Sunday, October 14, 2012

All Power to the General Assemblies

draft of an article written for The Leveller 

The length, scope and success of the Quebec student strike has compelled many English Canadian students to investigate the structures, methods and ideas underpinning the Quebec student movement. The most striking difference is the presence of the general assembly as decision-making body on the Quebec campus. Held at the departmental, faculty and even campus-wide level, tens of thousands of students have participated in general assemblies, involving open democratic discussion and debate on how best to confront Charest’s tuition fee hike. It was this form of direct democracy which delivered (or denied) limited and unlimited strike mandates again and again through the months-long campaign. The highly participatory and democratic nature of the general assembly laid the basis for the enormous numbers of students who sustained picket lines, mass marches and the now-famous casseroles against Bill 78’s repeal of civil liberties.

While Quebec’s post-war history under the authoritarian Duplessis regime and subsequent Quiet Revolution (which became increasingly loud through 1960s) created a student movement far larger and politically astute than anything seen in English Canada, questions still remain as to why English Canadian campuses remain so dormant in comparison. Is it a matter of culture, or structures, or both, that impedes the development of a comparable student movement?

This always raises the question of what role the Canadian Federation of Students plays in galvanzing or squandering the potentially large numbers of students outside Quebec opposed to annual tuition fee increases and the commodification of post-secondary education.

A Tale of Two Student Movements
Since the 1950s, the fundamental distinction in structures between Quebec and English Canadian student unionism is that of direct democracy versus representative democracy; the general assembly versus the student council.

The general assembly was imported from France in the late 1940s by Quebec exchange students. Many French students in the late 1940s had emerged from a Communist-led anti-Nazi resistance. These students organized themselves in 1946 and drafted La Charte de Grenoble. The document described students as “young intellectual workers” who were responsible for participating in a democratic and socially-progressive reconstruction of post-war France. It was not by accident that this philosophy was termed “student syndicalism” as the general assembly was seen as the equivalent to a labour union general meeting with its ultimate decision-making authority, including strike votes. Through general assemblies on each campus, these same French students organized and led massive student strikes in 1947 and 1948; strikes which won universial healthcare for students and a number of other progressive reforms.

Through the 1950s, opposition to the authoritarian Duplessis regime in Quebec provided the space for student syndicalism to gain a foothold as a philosophy underpinning a student movement that sought to modernize and democratize the education system. Quebec’s student unions still elected leaders, but decisions affecting the membership were addressed in the general assembly.

This Quebec student movement did influence the direction of the English Canadian student movement. The National Federation of Canadian University Students, changed its name to the Canadian Union of Students and adopted student syndicalism in its 1965 “Declaration of the Canadian Student.” Based on a groundbreaking socio-economic survey of students, CUS irrefutably confirmed severe class biases in the composition of the university student body and endorsed a policy of eliminating tuition fees as a financial barrier. Through demonstrations and lobbying, CUS was also able to secure a decade-long Ontario tuition fee freeze that lasted until 1976.

CUS would go on to take ever more radical stances, including support for women’s liberation, immediate American withdrawal from Vietnam, and the democratization of university governance. These radical pronouncements alienated a number of local student unions who initiated referendum campaigns on CUS membership. Through the 1968-69 school year, CUS membership collapsed, destroying the union's financial stability and forcing its dissolution in October 1969.

As CUS leaders learned, such radical policies had no substantial organized support on the campuses. CUS organizers did try to rectify this by helping to build “Students for a Democratic University” groups. Dozens of SDUs existed across Canada, and in early 1969, their combined membership surpassed six thousand. While the SDUs focused on winning representation on boards and senates, lowering book costs, and exposing the ties between industry and university administrations, democratizing student unions was not on their agenda. Despite the Quebec example, the general assembly was never adopted in English Canada.

The Canadian Federation of Students
The CFS was born at Carleton at a delegated conference in 1981. With CUS as a warning, CFS has been careful to moderate the scope of its political interventions on campus. Its advocacy efforts focus on issues such as tuition fee reductions and a variety of valuable and necessary anti-oppression initiatives. At certain times, it has taken anti-poverty, pro-labour and anti-war stances.

An attempt to destroy the CFS did take place in 1995 and 1996. Amidst a harsh recession in the early 1990s, provincial governments sought to restrain post-secondary spending through concurrent increases in tuition fees. This was amplified by the 1995 federal Liberal budget which saw the deepest cuts in Canadian history to health and education transfers.

To its credit, CFS spearheaded a campaign to stop the cuts. Political Action Committees were setup on the campuses and these bodies served to build a campaign which culminated in a one-day 100,000-strong student strike on January 25, 1995.

The strike was such an affront to Liberal and other right-wing-led student unions, that a wave of defederation votes were held. Some right-wing student leaders unilaterally pulled their respective student unions from CFS without a democratic referendum. This right-wing split from CFS laid the basis for the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

Since then, CFS has devoted huge amounts of human and financial resources to combating defederation campaigns, often contending with calculated anti-CFS misinformation put out by Liberal and Tory campus groups, but also against the corruption scandals involving CFS-aligned student leaders.

The General Assembly
At Carleton and on other campuses, student activists are once again trapped in a battle between defending CFS from the right, while desiring something more democratic and capable of generating high levels of student participation in political action. It is no wonder many student activists identify not with CFS but l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), the Quebec student federation which led the victorious 2005 and 2012 student strikes.

Yet, ASSÉ itself is nothing without the general assembly. General assemblies are the forums in which students have ensured that the strike spread beyond the most radical campuses and into more conservatives ones aligned with other student federations. Furthermore, Quebec student federations have come and gone, but the general assembly has survived because it is the local form of democratic student decision-making. Direct democracy has provided a major obstacle for the student right and prevented them from making serious gains on Quebec’s Francophone campuses.

The general assembly and its threat of direct democracy is kept at bay with the current representative student council structure; a structure CFS activists continue to leave unchallenged. Its limited democratic nature and the power it places in the hands of the student union executive also allows a right-wing executive to do plenty of damage without any accountability outside of annual student union elections.

Student activists inside and outside CFS who recognize the need to build a powerful student movement in English Canada ought to being looking to the general assembly as the means to build such a movement. This would require a multi-level reform movement on each campus that can engage not only individual students, but make the introduction of the general assembly part of student union election campaigns, as well as a campaign within the CFS to compel the adoption and construction of general assemblies. More democracy will be the antidote to the student right as well as the prescription for a new student movement.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Waiting for a walkout: Ontario labour and the end of McGuinty?

By Doug Nesbitt and Andrew Stevens

For the first time since the late 1990s, a provincial labour-related education bill has angered a substantial number of Ontarians, from students to parents and, of course, teachers. Bill 115, with the Orwellian title of “Putting Students First Act”, passed into law on September 11. To no surprise, the law received unanimous support from the opposition Tories.

The bill effectively eliminates collective bargaining rights for Ontario’s 180,000 elementary and secondary school teachers. It imposes a two-year wage freeze, a 97-day delay on pay increments, three unpaid Professional Activity days, a halving of annual sick days to ten, and an end to the banking of unused sick days throughout a teacher’s career.

While the bill does not prevent strike votes from taking place, it provides the provincial cabinet the power to intervene to stop strikes from happening, even pre-emptively, without legislative approval. More draconian still, the new law revokes the ability of local bargaining units from freely negotiating contracts with their respective school boards. Even the school board associations, which function as managers in the education system, opposed the restrictions.

Monday, October 1, 2012

They Were Onterrible Times

From the OECTA deal with McGuinty in July, to Bill 115 in September, to the looming public sector austerity bill, we really see what doors concession bargaining opens.

We've gone from one union agreeing to a mere wage freeze, to teachers losing collective bargaining rights and having contracts imposed by the government, to the prospect of a juiced version of Bill 115 applied to half a million public sector workers.

What is to be done?

The lessons of the Quebec student strike ought to weigh like a nightmare on the brains of Ontario's labour and student movements.

Wasting Food

My initial instinct reading this article
is that it lends to the notion that the problem is relatively low food prices in Canada and, even worse, some sort of ignorant first-world consumer culture. I think such an approach can lead people to blaming individual consumption habits as the source of the problem, while completely ignoring absurd and glaring structural problems with how we produce, distribute and consume food.
High levels of food waste in the home is a post-war phenomenon rooted in how our cities have been constructed around the car and the evolution of near-monopoly control of the food production and distribution system. The neighbourhood grocer/butcher/baker was based around the pre-war walking/streetcar city. The supermarket, however, became king in the post-war car-centred suburbs, and while it dominated the suburbs it also had the affect of devastating local neighbourhood food retail through lower prices and increasing control of food distribution networks.

Many local grocers fought the rise of the supermarket by forming business alliances capable of competing with the supermarket. But through engaging in market competition, these independent grocer alliances became part of the very tendency towards concentration and centralization and eventual monopolization of the food distribution industry. This is exactly the story of IGA: the Independent Grocers Alliance.

The lesson here is that whatever the market, competition over times leads to less competition as weak competitors are driven out and the amount of capital invested in such operations rises to such a point that upstart competitors are nearly impossible (imagine the initial capital costs of starting a car company today versus 1900). This trend towards concentration and centralization in food distribution was combined with a similar trend in food production. Like the local grocer/baker/butcher, the small farmer producing for a local market was also pushed to the margins of the food production market. The result for consumers is that buying food tends to require a car as local food stores within walking distance deter and even prevent daily shopping.

Food consumption habits have also been shaped by several important changes in working-class family life. The stereotypical 1950s two-parent family with a sole male breadwinner, has been replaced by two-parent families with two breadwinners, as well as a rise in single-parent families. Some have blamed this on third-wave feminism and the emergence of women's liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. This entirely misses the point that increased female participation in the workforce and accessibility to employment beyond traditionally-female jobs was necessary to breakdown profoundly unjust social norms which simply had to go. Likewise, rising divorce rates from the 1960s onward, as well as recent trends towards a decrease in marriage among families with and without children, represents an increased ability of women to determine their own relationships free of forms of male control and violence and wider cultural stigmatization. And it is not as though these interrelated struggles have at all been resolved.

Critically, these changes in the structure of working-class families operate within a changing economic system. Such transformations in the 1960s and especially in the 1970s, coincide with stagnating and even declining real wages. The return of cyclical economic crises and the related rise of neoliberal economic and social policies since the 1970s has seen a sustained restructuring of the global economy around efforts to increase profit rates at the expense of labour's share of the wealth. In conjunction with stagnant or declining real wages, North America has also witnessed a rise in working hours amidst a change in family life increasingly relying on two working parents or a working single parent. Free time has become increasingly scarce. It is remarkable that the motto of the Eight Hours Movement in the 1860s - 8 hours work, 8 hours leisure, 8 hours rest - remains an anathema to capitalism's economic interests 150 years later.

With less free time and food consumption increasingly reliant on a car, it is no wonder that people will shop once a week and buy huge amounts of food. The decline of well-paying full-time jobs with stable working hours and job security (in part a function of trade union power) has also led to highly chaotic patterns in family life, making any sort of meal planning even more difficult and unlikely. This increases the likelihood of food going bad as families and especially parents are less able to actually plan out their food consumption on a daily basis when they've bought food for a week; something that is far more easier when you can buy your food each day or every two days. This also leads to an increased reliance on prepared and snack food; food which is far more likely to be unhealthy, loaded with salt, sugar and all sorts of chemical for preservation purposes. These processed and prepared foods are also integrated into the agribusiness system; a system which relies heavily on factory-farmed food which itself is heavily dependent on massive use of pesticides, GMOs, hormone treatments, etc. After a long-day at work and/or during a hectic day of a busy family schedule, would you rather be preparing and cooking food for 30-45 minutes, or using that time to unwind with something you can make in 5 minutes? The right-wing response - it's a question of personal responsibility! - is the utopian, unrealistic assessment of the situation. Such a view belies a complete lack of understanding (and compassion) for our fellow human beings. People aren't robots who don't get tired, don't need time to unwind, and don't live in a system not of their own choosing.

Even the most diligent food consumer can't affect or change this entire, complex system through individual consumption habits. The question of consumption is directly tied to how food production and distribution is organized and these realms of the food system are subordinated to concerns about market share and profitability; not geographic accessibility, financial accessibility, local economic activity or individual and community health concerns. And it is ultimately extremely wasteful both at the point of consumption, and in its environmental impact through GMOs, massive use of pesticides and other chemicals, depletion of good soil, and the air and water pollution from food processing and the transportation required for continent-wide shipping of even the most basic produce and meats that can be produced locally almost anywhere in North America.

These arrangements have not been shaped by consumption habits but by powerful economic forces - agribusiness, supermarket chains, the fast food industry - that have gradually transformed the food system into a profit-generating system, not a healthy, accessible one based on simple human needs. This is much the same problem as privatized healthcare in the US. A fundamental human need is being exploited for profit at the expense of that very need. A grounded, realistic and pragmatic approach to the problem requires us to concede the necessity of a profound revolution in how we produce, distribute and consume food.