Radio — A new grassroots student organization emerging from solidarity with striking faculty

On this week’s episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh interviews James Fauvelle and Mohammad Ali Aumeer. They are both students at community colleges in Ontario. During the five-week strike by college faculty in late 2017, they got involved in organizing student solidarity with the strikers. And from that work they and other students have founded a new grassroots organization that aims to mobilize students for equitable, accessible education and more demoratic and accountable campuses: Ontario Students United.

On October 16, 2017, the 12,000 members of the Ontario Public Service Employee’s Union (OPSEU) who work as faculty, librarians, and counsellors in the province’s 24 community colleges went out on strike. The key unresolved issues for striking faculty were the dramatic increase in precarious part-time work in the college system in recent decades and questions of academic freedom. Fully two-thirds of faculty at Ontario’s colleges are part-time contract workers who make considerably less money than full-time faculty and have little or no job security. The union was asking to bring the ratio of part-time to full-time up to 50:50 and to enhance job security measures for part-time faculty. And in terms of academic freedom, they wanted greater faculty involvement in academic decision-making and greater classroom autonomy, analogous to what is seen in the university system.

James Fauvelle is a student in the social service worker program at Centennial College in Toronto. Mohammad Ali Aumeer is a student in the community worker program at George Brown College, also in Toronto. Like a lot of other students, as it became clear that the strike would not be a short one, they were concerned. They were concerned about the disruption of their semester, of course, but they were concerned about a lot more than that.

It was pretty clear to them from the start that the issues that the faculty were striking over were tightly tied to improving the overall quality of education for students – that is, that precarious work and lack of academic freedom are not just bad for faculty, they are bad for students. Moreover, both James and Mohammad have had plenty of experience themselves with precarious work, and will likely face more when they graduate and seek employment in their fields, so they see fighting back against the growth of precarious work as important for all current and future workers. And to top off their list of concerns was the fact that most existing formal student organizations seemed unwilling to speak out in ways that reflected these understandings of the possibilities for and importance of solidarity between faculty and students in the fight to improve the college system in Ontario.

So James, Mohammad, and other students like them on a range of campuses started acting in solidarity with faculty. At the beginning, they did this as individuals. They would keep their eyes open for rallies organized by the faculty on their campuses, and then would attend them. They would participate in online conversations and speak in support of the union’s demands and of faculty/student solidarity.

As the strike continued, they began to find each other online, message each other, compare notes about their respective campuses. A couple of weeks into the strike, there was a big rally outside the provincial legislature at Queen’s Park that drew people from across the province, and that was where many of the students from different colleges first connected in person. A couple of weeks after that, they organized the first major student-led rally in solidarity with faculty. And over the course of this, they were consistently and pleasantly surprised by the level of support they found among their fellow students for the faculty, and for the idea that Ontario’s colleges need some major changes.

Five weeks in, after faculty voted overwhelmingly to reject an offer from the College Employer Council, Ontario’s Liberal government legislated the faculty back to work and sent the outstanding issues to binding arbitration. The strike was over.

Mohammad, James, and the other students who had come together during the strike decided that they needed to keep their momentum building. So they founded Ontario Students United as a progressive student voice at Ontario colleges. They are seeking greater accountability and democracy in colleges, with a greater role for both students and faculty in decision-making, and are committed to fighting in grassroots ways for accessible, equitable, high-quality education. They held a day of action in December, with participation at five or six colleges. They are engaged in a speaking tour in January, hoping to catalyze the formation of Ontario Students United chapters at even more colleges, and to build towards the province-wide day of action called by the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario for February 6.

Image: Modified from an image used with the permission of Ontario Students United.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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