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Democratic strikes are the best way to push back against education cuts
Wednesday, Sept. 25 witnessed the largest expression of participatory democracy Ryerson has seen in a generation. Over 200 Ryerson students, supported by allies in the wider student and labour movement, took a near-unanimous vote for a student strike, to be held on Nov 6. Participants utilized this democratic forum to say that we cannot live with Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s attacks on the accessibility of education.
What is a General Assembly?
A general assembly (GA) is a mass meeting of grassroots participatory democracy where students get to directly decide, vote, and enact policy themselves. GA democracy was especially popularized during the 2012 Quebec student strike, which led to the cancellation of tuition hikes and the downfall of the then Quebec government. The tradition of GAs and student strikes in Quebec is the reason why Quebec has the lowest tuition in Canada.
Confronted with the Ford government’s attacks on OSAP, student clubs and education funding, we decided that something must be done. These attacks are an existential threat to accessibility of education. Already thousands of students have been forced out of their programs, and thousands more will graduate with massively increased debt loads. Access to clubs, media, and student unions that people rely on will be limited. And the quality of education and the livelihoods of campus workers will suffer due to the budget cuts and wage caps. To preserve educational access there needs to be a movement now. If we wait three years for the next election thousands and thousands of students will have their access violated. This is unacceptable.
Are GAs democratic?
The Ryerson GA was held under the auspices of the April 2019 Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) annual general meeting that unanimously passed a resolution committing the union to organize general assemblies and student strikes.
Some have raised the criticism that physical meetings are inaccessible. But it is increasingly apparent that those raising these arguments are not concerned about accessibility, but are just opposed to the very notion of student strikes. A mass general assembly, where all have the right to attend, have their say, make proposals and vote is the best way to engage students and ensure all voices are heard.
In lieu of this, the RSU executive has put forward an online survey as an alternative. We encourage all students to vote for a student strike in this survey. But a simple online Google form is not a replacement for mass democracy, debate and participation.
Online consultations do not provide a forum for participation or debate. Surveys are not democratically binding, and allow a tiny bureaucracy to delay the process and divert the will of students to fight. The survey admits this, saying that action, “may be delayed or pushed into later months.” This is not what genuine democracy looks like.
Innuendo has also been raised that the GA did not check credentials and just asked non-Ryerson students not to vote. There was only one vote opposed to the strike. Does anybody for a moment contend that there were 100 non-Ryerson students bused in to sway the decision? This contention is, frankly, insulting to the hundreds of Ryerson students who came to have their say in the fight against Ford’s cuts. Those spreading such innuendo have no evidence to back up their slander, because no such evidence exists.
Massive desire to fight
During the last few weeks Ryerson Student Strike organizers have spoken to thousands of students. The overwhelming sentiment is in support of a student strike to stop Ford’s attacks on the accessibility of education. Over 100 people have signed up as on-the-ground organizers and mobilizers in the Ryerson Student Strike committee. In addition, other campuses such as OCAD and McMaster are organizing their own general assemblies and student strike votes, with the intention of joining Ryerson on strike Nov. 6. We must be united to demand that the Ryerson administration give academic clemency for the Nov. 6 strike, and we must reach out to the faculty association and campus unions to unite our struggles. We are also fighting against the one per cent pay cap and budget cuts that will hurt campus workers.
For those who cannot live with the attacks on student funding and democracy, we appeal to you to help build the Ryerson student strike. Our example can spread to other campuses and spark a movement that stops Ford in his tracks. The amazing climate strike shows us just what is possible if we are united. We will be holding another GA Wednesday, Oct. 30 to give students control of the struggle. All are welcome, even those who oppose strike action. It is a democratic forum and the direction comes from the bottom up. Join us.
We have nothing to lose but our loans, and an education to win.
Olive Pape is a member of the Ryerson Student Strike Committee and an organizer with Socialist Fightback.