A call to the youth of the world to support the Spanish student strike


Messages of support, videos and photos expressing support from youth and student organisations, trade unionists (especially in education sector) and other organisations should be sent to sindicato@sindicatodeestudiantes.net

26 October: General student strike! In defense of public education!

On 26 October, students throughout the Spanish state will vacate our classrooms, to fight against policies which are destroying public education. As in many other countries, our right-wing government has applied massive cuts to public education and put in place various counter-reforms, which seek to make education accessible only to those who can afford to pay for it.

We students who hail from working class families – the overwhelming majority of students – have suffered the degradation of our schools and universities, a shortage of teachers and resources, the elimination of government assistance to students from more humble backgrounds, and hikes of up to 66% in university fees. These reforms have meant the exclusion of tens of thousands of students from university, overcrowding in classrooms and the imposition of the study of Catholic religion… Meanwhile, the governments of PSOE (former social democratic, “Socialist” Party) and the PP (traditional right wing) have dedicated untold quantities of public money to save the banks and pay for a debt which we didn’t create (more than €250 billion paid in the last 6 years).

As if all this wasn’t enough, this summer the government passed one of the most savage attacks on public education yet: the Francoist “re-validations”. These are a series of exams to be taken at the end of primary, secondary and post-secondary (“bachillerato”) education. Passing these exams will be essential in order to continue studying and to be awarded the qualification corresponding to that level of education. These “re-validations” are not new for us. Our parents had to suffer them under the Franco dictatorship, when they were used as a sort of filter, to stop working class young people from reaching university.

Now they want to impose this filter again, which could see hundreds of thousands of youths, between 14 and 16 years old prematurely expelled from studies, with no academic qualifications. The government’s motives are simple: if young people from working class families await only a future or precariousness and exploitation at work, why would they spend any money on our education? For families with more resources, the situation is different. They do not suffer the impact of cuts in the same way, as they have access to private one-to-one tuition, private academies and all else they need. For them, passing these new exams will not be a problem.

If this attack is carried through, we are talking about returning to an era in which education was only something for a privileged minority. The objective is to destroy public education and turn it into a market service, from which private education bosses can make big profits. However, the right to education for all was won at the cost of huge effort and struggle. Our parents and grandparents fought hard to achieve it and we can’t let them take it from us!

For this reason, the Students Union is calling on all young people in the Spanish state to participate in a general strike in education on 26 October, to empty the classrooms and fill the streets. There are already more than 70 demonstrations planned all over the Spanish state. The strike has already won the support of the Confederation of Parents’ Associations (CEAPA) and of numerous teachers’ unions, with whom we will be organizing joint demonstrations in the afternoon on 26 October.

We call on the youth of the world, who all suffer along with us the attacks and cuts to education by pro-capitalist governments, to support us on this day – with protests at Spanish embassies, messages and videos expressing solidarity with us, expressions of support on social media and anything else which occurs to you.

The struggle of the youth for their rights is one and the same throughout the world!

No to the Francoist re-validations!

Workers sons and daughters to university!

Fuck Your Solidarity

The following article appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Action Speaks Louder — published biannually by OPIRG Toronto.

By Ellie Ade Kur

At the 2015 CUPE National convention in Vancouver, a resolution hit the floor to expand our union’s National Executive Board by four seats reserved for diversity reps from equity-seeking caucuses. From our section in the back we watched dozens of people rise, speaking at con mics: “people need to earn these positions”, “if more minorities wanted to be on the executive board, they’d run”, and, my favorite cringe-worthy moment, “talking about our differences breaks our solidarity.” The motion was defeated to thunderous applause, and immediately after the convention hall (3,000 members strong) was coached through the song Solidarity Forever by CUPE’s in-house band.

This is one of my most vivid memories of union organizing–my first national convention and a staggering moment of defeat for the progressive trade-unionists running the campaign for better representation on our National Executive Board. In many ways this loss reflects some of the most pressing blind spots in CUPE organizing to date – the idea that issues of equity, inclusion and social justice are second to labour management models of unionism.

My name is Ellie Ade Kur. I’m a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Toronto (UofT). I served on 3902’s Executive Committee following the Unit 1 strike in March of 2015 and resigned 8 months into my term because of rampant issues of anti-Black racism, bigotry and harassment. I was controversial in my role because I was adamant about what I like to call ‘unapologetic transparency’, where executive members and those privy to information from the employer allow members to access, critique and shape responses and organizing efforts. I believe in collaborative organizing that is accessible and driven by the will of those most heavily impacted, emphasizing participation from equity-seeking groups at UofT.  And for these reasons I have been the subject of ongoing threats and harassment in my union. We need to talk about anti-Black racism, social justice and equity work in union spaces.

Who is Prioritized in Union Organizing?

 Thinking about issues of equity and social justice typically comes second to imposing this labour management model of trade-unionism, which demands Union staff and executives act as middle-men between rank and file members and the employer. When union executives decide that it is their job to act as middle-men between rank and file membership and the employer, they often commit themselves to a position that asks membership to capitulate to the demands of the University for the sake of incremental gains. This labour management model of unionism also requires executive committee members to maintain strong, friendly relationships with those working for labour relations. It wasn’t uncommon for my colleagues to talk about shifting their gaze away from things like direct action, protesting and member-based organizing. “If I have to sit across from Labour Relations, I can’t be rude,” was a common line and excuse used to justify inaction. It’s also not uncommon from executive members to become so wrapped up in maintaining these relationships with the employer that they forget about the demands and interests of their members.

Detached from these perspectives are the views and experiences of seasoned organizers in Union spaces who, more often than not, come from marginalized communities: queer, racialized, sex-working students and academic workers. Because unions don’t typically champion the politics and perspectives of the most marginalized, we see a lack of education and awareness in these spaces when it comes to pressing political concerns around issues of anti-Black racism, anti-poverty organizing, policing, status, related social movements. In CUPE 3902, we still struggle to connect Black Lives Matter and anti-racism work to union development when Black women and racialized members are threatened, harassed and disrespected by those who think anti-racism work is a distraction from the goals of the union. In CUPE 3902, issues of sexual violence during the Unit 1 strike went unreported and unresolved when union reps and strike coordinators told those disclosing to “focus on the goals of the strike.” Equity work and fighting inequality are seen as something secondary to this labour management model of union operations and a rigid focus on building a relationship with the employer. The reality is: if you can’t walk into a union space and feel safe, secure and heard, these elusive ‘goals of the strike’ or ‘goals of the union’ aren’t built around you and your needs. In this way, the most marginalized communities on our campus are overlooked and pushed out because they aren’t being heard, especially when they report sexual violence, threats, harassment, anti-Black racism, etc.

When labour movements are disconnected from the realities of their most marginalized members, they are disconnected from the roots, realities, and motivations of their most powerful, resilient and creative organizers. Considerations of social justice, equity and inclusion are the foundation of a strong labour movement and strong organizing. Thinking about equity and inclusion in the context of bargaining and negotiations means collective agreements do not allow particularly vulnerable groups to slip through the cracks, for example, securing strong health coverage for academic workers and their families and minimum funding packages at (ideally above!) the poverty line. Equity audits and bargaining built on inclusion point to agreements prioritizing workers from equity seeking groups, in settings where they excel: small classrooms, tutorials, appropriate compensation and strong support networks.

Organizing with Solidarity in Mind

In the 2015 Unit 1 strike, organizing with solidarity in mind would have looked like the explicit mention of undergraduates and faculty at the University in ways that weren’t tangentially connected to benefits for communities outside of the union: smaller classes and tutorials, more time allocated to students and grading on  Description of Duties and Allocation of Hours (DDAH) forms, reducing tuition fees, and a commitment from the University of Toronto to pay everyone at or above the poverty line. If CUPE were interested in building long-standing networks with students, faculty and staff at the University, our goal would have been consultation, collective negotiation and collaboration with student unions and faculty organizations on campus.

In the aftermath of the Unit 1 strike, many of our members felt demobilized and disheartened. My role on the executive was to connect with other student and labour organizations on campus, coordinate member-driven organizing initiatives, and mobilize our communities through social and political forms of action. It isn’t possible to touch on themes of political action and exploitation without thinking about marginalization, social justice and critical equity work within the union. That requires us to shift our understanding of equity, inclusion and social justice work in CUPE 3902. These are the foundation of strong movements. With this in mind, I organized rallies, protests, events, workshops, and information sessions to mobilize members, start conversations about political action and the labour movement and force UofT’s Governing Council to respond. I worked to repair tense relationships between our union and student organizations on campus feeling tokenized following the strike; revive political energy and action with other locals on campus; and connect our struggles with the University to broader issues of corporatization at UofT with progressive faculty organizers on campus.

 I resigned from my role on the executive committee because of rampant issues of anti-Black racism and bigotry. I resigned after widespread threats from members of our Union promising to find me, ‘teach me a lesson’ and silence my views on critical equity and social justice work as they were distracting from ‘the work of the union’. These messages came at me from every direction: on campus, online, calls, texts, emails, etc. For eight months I was the only member of the executive committee structuring their role around meeting and organizing with rank and file members of the Union and using the language of liberation to structure our work. For eight months I subjected myself to threatening emails, text messages and calls, while organizing members to engage in union politics. I organize using methods that embrace collective action. I believe that rank and file members are the ones who hold the key to the knowledge and strategies to help us move forward. And I believe that once you are elected to do this kind of work, you are indebted to the membership.

When leaders don’t bother to invest in organizing or outreach, and actively shame people doing mobilizing work, they are scared of their members and the power of a strong, informed, organized union base. Members hold power: the power to elect officials, shape policy, bargaining practices and demands, as well as the power of oversight. When members are allowed to access the same information as executive committees, they are better able to hold leadership accountable. In the context of CUPE 3902, a union whose executive is largely comprised of the same faces changing positions from year-to-year, these executive roles are coveted. Elected leaders do not want members, particularly active, critical and politicized members to participate in these spaces. Political action, direct action, member-engaged organizing strategies- all of these things work to shift power and authority off of executive members and onto the membership. That kind of accountability terrifies executive members I’ve worked with, because it would force them to get political and get organizing. It would highlight their inappropriate use of union funds and resources: paying each other out in honorariums, using union funds to buy each other gifts, double salaries, hire friends, and secure jobs at the University or within larger divisions of CUPE.

 The labour movement isn’t anyone’s playground for a better job opportunity – it’s a political struggle for workers rights that has the power to better the lives of some of our most vulnerable communities. When our leadership actively works against member-driven organizing, or against pushes for critical equity work, they silence the voices, concerns and demands of those with the most to lose. A friendly relationship with senior admin at the University is not more valuable than an engaged membership ready to organize with other student and labour groups on campus. It is not the job of executive officers to ‘sell’ anything to their members: executive officers work for us. They are elected to do carry out the will of the membership and need to be held accountable for abusing power, withholding information, and demobilizing communities.

When unions like CUPE 3902 replicate the same hierarchical (and exclusionary) forms of top-down leadership that the University relies on, prioritizing relationships with senior admin over the struggles of members living in poverty, we have a problem. When there is no emphasis on union development, training organizers, creating support systems and political action groups to challenge and improve on how we function as a union, there is no growth. These practices exclude the most marginalized members – poor, working-class, BIPOC/racialized members, new immigrants, single parents and families with dependents, workers with disabilities and members disproportionately exposed to harassment and intimidation. When unions like CUPE 3902 shut these voices out of the process, we get creative in our organizing. In order to survive we rely on creative forms of action that the apolitical cannot replicate: grounded forms of member-engagement, public education and political action. These are not easy forms of organizing. These methods lead to a lot of uncomfortable conversations and require patience, unlearning and a dedication to building spaces for as many members as is possible. Often we need to break our solidarity down to build it properly.

Statement to York’s Senate regarding the Dahdaleh donation

Below is the text of Professor Ricardo Grinspun’s statement to the York University Senate regarding the decision to award Victor Dahdelah an honorary degree and rename a building on campus in his honour.

Earlier this month I wrote to Senate Executive asking for an item of Other Business to discuss the donation from philanthropist Victor Dahdaleh. I also put forward a hortatory motion that expressed disapproval of the university’s decision to accept a donation from him and to give him an honorary doctorate and name an important building and a research institute after him. Dahdaleh received an honorary doctor of laws degree on June 20. The TEL building has been renamed the Victor Phillip Dahdaleh Building in recognition of a $20 million donation, and the University has also announced the establishment of The Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health.

In the rationale for the motion, I wrote that given York University’s formal commitment to academic integrity and service to social justice, the University should not be honouring a businessman whose financial dealings have made troubling headlines[i] around the world or celebrating him as a representative of the university and as someone our graduates should emulate.

According to a news release from the CBC, Victor Dahdaleh has been featured in news stories about his “battle with criminal charges and a billion-dollar lawsuit on two continents over an international bribery scandal — all the while forging close ties with a trio of Canadian universities.” [ii]

Referring to the so-called “Panama Papers,” the CBC adds:

The huge leak of offshore financial records reveals Dahdaleh, a… metals magnate, is indeed, as long suspected, the mysterious middleman known in U.S. court documents as “Consultant A” — described as having handed out tens of millions of dollars in inducements to officials at a Persian Gulf smelting company in exchange for supplier contracts that went to one of the world’s biggest aluminum conglomerates.

Dahdaleh denies any wrongdoing and was acquitted in a British criminal trial, but his client, a unit of aluminum industry heavyweight Alcoa, pleaded guilty to a U.S. bribery charge in 2014 as a result of the scandal. With its parent company, it paid one of the biggest-ever anti-corruption penalties in American history — $384 million US.

York’s association with Mr. Dahdale has also become news. The Toronto Star reports[iii] that

The Canadian middleman in a massive international “corruption scheme,” in which U.S. officials say he “enriched himself” with $400 million (U.S.) in markups and made “at least $110 million in corrupt payments,” was celebrated by York University with an honorary degree Monday.

It’s the second prestigious honour Victor Phillip Dahdaleh has received from York recently. Last year, the university minted a new global health institute in his name following a $20-million donation Dahdaleh made to the university.

According to York’s guidelines on honorary degrees, “At this rite of passage [convocation] the University… personalizes its abstract ideals through the granting of honorary degrees to people whose achievements represent the values the University cherishes, whose benefactions have strengthened the community and the institution, and whose public lives are deemed worthy of emulation by the graduands.” The pervasive and widely documented questions about the ethics of Mr. Dahdale’s business affairs and the history of his money surely do not position him well to “represent the values the University cherishes” and thus, should have prevented him from receiving such an honor.

According to David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers,

There was clearly in this particular case some serious questions about the ethical behaviour of this individual … I think all the institutions have to practise a bit more due diligence… If there’s any concerns about violation of ethical standards or any other legal issues, donations should be rejected. I think it sullies the name of a university or college if it’s associated with an unsavoury business or character.

As the top body responsible for the University’s academic mission, it is incumbent upon Senate to express its view regarding the decisions that brought about such a negative impact on the University’s academic reputation.

What happened after I submitted the motion was instructive. Senate Executive, which in my interpretation behaved like an appendix of the President and Board of Governors rather than the executive of a deliberative body, chose not to rule the motion in order although they had no valid reasons to vote it out of order. Thus they simply excluded it from the Agenda package, sacrificing collegial governance and the right of Senate to discuss and express its view on a matter that has negatively affected York’s academic reputation.

These are usual results when rich men give donations to public institutions (on purpose referring to “men,” the source of most of these large donations). I asked that the “other business” agenda item be titled “Donation from philanthropist Victor Dahdaleh”. Senate Executive changed it to “Due Diligence in the Acceptance of Gifts and the Recognition of Donors.” This is misleading, as it suggests York lacked due diligence in checking Mr. Dahdaleh’s background. Is it credible that they knew nothing of these matters? Let’s face it: York went ahead fully aware of all the relevant information – it chose money over York’s values and reputation.

York is in good company here; Mr. Dahdaleh has been honoured by the London School of Economics and McGill University, among others. This does not seem to have sheltered Mr. Dahdeleh from critical reporting on his business achievements, as his legal battles are still the subject of news stories today.

The fact that Executive didn’t want Mr. Dahdaleh’s name in the Agenda item is not surprising. Academic freedom and free speech are often impacted by such donations, as the overriding motivation is to get the money. An implicit or explicit part of the agreements is branding, and for the donor, the opportunity to buy respectability, since their main line of business may give them power and money but not necessarily respectability.

In the secret agreement for Peter Munk’s donation to U-T – later leaked out and now available online – the protection of his branding is spelled out as a commitment. Secrecy and a perversion of academic planning – affected by those confidential agreements – is now inherent to these donations. At York, the secret agreement with Seymour Schulich has allegedly influenced academic planning for decades, and we don’t know if secret agreements with other York benefactors are also secretly influencing decisions on, for example, the organization and ranking of disciplines, the distribution of full time faculty hiring among different faculties, or research priorities.

All this represents an aberration of public policy, part of a gradual privatization of university education. As governments curtail funding, the pressure to seek private funding increases. Since donations represent capital funding, they distort forever the distribution of operational funding that must support the university’s intellectual and physical infrastructure. As donations represent massive legal tax avoidance mechanisms, much of this money comes from you and me, and from the students’ parents, not from the donor. Government often steps in to match the donor’s money, thus increasing public expenditures for private priorities. In the case of the infamous CIGI agreement with York, which was rejected by the faculty of the Osgoode Law School for its interference with academic freedom, most of the money would come from the public, not from Jim Balsillie.

The matters here are consequential. York is currently searching for a new president and the terms of reference speak directly to her/his ability to bring big money for York’s recently announced major fundraising campaign. Upholding York’s values and attracting big financial donors often do not go hand in hand. Which will have the upper hand?

[i] A detailed account of the allegations and the legal processes in the U.K. and United States can be found here:  http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-08-14/billionaire-found-in-middle-of-bribery-case-avoids-u-s-probe

The concerns are not recent; see, for example, this 2008 article: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/the-mystery-of-victor-dahdaleh/article18447616/

[ii] http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/panama-papers-victor-dahdaleh-alcoa-bribery-case-1.3598527

[iii] https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/06/20/panama-papers-businessman-honoured-by-york-university.html. See also: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/panama-papers-victor-dahdaleh-york-university-honorary-degree-1.3644284

“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.