs v. CTA case currently under consideration by the Supreme Court could actually lay the ground work for making public employee strikes in New York and elsewhere constitutionally protected free speech.

A long history of carving unions out of the 1st Amendment

One could understandably be confused about how a collective protest that involves refusing to work could even be illegal in a country that prides itself on its supposed pursuit of life, liberty and whatnot. How is a strike and picket line not a constitutionally protected exercise of free speech and free assembly? And how is prohibiting workers from striking not a violation of the 13th Amendment’s protection from involuntary servitude?

Early on in our nation’s history, conservative courts treated unions as criminal conspiracies and strikes as interfering with employers’ property and contract rights and with Congress’ responsibility to regulate interstate commerce. Rooted in imported English common law and beginning as early as 1806, these instances of what early unionists derided as “judge-made law,” should be regarded as a betrayal of the American Revolution.

As detailed in William Forbath’s Law and the Shaping of the American Labor Movement, unions’ legislative agenda during the 19th and early 20th century was basically to get the government and courts out of labor disputes. Unions sought to have labor legally defined as “not a commodity” and to restrain judges from issuing injunctions against pickets and boycotts, with mixed results.

By the time the National Labor Relations Act was passed to encourage and regulate collective bargaining, its framers recognized that if they rooted the Act’s authority in the 1st Amendment, it would not be found constitutional by the conservative Supreme Court. And so labor rights in this country are rooted in the Interstate Commerce Clause, which is why they’re so wonky.

Public sector unions, whose ability to function is immediately at stake in the Friedrichs case, are not covered by the federal labor act. Instead, many states passed laws that are modeled on the NLRA. But with a crucial difference: when bosses get to pass laws that apply to their employees (which, if you think about it, is exactly what public sector labor law represents), they’re guaranteed to make it even more unfavorable than private sector rules.

Unsurprisingly, many states make strikes by public sector employees like the CUNY faculty and staff totally illegal, or else severely restrict them. Many states also make many union demands illegal, either by statute or by judicial decisions. TheFriedrichs case, by inserting public employees’ 1st Amendment rights into collective bargaining could give unions a very useful tool for reversing many anti-union measures that are on the books.

If collective bargaining becomes political speech…

Public employees have actually enjoyed a degree of free speech protections at work for some time, making them the only workers in America who do. Remember, the 1st Amendment only prevents the government from restricting a citizen’s rights of free speech and assembly. Since public employees work for the government, their employer is constitutionally forbidden from restricting or coercing their political speech.

Historically, this has been limited to actual political speech (supporting a candidate, wearing a political button, speaking in the press and the like). Unions have carefully kept their political funds and activity separate from the agency fees that they collect from the public employees they are required to represent by law. Right-wing efforts to fight the ability of unions to collect dues and fees by arguing that the political activity of public employee unions is compelled political activity have been decisively rejected since 1978.

So, in order to overturn this long-settled precedent the parties behind Friedrichs—egged on by Justice Alito—are lodging a wildly expansive argument that every interaction that a union has with its government employer is inherently political. Bargaining demands, grievances, labor-management committees, job actions: all of it, goes the Friedrichs argument, is political, thereby making the collection of agency fees compelled political speech.

Let’s think about some of the implications of this argument. For starters, the Taylor law that tells CUNY faculty and staff that they will be fined and their leaders imprisoned if they strike seems clearly to be a coercive restriction on their chosen method of political speech. If the Professional Staff Congress is hit with any penalties for either planning or going through with a job action, one hopes they can time their appeals to reach higher level courts after the Friedrichs decision comes down in June.

Across the river in New Jersey, another state with strong unions and shitty labor law, the scope of items that unions are evenallowed to raise at the table is restricted by statute and a number of horrible court decisions.

One area of restriction is a strong prohibition on pattern bargaining (i.e. one bargaining unit aligning its demands with another bargaining unit’s settlement). The most farcical example of this is Rutgers University, where management habitually creates new job titles that they argue fall outside the bounds of the existing faculty bargaining unit.

When the union organizes these new groups (adjuncts, post-docs, summer and winter instructors), management threatens legal hellfire and judicial damnation when the union seeks the same rights and benefits for all their members. The union could, however, propose one contract, comprehensive of all of the job titles it represents, in the next round of bargaining and tell the state university to go ahead and take them to court when they stick to their guns.

More galling: teachers unions in NJ are prohibited from even raising demands around class size and staffing levels. I can think of few issues that teachers have more of a burning desire to talk about! But they can’t, at least at the bargaining table.

However, once those bargaining sessions between unions reps and their government employers are redefined by the Supreme Court to be political speech, any law restricting what can be said, what items can be raised, seems to be a restriction by the government on those union members’ free speech rights. Perhaps the New Jerseya Education Association and American Federation of Teachers New Jersey locals should celebrate their new rights with a coordinated campaign to lower class sizes across the state?

Perhaps most deliciously, the right-wing Friedrichs effort is in direct opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s offensive agenda in Wisconsin. Walker’s anti-union Act 10 did a lot of nasty things to public employees, some of which will continue to stand. It took away payroll deduction and forced unions to annually recertify as the collective bargaining agents for their members.

But what mostly caused union membership to plummet in the state was that certified unions were prohibited from bargaining over anything of substance; not just raises that exceed inflation, but duties, hours and work schedules and every other everyday issue that workers want to have a voice at work about.

If Justice Alito gets his way, then Scott Walker is suddenly massively violating the free speech rights of Wisconsin public employees. I humbly suggest that every union still certified demand to bargain the day after the decision. They could throw their old contracts on the table and sue every school board and state agency that refuses to discuss those items. I’d also suggest that they begin drawing up some new picket signs.

Labor needs a Plan B

The hubris and general stupidity of Justice Alito—who tried and failed to get this ruling in last year’s Harris v. Quinn—and the vast right-wing conspiracy of union-busters who raced this case through the courts in less than a year perhaps shouldn’t be surprising. They just want to kill the unions, and they’re used to getting their way.

But, in their narrow-minded pursuit of denying unions in the public sector agency fee, they are mindlessly trying to just hand to us free speech rights that conservative jurists and politicians have studiously avoided granting to union efforts for over two centuries.

Unions’ and their allies’ public messaging against the Friedrichs assault has focused on how it is an assassination on the labor movements, a nakedly partisan attempt to weaken a field operation that helps turn out votes against the GOP and how it will deprive many thousands of working people—particularly women and workers of color—from a pathway to a better life. And all of that is true. And unions have put together a very robust defense against Friedrichs, with an impressive array of supporting briefs, that is right on the facts, right on the legal precedents and right on the politics.

But labor also needs more people engaging in a debate about what, in theory, could come the day after an adverse Friedrichsdecision. That shouldn’t be limited to toying with the legal implications of the Court’s logic, but also what kind of mobilizations, boycotts and—dare we dream?—strikes could be launched in the days and weeks after.

Outlets like In These Times are great for offering alternative perspectives that contribute to a broadening debate. But I sure as hell hope that the unions that have the most to lose from a “bad” Friedrichs decision, and who have done most of the heavy lifting on winning in court, are also putting together alternative war rooms to figure out Plan B.

The more that we visibly and loudly plan and prepare our response, and calculate the potential upsides of a “bad” decision and maybe (some of us) even get a bit excited about the chaos we can create post-Friedrichs, the more likely that five members of the Court might realize that Alito is pushing for them to make a very big mistake. But if the Supreme Court goes ahead and tears up the current labor law regime in a nakedly partisan act in the middle of a presidential election, then we had better be prepared to create the chaos that the Court is inviting.

On the Outrages of “Anti-Semitism” and other Concerns at the University

Matthew Corbeil is a TA and a PhD candidate at York University in the Department of Political Science.

The conflation of “anti-Semitism” with the legitimate criticism of the Israeli state’s colonial practices in the West Bank and Gaza is nothing new. But Paul Bronfman, bourgeois philanthropist extraordinaire, took things to a new level last week when he decided to hold students at York University’s film school hostage over a mural in the university’s student centre. Bronfman, whose firm William F. White International had lent “thousands of dollars” worth of technical equipment to the school, expressed outrage and horror over the mural, which in his view is nothing but “pure hate.”

The offending mural depicts a young man, wearing a keffiyeh, and holding a pair of stones behind his back. In the distance, we see a bulldozer, about to remove what appears to be the last remaining tree in an otherwise desolate space. Below are the words “justice” and “peace” in a panoply of languages.

But for Bronfman, the painting’s subject matter depicts neither justice nor peace. Instead, it’s a transparent glorification of violence, terror and hatred of the Jewish people. And Bronfman isn’t the only one who feels this way. Indeed, at least one student has claimed the mural makes her feel “unsafe.” For her, the mural hangs because of its anti-Semitism, not in spite of it. “If a mural condoning violence against any other nation was hung on campus, it would rightfully be condemned,” she said in an interview with CityNews. “Only when it pertains to Jews do we see this disturbing double standard.”

As for the artist’s right to freedom of expression, Bronfman dismisses this concern as “nonsense.”

It’s hard to single out what’s most absurd about this story. How could anyone construe such a benign painting as “hate?” How could anyone so uncritically fear for her safety when confronted with an image that bespeaks the unsafety and insecurity of others? How could one daft businessman hold an entire public institution hostage?

If anything, this episode teaches us just how precarious our so-called fundamental rights and freedoms really are at the neoliberal university. So much of the recent hullaballoo over the tyrannical tendencies of “campus social justice warriors” has revealed itself for the red herring it really was. The most serious threat to campus freedom comes not from those who demand we think critically about racism, sexism, ableism or any of the other less-visible forms of oppression. It comes from those who wish us not to think critically at all. People like Paul Bronfman, who believe their control over society’s productive resources give them a right to dictate what’s said and not said in a public space.

This is why the increasing corporate invasion of the university – whether in the form of private philanthropy or the reconfiguration of curricula – is so troubling, and the demand for meaningful public funding is so important. What’s at stake isn’t simply one mural, or even one film school. More importantly, its our right to critical inquiry.

The University Worker: A conversation with fellow workers from India

Last year, we reached out to the editors of The University Worker, an independent newspaper based out of Delhi, India that focuses on the university as a place of work. Below is the full text of our conversation, in which we discussed the challenges of organizing a rank-and-file movement in the context of the Indian university system. We’d like to thank the folks at The University Worker for their very thoughtful responses.

ClassRoom: Can you tell us a little bit about your project and the organization behind it (when your paper was founded, who is involved, how the editorial process works, and so on)?

The University Worker: We are a group of about 20; all work in the university in various capacities; some of us even have more than one institutionally defined role (being both a student as well as an ad-hoc teacher/research assistant). We come from somewhat varied political experiences, although all were broadly part of the Left spectrum. We all had some engagements in university politics, especially anti-fee hike struggles, anti-sexual harassment struggles, or struggles around the ‘undemocratic decision-making’ at the universities. Some were part of student wings of CPs in India, some were autonomous. For some university-level struggles led to disillusionment with the transient nature of victories or shallowness of reform, and a sense of the overall impossibility of real change in the university through isolated struggles.

One autonomous project was “Correspondence”. Among other things, it was during this effort that we first seriously tried to conceptualize the university as a legitimate site of working class struggle, and the student as part of the working class. The hope was, firstly, to counter tendencies that looked at the university as a pool of recruits for struggles happening elsewhere – factories or fields; and secondly, to deal with the problems that we, ‘working’ in the university, could not ignore or escape. These problems seemed to us to be problems of control over work/life (that incidentally also restricted possible engagements outside the university).

Radical Notes is an online Marxist journal that we find ourselves associating with. Some of us play an active part of the journal. Faridabad Mazdoor Samachar is a newspaper with circulation among industrial workers. We have taken some of our ideas from their experience, even though we differ on some questions. Gurgaon Workers News is a blog that we have learnt from. “Zero History” is another group from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, that has been trying to think of politics in the university in terms of a “general assembly”, and we have found many resonances with their ideas. It was at a joint meeting of many such autonomous groups from different parts of India in October 2013 that the idea of starting The University Worker emerged. In this meeting we decided that we would start various newspapers, and inquire afresh into the state of affairs in our respective locations.

In November 2013, we started to plan the paper. We were a diverse bunch and our ideas were diverse too. Therefore in planning how the paper would work, we thought it better to have different editorial groups for every issue. Everybody’s inputs are included at various stages in the production of every issue, but each group has a certain degree of autonomy to do what they wish with the issue. The editorial, however, the entire group discusses and we try to reach as close to a consensus as possible. Of course, informal hierarchies emerge, with the more politically experienced being more confident. We attempt to address this through our reading group. Gendered power relations too have been brought to light but this cannot so easily be dealt with by reading. This is a continuing struggle.

There is, however, no organisation behind the newspaper. Or to put it another way, the newspaper is the ‘organisation’, not a mouthpiece for an organization seeking to organize ‘workers’. Our group is on the one hand an organized body of university workers, and on the other the group that brings out The University Worker. To us the newspaper is the primary, as a working class organization.

What does the newspaper as an organisation imply? (And herein lies our project.)

Through our paper, we seek to produce and circulate an alternative discourse, which might over a period of time make possible the articulation of seemingly impossible notions of complete systemic transformation and actualization of absolute democracy. It deals with work-processes and struggles within the university space. The expanded definition of work (which will be elaborated later) entails that both events/occurrences (major changes of syllabi, institutional repression, arbitrary decisions, etc.) as well as everyday existence within the university be seen and understood keeping in mind the capital-labour contradiction, and the place of the university within a society structured by this contradiction.

The reports therein are not intended to only have been an objective and distanced explication of individual problems of various workers, or an attempt to raise awareness on behalf of something/someone else by way of an alternative pedagogical stance. Instead however, we see the process of inquiry itself as a mode of political intervention in which the worker’s own experience is revisited by the worker herself, but with an understanding of capitalist processes. The reports in the newsletters are there to show, and engage with workers’ experience and their understanding of these experiences; it is here that we identify an always already emerging self-consciousness. The emphasis on the worker’s experience and her understanding of it is opposed to a vanguardist position which would perhaps direct an experience with little regard to what a worker is able to understand autonomously. In other words, the project of political cognisance (through inquiry) differs from reflective cognizance, and we think that this process of political cognisance of the present is also potentially a moment of effective action.

The long-term vision of working class interests is perhaps only kept alive by engaging with the lived impulses of struggle that is constitutive of the university, as of all spaces. So we continuously seek out others tendencies within the working-class movement, and try to engage with their responses to the experiences that we document in The University Worker.

What the paper does at a macro-level, the inquiry does at a micro-level; both processes enabling a self-consciousness beyond the ideology of capitalism. Through this method, the possibility of abstractions becoming “ideological,” divorced from the concrete diminishes. The reports are thought through using theoretical tools that past experiences have given us, but theory too is to be rethought in the light of new experience. Something similar applies to the militant-inquirer who may discover her theory to be inadequate, unable to comprehend some particular experience; a change in language, in theoretical apparatus will then be called for. The paper, as it develops will reflect this change.

Admittedly, how much success we have had in the process of inquiry is debatable and time will tell whether this will remain a founding principle of our work. We are still uncertain whether and what forms of self-consciousness are indeed emerging (if at all); something that will only be ascertained only by future practice.

CR: What are the main issues around which you are currently organizing?

UW: If by issues, you mean things like fee hikes, firing of staff, levels of pay, changes of policy etc., the answer is that we don’t organize campaigns around such issues. As explained above, our practice is about organizing around the everydayness of labour and class struggle. Rather than react to sudden ruptures in life, we want to engage in the politics of how everyday life is structured for/by the university worker, how work is imposed everyday, how the worker is exploited everyday and how workers struggle everyday.

Of course, we are not dismissing the importance of campaigns around issues, campaigns about events. Take for example the struggle that erupted in Jadavpur University after a female student was molested on campus. Students mobilized in huge numbers, raging first against the university administration’s failure to act after the attack, and then against the police violence faced by the struggling students. On the one hand, we observed that organizing solely around each event — demanding an investigation, or the removal of the Vice Chancellor — divorces “everydayness” from the event. In other words, such a mode of politics fails to unmask the violence embedded in the very structure of the university. On the other, we also understand that the mobilization that takes place around such an event is potentially a point of entry into the politics of the student-worker.

In this instance, we attended solidarity demonstrations in Delhi with a pamphlet trying to connect the present struggle with past ones, as well as struggles going on in other workplaces, around other issues, inferring from them a latent fact, that the problem is not this or that misdeed but the structure itself. We argued that “the only practical thing to do is to demand the impossible — streets without police, university without discipline, sex without power, work without work.”

Workers’ inquiry, as a sort of organizational form, tracks concrete aspects of the life of the university worker. Nature of work, wages (even where there are none!), time taken, work conditions in the university, fees, how students manage to pay them (or don’t), and how these relate to the segmentation of university workers. Most central, the imposition of work, resistance to it (in everyday forms as well as movemental, collective ones), and the question of control or refusal of work. The paper records these inquiries, and with these we return to the workers, seeking to continue our conversations, and hoping that more, which do not even include us, would germinate from here.

CR: What have been your most notable achievements in your organizing work? What are your most significant challenges in organizing a rank-and-file education workers movement in Delhi?

UW: There are two ways to look at The University Worker’s ‘organization,’ and subsequently, how we can understand ‘achievement.’ The first is in terms of the group of people it consists of. From when we started a year ago, we have grown a bit in number, and most of us have stayed on, with no real internal splits. Problems which have arisen (around the carrying out of our activities, informal hierarchies, and so on) are being worked through as a constant part of the process. Our own understanding of ‘workers’ inquiry’ in the university and ‘student as worker’ evolved through both inquiry and the discussions we have had around it over the last year, changing our political perspective on everyday experience, work conditions and relations, and struggles of university workers. So the paper has led to our own political development.

The second way to look at the ‘organization’ is the one we have discussed earlier. The paper itself is our way of organizing. Given this way of organizing, which does not aim at recruitment or mobilization for a party, most of our achievements are not tangible in that sense. Rather than ‘organizing’ in the sense of creating new, stable, bigger organizations, we aim to create a discourse through both the process of inquiry and distribution. One achievement, in this sense, is the bringing out of seven issues as of now, and their sustained distribution in different universities. We have widened our distribution, and there are increasing numbers of people in the university who have begun to recognize the paper.

Another achievement has been our relative success in addressing segmentation. This happens in the practice of inquiry itself, with every report being a mark of a dialogue between two workers located in specific work-spaces in the university; the dialogue is implicitly, often visibly political, and has the potential to push each person involved. We draw links between different segments of workers in different locations, and recognize-represent links. Over the 7 issues, reports have come out of conversations with students, teachers, administrative staff, rickshaw-pullers, construction workers, etc. We have no illusions about having started dialogues between these segments, but our practice has certainly brought out these segmentations as defining the space of the university; which means that politics will have to begin by addressing them.

To this end, we have discussed and are trying to institute a practice best described as a “general assembly”. The general assembly enacts at higher level, the logic that the inquiry and the newspaper too embody: channels of communications between workers, channels which will bring out internal segmentation, and accelerate internal struggles. Twice a month we gather together with comrades from Zero History (another group we mentioned earlier) in the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus – our little experiment with the idea of general assembly. However, we are aware that so far this is far from what a general assembly will be, we being composed solely of teachers, students, and research assistants.

“Rank and file” implies leaders. We do not understand the university, or workplaces more generally, in these terms.  All segments of workers are differently located in the university system, but are still part of it as workers who produce knowledge and (skilled, disciplined) labor for the market. We see all sections of people working in the university, including ourselves, as ‘university workers’, and try to understand working conditions and experiences from the various specified locations within the university.

The practice of worker’s inquiry among different segments of the workers poses several challenges. While we have to recognize and be conscious of the political lens through which we undertake inquiry, we also have to ensure that this understanding is not imposed on other workers’ reports, such that their own political understanding of their work is disregarded. So we have to re-shape our own ideas in light of reports; we have to try and understand different experiences of work in the university system, which diverge from our own. For example we have often had to rethink student experiences in the classroom in light of their expectations and aspirations from the university, which are often very different from our own as individuals.

One manoeuvre that our paper attempts is to present different kinds of university struggle vis-à-vis struggles happening in the factory and in other spaces. Often one sees that university struggles echo struggles happening elsewhere, corresponding issues are addressed, etc. Keeping this in mind, an achievement that can be mentioned here is that late last year, members of The University Worker together with comrades from Zero History initiated a second workers’ inquiry project in Wazirpur, an industrial area in North Delhi. We began by distributing copies of Faridabad Workers News (FMS) and used these to start conversations. Then, once we had enough reports to fill two sides of a newssheet, we began taking our own paper (Wazirpur Majdoor) there. This project is in its early days (we have just printed our second issue) but already connections are emerging, conversations are beginning to open up. As workers, solidarity across spaces is obviously an important concern. In Wazirpur, despite being perceived, by default, as student activists coming in to ‘organise’ the workers, we have often been able to connect with workers over the common condition of contractualisation, and over the question of how to sustain a strike.

This experience in turn informs our other activities. After all, we are not focusing on the university in order to engage with the particularities of the university workers alone. On the contrary, we want to relate this particular moment of the collective worker, the university worker, to other moments, and in that, draw out possibilities of collective struggle against the generalized imposition of the law of value.

CR: Your website explains that “The paper, in addition to instituting an enquiry into present conditions, explores past scenes of battle, keeping alive its strategies by re-reading them in the context of the present.”  Our paper is inspired by a quote from working class intellectual Martin Glaberman who says: “If you’re on a college campus then that’s where you are. The idea that you going into a factory is going to make a significant difference to the working class is nonsense. That you can support workers’ strikes as an intellectual sure. Concretely I think that one of the most important things is some kind of press. Even if it starts out as just a little newsletter that shares ideas, that discusses ideas, that presents experiences.” We both seem to be getting at the same point: a fighting working class movement must be self-conscious; it must know itself and its history. Can you elaborate on exactly how your paper aspires to do this?

UW: Identifying and discussing struggles from the past has been important for us in terms of providing us the vocabulary and the tools to formulate our inquiry. However, our focus has been on “re-reading” them from the point of view of the present context, by asking in what ways can these inquiries help us understand the university today. Some of the struggles and inquiries from the past have been discussed by us in our reading group meetings.

Having said that, we do not see the paper as a consciousness raising tool that we as student/intellectuals will use to raise awareness about working class oppression and thereby ‘help’ the ‘workers’ build a movement around it. Instead the paper tries to move away from any such understanding of the student as a part of a privileged section of society, and from the view that students’ role in the revolution is that of playing the media. We see the student as a worker just like a teacher or a non-teaching staff member in the university or a factory worker outside the university; but because of its unpaid nature, the labour a student performs goes unrecognized.

Consciousness raising is not the work of an outsider, rather consciousness is produced through inquiry. Workers talk to other workers about work and resistance to work, and the paper, like the inquirer participates in this process. We see the paper also as a tool for establishing a dialogue between workers within the university, keeping in mind the different segments into which the working class is divided within this space, with the idea that each space is constituted by labour-capital interaction and antagonism, and that capital’s control is not always already established. The everyday is constituted by a struggle between the imposition and refusal of work. The paper seeks to draw this out, tries to understand the everyday of the university not only in its relation to capital, but also in relation to workers’ resistance to work: in many reports workers will speak of these instances.

Even as we recognize and record experiences of the everyday in the university, we simultaneously also explore the way in which in this everydayness we become workers (as teachers, cleaners, students, researchers, clerks, etc.) and how the university as a space participates in the production/reproduction of value. Insofar as this is the case, we, as insiders to the social factory, need not think of our work as that of extending “outside support” to striking workers elsewhere. We express solidarity by struggling in our own workspaces. Solidarity can only extended after recognizing that we, like industrial workers, occupy another site of production-reproduction.

We borrow much from the experiences of the Italian Autonomists, the Operaismo, etc. What we find particularly useful is the notion of the “Social Factory”. This concept allows us to rethink working class strategy as not limited to the factory floor, something which is essential now that the advancement of the general intellect has led to the absorption of sites of reproduction much more directly into the circuits of capital. It is using this notion that we escape what we think to be the useless binaries of waged-unwaged, productive-unproductive work. Our study circle explores these ideas, and we try to contextualize them for our work.

Why the university? After all, one observes the similar processes in often more intensified forms elsewhere.

You say: “If you’re on a college campus then that’s where you are. The idea that you going into a factory is going to make a significant difference to the working class is nonsense.” For the most part we agree with this line of thinking, and so, firstly, there is no true site/space of class-struggle. We organise where we are. Secondly, perhaps we also need to think about the relevance of the university space in the context of today’s capitalism, in which cognitive labor plays a much more elaborate role than it used to. Capital cannot survive without the labour of workers trained in universities; engineers, lawyers, accountants, managers, IT professionals, social workers etc. Does the emergence of what Bifo Berardi calls the cognitariat (both the chain and the brain workers) change the relevance of the university? There is no need to overemphasize our case, but at the very least we must rethink the university as a site of class-struggle in today’s capitalism. The composition of the working class today – the centrality of cognitive labour and the simultaneous proletarianization of academic labor — must transform our strategy.

CR: The situations in Canada and India may have some similarities, but we are obviously organizing in significantly different contexts. While we’ve drawn inspiration from the 2012 Quebec student strike and the limited successes of the Chicago Teachers Union, we also face the reality of austerity on all fronts and can point to dozens of defeated public sector struggles. What is the lay of the land in India?

UW: India has also seen disinvestment in the public enterprises and especially in the social sector, most markedly since 1991. The change may not seem as pronounced as it is in Canada, but that is greatly because the levels of government investment in the public sector in India were not as high as those in Canada. In addition to disparities connected to gender and caste, 30% of India’s population is still illiterate. School education was not a fundamental right in India till 2009; of course, as is the case with most such guarantees, this new right has not changed anything really. Not even 50% of the children of school-going age are enrolled. Less than a quarter of 16-17 year olds in the country go to high school. At the top of this ugly pyramid, only 8% of those in the relevant age group (18-23 years) enter any form of higher education. This 8% (140 million) of the total population of 1.02 billion is who we address chiefly in our newspaper. All of this goes to highlight the need to extend beyond the university into other education-related workspaces.

We do not have nationwide statistics on employees in higher education. But the nature of work and levels of pay are visible in the data that we collected in this brief period. Disparities exist between government funded and private institutions, and even within government-funded institutions. Those holding professorial posts are part of the highest level of white-collar professionals; these have always been a minority and their ratio is decreasing. These posts are fewer and fewer every year. Lower down the ladder, a vast percentage of assistant professors are temporary workers with very short contracts. Currently, Delhi University is functioning with 4000 ad-hoc teachers (akin to adjuncts in Canada/USA) who have no security benefits and no leaves; they are appointed on four-month contracts, and most have to attend scores of interviews at the end of each semester. There is also a vast number of “guest lecturers” who get paid by the hour. Contractualization impacts clerks, and housekeeping and security staff too. In the past teaching may have been a safe profession, offering many privileges, but we are looking at steady proletarianization that is leveling differences between segments of university workers. Delhi University is a central university (in India the state governments have a degree of autonomy vis-à-vis the union government, so states have state universities, and in addition to these there are some central universities funded directly by the union government), so the condition of contract teachers is relatively better here (though not good by any means!). We know of teachers in state universities who earn as little as Rs.5000 (about 100 Canadian dollars) monthly for teaching a hundred or so hours. There are university security guards who earn more. The point being that our notions of how the working class in the university is segmented will have to change.

There are inter-university segmentations and hierarchies – between public and private universities, between universities run by the Central government and those run by State governments. Fees, facilities, and prestige attached vary sharply across these divides. Traditionally a state-funded university would be substantially cheaper than a private university, but with disinvestment and “public-private partnership” models, this is changing. Public universities are becoming more expensive at an alarming rate.

Struggles within and around the university highlight existing segmentations. In 2006 when the scope of caste-based affirmative action (reservations) was increased from 27% to 50% of the seats (although the share in the population of these social groups is estimated at 75%), there were very violent revolts by upper caste students and teachers. Moreover, somewhat like Quebec, the language question is central to student life here. English is the predominant medium of instruction. There are around 30 official languages across the different states, but adequate attention is not paid to developing learning-teaching material in these languages. The diversity in languages that students speak is even greater. Day-to-day existence in the university becomes a struggle for many students; the curriculum another battle.

Various rationalizing processes are underway in higher education today – the semesterization of courses, and the standardization of syllabi are some of the mechanisms being employed. Every aspect of university work is being quantified. The credit system, familiar to most in the West, is being introduced. Courses are being restructured in a direction that can only be called deskilling. The syllabi and course structures have seen inexplicable (from an academic perspective) and rapid changes in the past three years. Several courses, fairly useless, we, along with the vast majority of students would contend, have been imposed upon students. The idea seems to be to impart certain basic skills, and no more. The degree a student possesses only plays the role of reproducing segmentation in the labour market and has no value in itself. Literature graduates work as copy-editors, earning no more than low level clerks.  Teachers now get employed on the basis of points gained by publishing, teaching, attending seminars and by doing administrative work. There are smaller issues connected to each of these larger changes that we will ignore for the time being.

Although we do address these changes in our practice, we have sought to steer clear of tendencies that romanticize some idea of the university that has to be defended against the incursions of the market. Our emphasis continues to be on the lack of control that students, teachers, and other segments of workers in the university have over their work and workplace. When we engage with questions of imposed changes, we still foreground these structural issues.

CR: As your paper has pointed out, sectionalism and stratification in the education industry are major issues and barriers for organizing. Students, cleaners, teachers, food service workers and many others are required for the universities to run. Both our publications endorse a “wall to wall” industrial model – bringing all the workers in a given institution together to maximize their power. Do you have thoughts on how this can be done concretely?

CR: Universities are contested spaces – they are neither completely elite institutions nor fully working class ones. How should radicals in the universities deal with this tension?

UW: We would like to address the last two questions together. Firstly, what is work and how does one define a worker in relation to the university space? This will allow us to better address the conflict you indicate (elite-working class) as well as the question of stratification/segmentation.

A widely accepted definition of the worker would include anyone who works for monetary compensation (or wage); in the university that encapsulates administrative staff, teachers (tenured and contractual), janitors, etc. In addition to the complications of caste and gender, race and nationality, the university has its own specific forms of segmentation within these paid workers. The care-worker (cooks and cleaners), and even the administrative-worker are easier to fit within the definition of a worker because their work is more obviously alienating, they are paid less than teachers (although as we have demonstrated, this is not always true). The primary form of labour in the university – academic labour – is said to be an elite form of labour. The teacher is paid much more, and commands, usually, more cultural capital too. Even the teacher would not usually call herself a worker; so the usual label of petty-bourgeois/middle class.

Does the current reality within the university really support this notion? The obvious and large-scale proletarianization of a large portion of the teaching workforce across the world has changed matters. The pay is not that high, the work is as gruelling, often more, jobs are insecure, and the loans taken during student years big. The segmentation between the teaching worker and the other paid workers in the university are breaking down. Proletarianization is what allows the new teacher to identify with even the industrial worker. The manner in which the working class is being recomposed by capital in the university is the condition of possibility for new relations between various kinds of workers in the university.

Another reason why universities are thought of as elite spaces is because their largest constituents, the students, are seen to be a privileged lot – only a few can afford a university education. The class position of a student is believed to be determined by her/his family. Also, we are used to seeing students either as commodities that the university produces or consumers who consume services that the university offers. Hence, most students are middle class, although some do come from working-class backgrounds – that is the belief. But if we were to understand class position on the basis of the place a person occupies in the production process, like we think it ought to be understood, then how would we place the student? If the university performs two broad social functions – production of knowledge and (re)production of labour power – then what is the student’s place in it? The production of knowledge through teaching and research is not possible without students (not just research degree students but even undergraduate students contribute to knowledge-production). If the university reproduces labour power, the work that is needed, the hours that have to be spent are spent not just by teachers and care-workers but also students. Without the students’ labour, the labour of teachers, administrative workers, care-workers, etc. will not reach fruition, because workers will not be (re)produced. Here the definition of the worker that we began with runs into a problem. The student is not paid a wage, therefore s/he is not thought of as a worker. Does the lack of a wage mean that they are not workers even though their labour is essential for capital? Rather, just as in the case of housewives, the students too can be thought of as unwaged workers. In the university, the student-worker produces herself as labour; or makes herself employable for capital. Seen as a factory, what the university produces through the range of its practice, are workers who (most often) willingly enter what one might call a long un-waged internship.

Even if one were to theoretically recognise the possibility of thinking of the student as a worker, what is the political usefulness of this theorization? One problem that we face while engaging with student experience is that students are here in the university only for a few years, and so will not be very invested in its problems or in struggles against its problems. This manner of thinking of student years derives from the fact that for students reality/life lies elsewhere, in the future, outside the university. Life is not in the university, it is what the university prepares you for. In our newspaper we explore the life and working experiences of workers currently working in various industries that the university feeds. It is the continuity of the imposition of work, alienation, stealing of time which begins (“begins” is really a figure of speech, for it actually always already begun!) at the university and is an aspect of life under capitalism in general, that we think can break the illusion of the temporariness of the problems of the university. The university is a kind of originary moment; the problems the student learns to live with are problems that constitute life under capitalism. Another political usefulness of the idea can be deduced from all that has been said so far: this conceptualization helps understand the student as one segment of the same working class as teachers, janitors, peons, etc.

The student-worker too of course is internally segmented. Obviously, not all students are the same. In India there are various kinds of schools and universities which further segment an already segmented student body. They introduce new forms of segmentation and reproduce already existing ones. For example a person from a backward socio-economic background is more likely to attend a polytechnic than an engineering college; in the specific kind of segmentation the university system produces (technician and engineer) is reproduced an already existing segmentation (caste-class).

Notwithstanding differences among students there is an all-encompassing and universal imposition of work with almost no regard to the specificity of one’s experience. The university works with a homogenous notion of the “student”. With the massification of Indian universities over the last few decades, conflicts and contestations that brew under the surface of this apparent homogeneity have become visible. The 5th issue dealt with the university’s inability to recognise gender specificities, which make the imposition of a standardised exam-regime a violent suppression of difference. Further, socio-economic inequalities between student-workers ensures that their capacities to engage with course-work and syllabi differ widely, based on how much time and mental energy they expend in order to reproduce themselves physically. It is very common for students here to be working for a wage to make ends meet even as they attend the university. A student with higher cultural capital is in any case unfairly privileged and finds the curriculum much easier. Add to that the disadvantaged student’s need to work, and the gap becomes immense.

As is clear by now, we understand class as a relational category and not as a sociological (Weberian) one. Which is to say that class is not an identity, rather class positions are determined in relation to the capital-labor contradiction.  A person’s income does not adequately identify him/her as a worker/capitalist, etc., although admittedly it is a marker that cannot be ignored. For example, while a male worker occupies the position of a worker in the factory, as surplus value is extracted from him, the same man effectively becomes an agent of capital when through him unwaged labor (housework) is extracted from the housewife. Both the wife and the male industrial worker are moments of the collective worker, but they are also segments embroiled in internal strife. The contestations you mention in your question, we would look upon as the necessary struggle between segments of the working class, the contestations that your question perhaps implied are seen by us as contestations of the different segments of the working class. Segmentation of workers is an essential form of capital’s operations; capital introduces new segmentations based on the technico-social division of labor, and it transforms existing differences into lines of segmentation. Instead of saying that we need to end internal difference to struggle, we would argue that one struggles against capital through struggling against segmentation. If the working class is the agent of revolutionary change and each site of the social factory needs to be thought in terms of working class intervention, then the university too is a site for such intervention. The collective worker also comes to the university, and in the university the collective worker is differentiated into a student, a teacher, administrator, etc.

This leads us to think of a political form that aims at destroying segmentation, and to that end foregrounds it. One of The University Worker’s principal functions is to collectively comprehend how different work processes can be seen through a consistent lens, or try to break through the walls of segmentation, behind which one is a mechanised surplus-value producer. Conflicts between segments of students, between students and teachers (to name a few) can play out here. This is the way we think a conscious recomposition can become possible and the possibility of engagements with workers at other sites opens up. The newspaper-inquiry-general assembly constitute the form we are beginning to consider adequate to our struggle.