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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If collective bargaining becomes political speech…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labor needs a Plan B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The University Worker: A conversation with fellow workers from India

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Precarity Comes to the University: The Working Life of a 21st Century Tutor

Undergraduate and graduate student enrolment at universities across North American have been increasing steadily for decades. Yet hiring for tenure-track faculty positions has not increased proportionately. The outcome of these contradictory trends has been an expansion of undergraduate class sizes alongside the growth of a reserve army of academic labourers competing within an ever more constricted academic labour market. In this context, university teaching is being increasingly offloaded onto those phd-holders fortunate enough to obtain ad hoc sessional lecturer positions, which last four months a-piece. With growing class sizes, and footloose sessional instructors, the quality of undergraduate education suffers. Those phd-holders crowded out of the sessional lecturer market, yet who remain committed to education work, find themselves scrambling for employment as precarious ESL teachers or independent tutors. The precarious academic worker of today is thus an effect of a restructured, profit-oriented university system.

The following text presents an interview with one such individual who outlines the conditions of living and working as a precarious academic labourer today.


ClassRoom: How did you end up working as a tutor? (What are your credentials, what other education jobs have you worked?)

Tutor: I’ve been tutoring on and off for about 10 years.  I got my start as an undergrad in an on campus tutoring center, worked at another on campus tutoring center while getting my masters, and worked occasionally under the table while a PhD student.  In the latter case, all of the tutoring I did came from answering queries posted on the department listserv from students seeking a tutor.  My current work as a tutor has come from friends of mine who introduced me to people who needed tutoring.

My most recent tutoring work came about because the last teaching assistant contract I had ran out and I was unable to find work elsewhere.  Despite sending off at least a dozen applications to different universities and colleges in Southern Ontario, I’ve been out of work since April.

As noted above, my credentials are my advanced degrees and 10 years of tutoring experience.  I have also worked as a course instructor, a teaching assistant, and marker-grader.

CR: What ways have you tried to find work?

T: I initially looked for work by asking my friends who are instructors or teaching assistants if they had any students who needed tutoring.  I then printed flyers and posted them around my alma mater’s campus and another campus.  This resulted in three students contacting me to tutor them, but, ultimately, none of these panned out.  I also applied to jobs at tutoring centers.  This led to three interviews, but no jobs with any of the places I interviewed with.  One place interviewed me four times for a tutoring job that would have only been a few hours a week and paid only $20 an hour before ultimately not hiring me.

CR: What are your wages and working conditions like?

T: My wages vary widely from $20 to $55 an hour.  If the student is an undergrad who seems to be paying their own way, then I will charge $20 an hour.  However, if the student appears to be wealthier or has parents who are wealthy and paying, then I will charge closer to $55 an hour.

The working conditions are extremely precarious and thus stressful.  There are no paid sick days, no benefits, and if a student does not pay, there is no recourse.  It is very different from being an instructor or teaching assistant where the pay is still bad and the work precarious, but it least it’s regular while the contract lasts.  A student could drop at any time for any reason.

For instance, I met with a student and he agreed to be tutored two times a week for $20 an hour.  He was supposed to e-mail me more information about his course, but I never heard from him again.

Also, some students act more arrogantly and amorally with a freelance tutor than they do with an instructor or teaching assistant.  For example, a student wanted me to help him with his writing sample for his graduate school applications.  He told me that he wants to get into Harvard.  I spent an hour on the phone with him telling him that he could expect to be poor and unemployed once he obtained his PhD.  He responded by telling me that I was unemployed because I don’t have any publications.  I told him that even those PhDs with publications in top journals, and who have sent in applications across the English-speaking world, and they can’t get interviews.  Once we settled on the details of my tutoring him, he told me that he could find other students in need of tutoring too.  I was grateful to him until he told me that he wanted a finder’s fee of 10%.  I told him that I had spent an hour with him telling him what he could expect during and after grad school, and did not expect any remuneration from him.  After I told him that, he agreed that he did not need to be paid a finder’s fee.  An hour after I got off the phone with him he called me back to ask if I would ghostwrite an essay for a friend.  His friend would pay me $50 for a 750-word paper.  I was aghast and refused.  I was supposed to call him back two weeks later to start tutoring him, but I didn’t want to work with him anymore.  I don’t know what I would have done if I did not have savings and the support of my family to help me not have to work for just anybody.

CR: Who are your clients? Who typically ends up with a private tutor like you?

T: So far, my clients are a student at a prestigious private high school and a York University student.  The former student comes from a wealthy family, so I charge his parents $50 an hour.  I found him through a friend who used to tutor under the table while doing her PhD.  She is now a full-time professor at Seneca College, so she passed this student onto me.  The latter student has a disability and is reimbursed by York’s Disability Center.  I charge her $35 an hour.  A friend of mine who is an instructor at York was approached by one of her students looking for a tutor.

CR: Tutoring seems extremely isolating. Do you ever interact with other tutors?

T: It is isolating.  The only other tutor I’ve interacted with was a tutor I recognized as a customer at York’s former grad pub.  He is an older guy who is a full-time free-lance tutor.  I saw him on campus in September when I was posting flyers.  He was on his way somewhere and I asked him some quick questions.  Basically he told me that he started tutoring by posting flyers around campus and he has been able to survive on word of mouth since then.  He also told me he charges $35 an hour.  I didn’t ask about his credentials or what he tutors as he seemed to be in a hurry.  Other than this one meeting, I have not interacted with any other tutors.

CR: There has been some interesting organizing by ESL teachers in recent years (for example the work of the IWW and the Angry Language Brigade in the UK). What possibilities, if any, do you see for organizing precarious education workers like yourself?

T: I briefly looked at the Angry Language Brigade’s organizing advice and looks like it geared toward ESL centers and not free-lancers.  In terms of organizing free-lance tutors on a campus such as York’s, finding out where they go for lunch helps.  If the grad pub at York were still open, then it would be easy to find them and talk to them.  As for free-lancers who don’t work with university students, I don’t know how to go about organizing them.  There is a freelancers union online that has resources to help members with clients who won’t pay and things like that.  I just discovered them, so I don’t know how helpful they could be.

CR: What are the major challenges those who are interested in organizing with precarious education workers?

T: The greatest challenge is simply finding the workers to organize them in the first place.

The second would probably be getting over the perception that unionism is a bad thing.  I am only going by how the freelance tutors I met at York responded to the strike by CUPE 3903 in 2008-09.  They were unhappy with us (I was a member then) because we taking away business for them and they did not know how they were going to survive in the meantime.  When I brought up the issues over which we were on strike they were dismissive and simply reiterated how they were being negatively affected.

Lastly, I don’t know what kind of tactics could be used when often are work place is the students home or café.

 

“There is a reason the old cleaners seem to have a limp in their step”: Wobbly Cleaners Reflect on Work and Organizing at a Canadian University

In early 2014 two IWW members commenced the early groundwork necessary for a union campaign of cleaners at an Atlantic Canadian university. The campaign was cut short before it could even really begin when both IWW organizers were laid off as part of a massive reduction of cleaning staff for the summer. This cost saving layoff was unprecedented, the result of the current state of austerity at university campuses across Canada.

We initially interviewed Khan and Yves (Ed: we’ve changed their names to protect their identities), the IWW organizers involved in the campaign in April 2014, about a month before they were laid off. After their layoffs, we held off on publishing the interview as it was initially unclear if the campaign was over or not. After reviewing it recently, we’ve decided to publish it now as a retrospective piece. We think that the analysis here could be useful to education worker-organizers in future campaigns.

With some distance form the campaign, we followed up with Khan and Yves, asking an additional question reflecting on the value of the campaign in hindsight.


ClassRoom: Can you start by telling us a bit about your work and your working conditions?

Khan: Yves and I work for a subcontractor, cleaning at a medium-sized university in Atlantic Canada. The university contracted out the cleaning to this company a number of years ago. The wages are only a little above minimum wage, with non-supervisors making $10.75 per hour. We are not unionized.

Yves: People don’t realize how hard this work is. I didn’t fully appreciate the job until I started. Despite being young and physically fit, I find the job incredibly taxing on my body. There is a reason the old cleaners seem to have a limp in their step (but they still manage to outpace me), the job destroys your body after repeated lifting and scrubbing. The worst is when those on campus obviously don’t respect the work it takes to keep the campus clean: garbage strewn on the floor, or goddamn full cups of coffee thrown in the trash which inevitably will leak out while I’m carrying it down the hall and have to be mopped up. Once, I made it carrying an extremely leaky bag the whole length of a cafeteria before realizing the long spill I had left on the floor.

CR: Cleaners aren’t exactly the first people that come to mind when someone mentions education workers. Can you explain the logic of organizing along industrial lines instead of by trade?

K: Seeing the university as one workplace that requires all the workers and students to function is important. The cleaners are one essential piece of the functioning university. If we refuse to work, garbage is not cleaned up and the washrooms will stink up entire buildings to the point that no one will want to enter. If the food service workers refuse to work, people go hungry and decaffeinated. The list goes on. The withdrawal of students and professors from the equation are often the two most highlighted strategies of disrupting or shutting down the university. And it is true that these are the key components (learning and teaching) of the university. But the other pieces are still important and those in the other groups need to ensure we are included in a collective organizing process, so as to avoid the pitfalls of exclusion.

Fighting alone often means that gains in one place can mean losses in another: increased salaries can lead to raised tuition, a zero sum game. If the whole campus is organized to act together, to take collective and coordinated direct action, namely various forms of strike action, then a greater potential can be realized by effectively shutting down the whole campus. Additionally, when organized together, we can fight efforts of the university and province to play a zero sum game with us.

Y: The work of cleaners is essential to education work. People talk about “good learning environments.” We’re the ones who actually take care of the physical environment of a school. I’d also add that organizing together industrially is required in order to get past this the zero sum game and into more political demands like securing the required funding for free education and the allocation of resources from the province to the university. We need to fight not only our bosses, but the austerity regime as a whole which comes from the state.

CR: How significant is it that you and the people you see at work everyday have different employers?

K: It is a fact. Cleaning was sub-contracted out a number of years ago. The division is something that has to be contended with. Ideally cleaning services are re-included as a division within the university. The present condition means that when we are fighting for better conditions, we are dealing with our company during the life of their contract with the University. We recently missed the opportunity to apply pressure on the University Administration about the subcontract issue when the company was awarded a new contract in a successful bid.

Regardless of the fact it is a separate company we are operating with – Sodexo food service workers are in a similar condition – versus most other workers and students on campus who are employed by or enrolled in the university, action we take on the job affects the university as a whole. It is important to recognize the practical effect of our actions and not get wrapped up in the university webs of dissociation from us. We are still university workers.

Also, at the end of the day, the university is still responsible. They pay the cleaning company that employs us and there are terms and conditions that must be met on both sides. If we can strategically interfere with the meeting of these conditions to our own benefit, it can give us some leverage. That would be something to research. The sub-contract adds another official layer to contend with; that is all.

CR: Are there potential problems in organizing workers with potentially different interests into the same organization? (Students, professors, staff, etc)?

Y: Like in the working class as a whole, campus workers have dividing sectional interests that need to be bridged. At the university where we work, the contract professors made an unsuccessful bid to form their own union, and when it failed, reluctantly joined the full time professors’ faculty union. The contract faulty were afraid that their voices would be drowned out if they were lumped in with the full time faculty.

The contract professors know what we all know – the campus has a limited operating budget and the groups of workers with the strongest leverage will win themselves the biggest piece of the pie. This typically means full time professors get theirs first, then other teaching and support staff, with cleaners and food service workers being somewhere at the bottom.

[Ed: According to Yves, this is why, in the current (real or imagined) fiscal crisis of the university, the cleaners saw unprecedented seasonal layoffs.].

K: Building the industrial union means engaging in a process of identifying separate interests that have developed and finding ways to bridge them. The bigger picture is taking on the university governance structure itself. We have to establish enough common ground to be able to fight together. It will be built through struggle. But any struggle can’t be expected to lead to positive resolutions without an organizing structure that is built to keep us fighting alongside each other. There must be a confluence between the two.

Y: Here’s a concrete example of what we’re talking about: During the recent full time professor’s strike at our university, the food service workers on campus received reduced hours. Khan, myself and some radicals in the professors union made a point of drawing the union’s attention to this. The union responded by creating a fund for the affected workers. This was only a small example of solidarity that works to bridge the very real divides among campus workers.

CR: What specific challenges do you think you are going to face in your campaign?

K: Turnover and language barriers are major challenges with organizing janitors.

A lot of people only keep the jobs for a short period of time until they find something better. In my own case, I will be a law student next fall and do not intend to keep the cleaning job. I will be switching to the student hat.

The challenge with organizing people who are only around for relatively short amount of time is fairly obvious: perceived lack of incentive for investing time into organizing and an inability to effectively organize because they are not around for long. Even if such temporary workers do begin to organize, then leave, which will happen in an organizing campaign, there needs to be recruitment of replacements as well as transferring knowledge between old and new organizers. But new people then have to build trust, so this is challenging.

The language barriers are an issue because the company hires a lot of people who are new migrants (not certain about whether they are TFWs) / refugees to Canada, and some of these people seem to stick around for a while (years). There are a number who I think are refugees from Nepal, for example. While such workers may be agitated, it may be hard to communicate issues back and forth without some translation assistance. Additionally, there may be some tentativeness in actually organizing because these particular workers (low levels of English proficiency and previous skills from countries of origin not recognized) have very few options for employment. While international students may have some options for employment on campus, their prospects off campus are restricted by law, so they are also vulnerable.

Additionally, people are so spread out throughout campus, so finding all the cleaners is not easy.

CR: Cleaners have been the subject of several high profile union organizing campaigns in recent memory – like the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors and the IWW’s London cleaners’ campaign in 2012. Is there something particular about cleaners that makes this the case?

K: Our work is some of the most degraded in society. We pick up after people. We are paid in accordance with our social value. We are talked down to like children by management. Anyone with a semblance of dignity will resent that. So, the impetus for organizing is there, but the deterrents are currently overwhelming, as I’ve referred to with our relatively non-existent protection and turnover. The challenges can be overcome, but it will take dedicated organizing and support from other workers and students in our industry.

Y: There’s been a lot of interest in the conditions of low waged workers lately. It might mean that there’s potential to win better wages and conditions and that’s great. At work you can feel really isolated, typically working on particular tasks by yourself. There’s a certain empowerment that comes with an organizing campaign, a self-respect that comes with organizing and challenges the notions of our work being lesser. Seeing fast food workers striking in Manhattan is really cool and makes lots of workers, myself included, a little bit more optimistic. But, at the end of the day, our organizations need to be substantive and self-reliant. We need to move beyond merely appealing to the public and to leveraging victories based on our real economic and political power.

CR: Was the work that you put into this campaign worth it? Do you regret anything? Did you learn anything that you will take to new organizing efforts?

K: The main thing is that we had ideas, we talked about the lay of the land but we never had a chance to put our plan into action. If we would have started the process much sooner we might have gotten more ahead. But it was a very difficult organizing project that we were trying to take up.

These kinds of jobs don’t last for long and high turnover endemic. If we had a plan for how to continue the campaign even if we were laid off or fired we might have really been able to make something of it.

Y: From a personal standpoint it was worth it. As someone interested in workplace organizing I was able to hone and develop skills and think about the nature of union organizing in education work. It was disappointing that we were laid off right at a point that we were looking to set up one-on-one meetings with our coworkers. Our main contacts were laid off too. The company cut the head off a potential organizing drive without even realizing it. We felt like the campaign had real potential and it was shitty that it ended without having anything to do with us – it was the economy.

I learned that it is really, like really, easy to get people agitated about low wage work. But turning the conversation towards imagining how things can be better can take a lot of effort and requires coming back to conversations again and again. Ultimately, the union is built through conversations with our coworkers and its something we will all have to work on forever.

Quebec Fights Back Against Austerity

The following blogpost comes to us from Pete Dolack, the author of Systemic Disorder.


We are supposed to accept austerity as being as natural as ocean tides. Or be demoralized by the power of the forces that continually press down on working people around the world. But there is an ongoing, organized fightback going on — in Québec.

A series of rolling strikes by public-sector employees and students throughout 2015 appear to be headed toward a provincial general strike in December. Haven’t heard of this? That is not because it is francophone workers and students are who are driving these actions but because there has been a near total blackout of this news in the North American corporate media.

It would be all too easy to assume that that the owners and managers of corporate-media outlets don’t wish you to know that such fightbacks are possible. That may be so in some cases; it is more likely that the activity of working people, as opposed to the proclamations of business elites, simply aren’t seen as “news.” Read through the business section of your local newspaper — you will find it chock full of hand-wringing on behalf of corporate interests, with neoliberal ideology presented as the only possible orientation.

There are other possibilities, and such alternatives are being loudly put forth in Québec. Although the outcome of the current struggles for a fair contract for public-sector workers and increased support for education are far from being settled — much less the larger social issues thrown up by the neoliberal project — victories have been won, going back to the Maple Spring of 2012.

The 2012 student strike was so successful that it caused the provincial government to fall. The Québec government, then controlled by the Liberal Party, intended to raise tuition by 75 percent over three years. Protests and strikes quickly blossomed, shutting down universities and leading to street battles as police repeatedly attacked near daily demonstrations that sometimes numbered more than 100,000 as students were joined in large numbers by older people. The Liberal government dug in its heels, not only refusing to negotiate seriously but passing a law making the demonstrations illegal.

After months of struggle, the government called an early election, which it lost, ushering in a Parti Québecois government that promptly rescinded the tuition increases, canceled the anti-demonstration laws and, in an environmental gesture, reversed the Liberal support for fracking. Unfortunately, this victory is also an exemplary lesson of how capitalist reforms are ephemeral: The Parti Québecois ultimately failed to live up to its promises, itself called an early election, and was handed a stinging defeat, bringing the Liberal Party back to power.

Back in office, back to attacking

Québec’s new Liberal Party government, now headed by Premier Philippe Couillard, resumed its neoliberal assault. (A lesson that ought be borne in mind by those celebrating last month’s national election by Justin Trudeau.) The Québec government seeks to impose a de facto wage cut (offering a three percent increase over five years, well below the rate of inflation), institute a two-tier wage scale, raise the retirement age and cut pensions. In education, Premier Couillard wants to add eight hours to the workweek, cut teacher staffing for special-education students by two-thirds and impose drastic cuts in funding. For health care, he wants to impose funding cuts, more forced overtime and greater number of patients per nurse.

The Québec government claims a lack of money is behind its austerity measures, yet it had no hesitation in handing Bombardier Inc., one of the province’s biggest corporations, a $1 billion subsidy this year. Bombardier did report a loss in 2014 and is in the red for this year, but only due to accounting tricks; it reported $2.8 billion in net income for the previous four years.

As always, there is plenty of money for corporate handouts. Ideology, then, is the real reason behind these attacks. This has not gone unnoticed, by either the students or the working people who are uniting to fight back. Camille Godbout, spokesperson for the student group Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), said:

“Often, we are asked why we, the students, are mobilizing ourselves against austerity measures. For us, the answer seems clear: the government is trying, through its repeated compressions, to place the entirety of our public services in permanent crisis. The final objective of this government is that we turn more towards the private sector and establish a ‘user-payer’ model in Québec. In rendering our services non-functional due to inadequate financing, the solution of Mr. Couillard and his minsters will be to raise individual fees.

We refuse this logic which reduces us simply to consumers who will need to pay for each use of our health, education, daycare and all other services necessary for the good functioning of a rich society.

As soon as we note that the six biggest banks in Canada had profits of over 34 billion in 2014 and that, despite everything, they are taxed less and less, we know that we have the means to do things differently. It would suffice to go find the money there where it can really be found rather than systematically making the population poorer. For example, the return of a 1% tax on capital gains for financial institutions would bring in more than 600 million for the state.”

Calls for unity

A November 8 communiqué issued by the Front Commun, an umbrella organization of 400,000 workers from three unions across Québec, also made clear its belief in unity:

“Our members will not agree to become impoverished to finance tax cuts for business and the rich. [The government] ignores the conditions that we asked, that no one should get poorer at the end of this restructuring and that the wage freeze was not acceptable. … 18,000 people would see their salary reduced overnight … and many young people would start their careers with lower salaries. We can not accept such parameters.”

More than 60,000 Québec students went on strike in March; dozens of May Day demonstrations were held; parents have formed human chains in front of their children’s schools to symbolize their intent to defend them against cuts on three separate autumn days; schools were shut down across Québec by teacher strikes on October 7; 150,000 demonstrated in Montréal on October 10; and a series of rolling two-day strikes in cities and regions across the province have taken place throughout November by health care workers, teachers, administrative officials and others.

This was to culminate in a three-day provincial general strike beginning December 1. But, for now, that general strike has been called off. The Front Commun announced on November 18 that because the government has finally made a counter-offer, although inadequate, it will continue to negotiate. It said that it “has no plans to cancel the strike days, or to suspend the movement” and said its postponement of the December strike will be “short-lived” in the absence of significant movement at the negotiating table.

Several organizations have been in the forefront of Québec’s fightback against austerity. In addition to the student union ASSÉ, which played a leading role in the 2012 Maple Spring, and the union federation Front Commun, parents have organized the Je protège mon école publique, more militant rank-and-file union members are organizing through Lutte Commune to maintain pressure on union leaderships, and the Red Hand Coalition brings together unions, community organizations and students.

Lutte Commune’s open letter urges union locals to reach out to the broader working class through convening local strike committees that would make the case that the unions are fighting for the services and living standards of everybody. The group also has vowed tocampaign for a rejection if union leaders accept a concessionary deal.

Solidarity as the key to struggle

The Red Hand Coalition has called a November 28 demonstration in Montréal, demanding the provincial government obtain the money to meet worker and student demands by reinstating the tax on capital gains for banks; increasing the number of levels of taxation to ensure genuine progressive taxation and a greater contribution of the richest; and increasing taxes for large companies rather than decrease them again. The coalition, which is organizing a series of conferences in anticipation of united mobilizations, says:

“While millions of dollars in further cuts await us, how can we together stop the destruction of public services and social programs by the Couillard government? By solidarity!”

That is a lesson for all places. That there is a robust public sector to defend is a product of a united front in 1972 and a bitter strike that held because of solidarity. During the strike, the government passed draconian laws mandating workers return to work. Union leaders were slapped with year-long jail terms for not calling off the strike, but a province-wide general strike was victorious.

Three years ago, when the previous Liberal Party assault was pushed back by the Maple Spring, ideology and not finance were really what counted for the government. Students estimated that the provincial government spent C$200 million, citing police and related costs, the value of canceled classes, the costs of personnel maintaining empty buildings and the cost of making up a lost semester. Martine Desjardins, president of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec, a student association with 125,000 members, said toThe Montreal Gazette that those costs exceeded what would have been collected from the tuition increases:

“The tuition for seven years was supposed to bring in about $170 million. So you can see it’s not about economics, but about ideology. It just doesn’t make sense.”

In terms of common sense, it doesn’t. In terms of class warfare waged from above, alas, it makes much sense. Class warfare has been a one-sided affair since the dawn of capitalism. It is long past time we fought back.


Pete Dolack is an activist, writer, poet and photographer who is interested in the synthesis of theory and practice. His primary activist work at this time is to stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He also writes the Systemic Disorder blog on the ongoing economic crisis of capitalism, and the political and environmental issues intertwined with it, and his book It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is to be published in February 2016.

Interview with Toronto-based teacher about ongoing struggles in the education sector

[Editor’s note: This post was originally published in December, 2012.]

IWW newsletter CLASSroom recently published the following interview with C. Hewitt-White, a Toronto-based teacher and member of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) about the ongoing education-sector strike. Her views are her own, and do not necessarily represent those of OSSTF.

CLASSroom: I understand that the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) has been escalating its strike actions. Why is this happening?

C. Hewitt-White: The Toronto district of OSSTF started its official legal strike action on Monday November 12. Many other districts have joined in since then. In Toronto, we are striking in response to two levels of attack: local and provincial. At the local level, each union district bargains directly with its employer – the local school board. School boards usually seek an increase in on-call supervision every round of bargaining. This means that they want principals to be able to take away more preparation time from teachers so they can supervise their absent colleagues’ classes. This is a crass cost-saving measure (it costs less than hiring occasional teachers) with nasty consequences. For example, teachers have less time for preparation during their workday, so they intensify their prep work in the limited time they have, work longer hours, or come to class less prepared. Students clearly don’t benefit from increasing on-calls.

The issue that everyone has been hearing about is the provincial attack. The provincial government and the OSSTF Provincial team started talks months before local bargaining began in order to agree on the money available to boards during local bargaining. In early spring of this year, the government announced that it would cut education funding for a two year “period of restraint,” and that it would enforce cuts through legislation if the education unions did not accept them. In the months that followed, negotiations crumbled between the government and all unions save for the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA), which signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government in July – behind the backs of its members and allied unions. Minister of Education Laurel Broten introduced Bill 115 to legislature in August and provincial legislature passed it on September 11.

Bill 115 imposed terms and conditions on OSSTF members retroactive to September 1, identical to the terms and conditions in the OECTA MOU, which are: a two year wage freeze, a 97-day salary grid movement freeze for teachers who have been teaching less than 10 years, cutting our sick days from 20 to 10, and deleting accrued sick days as well as the ability to cash out a percentage of accrued sick day value upon retirement. Furthermore, Bill 115 stipulates that it is above existing law: it cannot be found by arbitrators or courts to be in contravention of the Ontario Labour Relations Act, Employment Standards Act, or Ontario Human Rights Code – even though it contravenes all of these.

The Bill stipulates that any collective agreement the union and local employers come up with cannot improve on what is outlined in the MOU. Every collective agreement must be approved by the Minister of Education, who is given the right to amend collective agreements. Effectively, collective bargaining no longer exists for OSSTF, CUPE and ETFO members affected by the Bill because it is hamstrung by austerity parameters and the Minister of Education has ultimate say over our agreements.

If we do not come to agreements that are satisfactory to the Minister of Education by December 31, the government will impose on us agreements identical to the MOU.

CLASSroom: Why is OSSTF striking in response? What sorts of actions are taking place?

C. Hewitt-WhiteAs far as I can understand from OSSTF communications and discussions with my coworkers, our strike action is a tool designed to put pressure on our local boards to cease their attempts to increase on-calls and other attempts to dismantle our contract. But we are also putting pressure on the province to allow us to negotiate beyond the parameters of Bill 115.

However, union members have reason to suspect that OSSTF negotiations with the province are actually attempts to implement the decreased funding scheme under BIll 115 by making the cuts differently. For instance, we know that OSSTF already, in the spring, offered a general wage freeze in exchange for not freezing newer teachers’ movement up the salary grid, and offered to take on the unfunded liabilities of members’ benefits plans. In our current negotiations, OSSTF basically accepts austerity measures, but tries to implement them on the union leadership’s own terms, including union-proposed cost-saving measures, in order that OSSTF can come up with an agreement that does not cost the government more than what the MOU does. In other words, our current negotiations are aiming for contracts that would be approved by the Minister of Education on the basis of being “substantially identical” to the entirely concessionary and undemocratic agreement that OEACTA leadership signed.

The union decided on a strike strategy that would have little to no impact on students. Teachers are continuing to provide teaching-related labour but are withholding administrative labour. We are not attending meetings with administrators and we are also not doing parent-teacher interviews after school hours. We are not handing in our attendance sheets at the end of the day and we are not handing out to the students any material the administrators want them to take home – principals and vice-principals must do these tasks themselves. Administrators must also cover “on-calls” – must supervise colleagues’ absences in situations when occasional teachers have not been called in.

Last week, we did not write comments or learning skills on our report cards, and handed our marks into the administrators instead of uploading them using a marks computer program. Administrators had to enter the marks themselves. Contrary to media reports, this is not a work-to-rule action, and we have not collectively withdrawn extra-curriculars (though some individual elementary teachers have). We are continuing to mark, prep, teach, offer extra help outside of class time, contact parents during our work day, informally monitor student behaviour in the hallways, and supervise extracurriculars.

CLASSroom: What do you think that the union is capable of accomplishing?

C. Hewitt-White: There is a difference between what the union should be capable of accomplishing and what the union is capable of accomplishing.

The union is a wealthy and well-oiled political machine that has helped many Liberals and NDP candidates to win their seats in parliament. In the past, at both the provincial and local levels, OSSTF has mobilized tons of its members to work on election campaigns, to attend rallies, and to attend our provincial conventions. OSSTF has the infrastructure and means to mount an intense fight-back outside of the courtroom and beyond the negotiating table, but lacks the political will to do so.

For instance, OSSTF could run train-the-trainer sessions for door to door campaigning, allowing us to engage directly with the public about how Bill 115 sets an anti-democratic precedent for all workers. It could hold public assemblies. It could publish literature for the general public about how education workers’ unions have won improvements for the school system through the very process of collective bargaining that has come under attack. It could hold educational events that bring workers from the three main education unions together. In short, it could use organizing methods to build broad support for our case and against Bill 115. Engaging with the public and other workers could build momentum needed to take the fight beyond December 31 – at which point the MOU can be imposed, the opportunity for this fake negotiating will be over, and strikes and lockouts will be banned. Right now, rank and file members are trying out these methods because official union bodies are refusing to.

We’ve been told that one of the reasons why we are taking this particular strike action is to bait the Minister of Education into invoking Bill 115 and ordering us back to work – just so we can use this as evidence in our ongoing charter challenge that Bill 115 breaches the Ontario Labour Relations Act.

I believe that the core reason why OSSTF has developed this strike-to-lose strategy is because it cares more about cooperating with the state and capital to create “labour peace” than about doing whatever it takes to defend the working class. Even using the word working class would make most OSSTF leaders’ eyes roll. This is a longer conversation, but my point is that OSSTF, like many unions, sees power as emanating from parliamentary seats and not from regular people at the point of production. Organizing makes little sense to these people, but lobbying, backroom deals, and election campaigning do.

Also at work here is a deep disdain for regular folks. OSSTF members who have listened closely to what OSSTF leadership says when asked about its public relations strategy knows that it has shamefully low expectations of the general public – low expectations of their intelligence, and of their capacity for empathy and solidarity. OSSTF members have been told that advertising campaigns and media interviews don’t actually change people minds – they are merely one more vehicle for the union to communicate to the government that we are open to negotiating within the paradigm of austerity.

Broad education and engagement now will help us mobilize beyond December 31, when Bill 115 will come into full effect and strikes and lockouts will be banned. For education workers, what I mean by mobilization is “illegal” labour action, like a full walkout. Workers are scared of wildcat action because of fines and disciplinary action. They also lack confidence, knowledge, and skills, and union leaders are directly to blame for this by having failed to direct resources to rank-and-file education or training over a period of many years. Union leaders are also quite effective at stoking fears any time someone asks for information about these options at union meetings. But the risks won’t be that high if tens of thousands of people, alongside students walking out and parents protesting, take the risks together. This kind of mobilizing can only happen if the union presents itself as caring about more than themselves, which I believe its members certainly do. The union has to represent us accurately. Unions need to talk about austerity and reject Bill 115 altogether for pragmatic reasons – namely, so that they can get public support and actually win. But they need to do it on principle, too, if they actually care about students and education workers, and working in our interests.

We are facing a situation in which there are few ways to overturn Bill 115 in the next year, other than by creating a situation in which the public is mobilized, and students, parents, and workers take to the streets. This creates the same kind of pressure and purposeful chaos that a strike does – it disrupts business as usual and shifts consensus, as we saw happen in Quebec last spring.

The unions have launched a legal challenge that experts agree will win. But it will take from three to six years to finalize the case. That’s three to six years of destructive ripple effects throughout the public sector, of wages lost, of people losing income when they are sick. Some OSSTF folks are hoping that Liberal leader contenders like Kathleen Wynne and Gerard Kennedy [former Ministers of Education] will make amends to OSSTF and repeal the Bill if elected. I think this is redundantly naive.

In short, with its current strike strategy, the union is capable of accomplishing a back-to-work decree from the Lieutenant Governor, a lockout by boards, some public support, and generally demobilized and demoralized members. OSSTF needs to quickly move to a member and public mobilization strategy if we don’t want this to spread throughout the public sector.

CLASSroom: How do you anticipate that the government will react, specifically in light of Bill 115?

C. Hewitt-White: I don’t expect the Minister of Education to approve any tentative agreements that districts submit to her. Based on her previous rejection of “creative solutions” presented by the unions, I predict the Minister wants agreements to look exactly like the OEACTA MOU. So I see the strike action continuing until boards lock out their workers, which is more of a reality in rural boards than in Toronto, or until Bill 115 is invoked to ban our strike action. If that happens, teachers will probably spontaneously withdraw extracurriculars because that is the only aspect of our labour that we would still have control over in the case of a strike ban, as it is completely voluntary. There are many possible implications of this for public support and long term government backlash in regards to teacher control over their volunteer labour.

If strikes aren’t banned, and lockouts don’t happen, I’m sure that the strike action will continue until December 31 at which point the MOU essentially and officially becomes our contract and all teacher strikes are from then on illegal.

If the Minister of Education does approve any agreements, it’s likely that they will not be good deals for members. I hope that members will have access to details of the deals, and if the deals are unacceptable, that they will mobilize “Vote NO” campaigns leading up to ratification votes.