Understanding Student Unionism: A Canadian Perspective

November 1, 2006
Evan Thornton at the Democratizing Education Convention, Madison, Wisconsin

To place the Canadian student movement in context, I want to start with a brief overview of the national affiliations on a typical Canadian campus, which I hope will help give an idea of the significant difference in the nature of the challenge faced by Canadian student organizers compared to their U.S. counterparts.

Faculty and Academic Staff:

Starting with teaching staff, the campus will typically have unionized Faculty Association that are affiliated nationally with the Canadian Association of University Teachers CAUT which represents 48,000 teachers, librarians, researchers and other academic professionals. In its own words CAUT is:
"an outspoken defender of academic freedom and works actively in the public interest to improve the quality and accessibility of post-secondary education in Canada. CAUT actively promotes public post-secondary education that meets the needs of students and the public. We press for public funding and policies to ensure our institutions are accessible and to safeguard the freedom of our members to teach and conduct research unrestricted by commercial or other special interests."

This sounds good, and CAUT is a progressive voice for its members, though in practice, like most unions, much of its resources go to policing the collective agreements of its member faculty unions and assisting in their collective bargaining. They are the main defenders of academic freedom in Canada, and their research department has been a long-time resource to the policy debate on accessible higher education . Few would dispute that CAUT is a key ally of the national student movement.

Contract and Part Time Academic staff:

Sometimes unorganized, sometimes formed into independent associations, sometimes even represented by the CAUT, but frequently organized into locals of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, (CUPE) is Canada's largest union with 600,000 members. CUPE typically represents workers in the state sector including health care and municipal workers, and it plays a progressive role in the development of the policies of both the Canadian Labour Congress and Canada's social democratic political party, the NDP. Therefore, many contract and part-time faculty find themselves members of a union that is at the centre of the social union movement in Canada and so have significant clout in resources and solidarity behind them should they find themselves having to take strike action. As many of them are also students, we'll be looking at some of the implications of the relationship between their labour union and the student movement in a little more detail later on.

Maintenance, Clerical and Service Workers:

Usually unionized through provincial government employee unions, or CUPE again, though if in CUPE, usually a separate local from the Academic staff discussed a moment ago. This is the group that many would argue has been most affected by the 15 year trend to privatize campus services.

I believe that over that time period, attacks on this sector have been so sustained that that had they not, for the most part, been represented by strong unions it is doubtful that (at least for service workers )any full-time jobs would be left on Canadian campuses.

The Student Newspaper:

Often overlooked, most of Canada's campus newspapers are themselves members of Canadian University Press (CUP) which claims to be the oldest student news service in the world and North America's oldest student organization. It was started in 1938, so it may have a bona fide claim on that score. It's a non-profit cooperative news service owned by over 60 student newspapers, many of which have a dedicated per-student fee collected for them either directly by the administration or by co-agreement with the student union.

They can usually be counted on to be sympathetic to the aims of the broader student movement, or at least consider them newsworthy, and one trend we've noticed over the last 25 years is that the years when elected student leaders are doing the least advocacy are often the years when a CUP paper will take up the cudgel on behalf of students and become a rallying point for campus activism.

The student union/association/federation/society:

Whatever the name the student union calls itself, the structure is usually the same. With a yearly fee-base collected for it by the administration as part of the student registration process, student unions outside of Québec reap the benefit of a long-standing agreement where voluntary recognition of a central student organization is given by administrations and mandatory dues are charged to each student, pro-rated by course load.

Inside Québec the right to a student union has force of law, and provided a verifiable majority vote has taken place the administration must recognize the union.

The original purpose of the campus student union was largely social, but the period that started with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and included May 1968 and large-scale student opposition to Canada's involvement in the Vietnam war changed all that, and by 1972 activist-dominated local student unions had come together to form the National Union of Students, (NUS) an avowedly left-wing federation that borrowed its name from the British student movement, whose ability to collectively bargain on behalf its members it no doubt hoped to emulate. NUS' s original political leanings were made abundantly clear by the name it gave to its executive body: "The Central Committee."

For the first few years NUS had little problem maintaining its revolutionary fervor and served its member unions well as a vehicle for coordinating campaigns centering on the campus anti-war movement; but as the zeitgeist changed throughout North American society, it found itself too often fighting a rearguard movement to keep now increasingly right-wing student unions within the fold.

By 1981 it was ready for a strategic change. Seeking to keep its activist core and progressive policies but marry them to a predictable funding base, it merged with a national student travel and discount organization to form the Canadian Federation of Students ( CFS,) and from then on it would make its pitch for membership with a program of action in one hand and a book of student saver discount cards in the other.

How does it work?

The funding idea is simple. All student unions are already funded by dues collected by administration, which can usually only be raised by referendum. The student union passes a motion to hold such a referendum with the purpose of assigning the extra dues to pay for CFS membership. Assuming a successful referendum, all students on campus are then members of both their own student union and CFS, and so by extension CFS enjoys the many of rights and privileges on campus that are afforded to the student union itself.

Delegates from the member student unions set federation's policies and elect a national executive at a spring AGM, and the larger provinces like Ontario and British Columbia also have "provincial components" that meet in the fall.

The pitch:

Unlike labour unions who can point to immediate, tangible gains in terms of paycheques, job security, and benefits, CFS organizers have to sell the federations' usefulness by pointing to medium and long-term trend-lines, pointing out, for example that the tuition freeze it continually campaigns for would not have happened without its ability to coordinate student actions so effectively.

That's the organizing theory, anyway. In practice organizers have only a week or two to campaign and often sell the federation with simple consumer logic. Join CFS, get your student saver and ISIC cards, and save money on everything from your cell phone plan to bus and train travel.

And to be fair, over the years, CFS has developed an impressive array of student services up to and including health plan benefits.

Returning to advocacy, though CFS has a strong research department and makes well-reasoned arguments about accessibility issues in legislative venues , the core of its campaigns always include an activist agenda. Postcards and petitions, both online and hard copy, are a staple of most campaigns, and often presented to the authorities as part of the program on a National Day of Action, usually set for February or March to coincide with the time that most provincial governments are working through their funding allocations for the next fiscal year.

Provincial components are free to interpret what National Days of Action will entail in their regions; they can include everything from rallies and marches at Provincial legislatures to teach-in style activities on campuses, right down to free pancake breakfasts hosted by student unions where students are encouraged to come and get informed themselves on the issues.

But the energy and interest generated by the event can be leveraged into higher profile campaign, as well. One of the more successful examples from recent years came from the British Columbia wing of the CFS on the west coast. The Day of Action was held in February of 2004, and the rally it was used by CFS BC as the culmination of a " Bring Tuition Back to Earth" three month, forty- college tour; a rolling campaign that was used to get student input on the effects of the high cost of tuition. Its finding were documented on video and the footage was turned into compelling TV ad spots that were effective in giving real faces to the issue of high tuition.

The British Columbia student movement has a strong tradition of operating within a wider coalition of social activism, and the campaign itself, though student-led, was actually a coalition supported by the provincial faculty union, the government employee unions, and unionized support staff, and during the period of the tour it was virtually impossible to interact with any progressive organization in the province without being made aware of the tuition fee campaign. The campaign was a measured success, drawing enough popular support to force the right-wing provincial government to cap future tuition increases at no more than the rate of inflation.

A national one-day "strike" was the format of another noteworthy Day of Action in February 2000; agreements with many administrations were reached to allow for the students to participate in the strike action without penalty, and rallies and demonstrations were held from coast-to-coast including a large demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the nation's capital. It was a major event with strong media coverage, and while it didn't win immediate gains it served notice to legislators across the country that the opposition to tuition hikes was gaining in strength, and helped build the movement to the point where this past year six of the ten provinces had some form of tutition freeze or cap in place.

Labour and Student unionism

I'm going to move on at this point and shift the discussion back to something touched on earlier, and talk a little about the interplay between campus labour unions and student organizations, because I think where interests converge there can be some interesting points of leverage that are often left unexplored.

So much of what the student movement in Canada tries to organize around can be hard to explain, much less make gains around. Money for universities and for student aid is transferred from the federal government to the provincial governments in complicated funding arrangements that take an army of bureaucrats to administer; the provinces then often have there own dedicated funding bodies that actually get the money over to the universities, and each of these bodies which has its own way of divvying up the pie and determining the nature of the per-student grant it will make. Then, certain banks with all their particular regulations are brought in to work with the university's finance office to administer student loan programs. By the time the student actually has to pay her or his share, the balance owing has been advised on, adjusted, pro-rated and argued over by so many departments and agencies that determining who is actually responsible for the size of the tuition bill is simply beyond the ability of the individual to comprehend, which is no doubt how the authorities involved prefer matters to stand.

But in contrast, when unionized student labour articulates clear goals in the form of contract demands, all of the sudden there is no provincial government, no federal government, no army of bureaucrats, nothing but the university administration negotiating team across the table. The gains can be impressive.

For example, several years ago at the University of Ottawa, graduate students were getting stressed with greater and greater workloads yet still had a bare-bones package of pay and benefits that was largely unchanged from the 1970s. Realizing that their own GSA had limited leverage with the administration, a group of graduates won the right to unionize as CUPE 2626, the large union we were talking about earlier and turned to that union to win them language that guaranteed them a range of benefits that included paid maternity leave. And once the CUPE members had won such benefits for their unit, the administration was compelled to extend them to all graduate students, regardless of affiliation. Members of the GSA now admit that had it been left to their advocacy alone such benefits would have only been won with great difficulty.

Taking the concept of leverage up a notch, in the late 1990's CUPE members at York University negotiated a collective agreement that guaranteed that if tuition went up, their pay would include a tuition rebate of the same amount. With 2400 members on campus, that language in their collective agreement was one of the few effective brakes on the runaway tuition increases of the period, and was such an impediment to the free hand the administration craved to set tuition levels that in 2003 the union had to strike to keep the language. They won that strike, and now unions on other campuses are negotiating to get similar protection.

But in trying to build on the successes made possible by collective bargaining, it often seems that the implications of these kind of advances are hard to bring over to the undergraduate-dominated student movement, and it could be argued that not enough is done to pursue the kind of strategic alliances that could exploit the real collective bargaining enjoyed by labour union allies on campus.

On Posture

At this point I'd like to make some general observations about the position the student movement in Canada operates from. Some observers have noted that there is a perennial defensive stance about the student movement in Canada, that doesn't seem to accord with the friendly waters it should be at sail in.

After all, haven't we established that a typical campus features unionized faculty, unionized support workers, a sympathetic press, and even an administration that is prepared to collect dues on its behalf? Comparing that scenario to what usually confronts U.S. student organizers, you'd have to call that a strong advantage.

So let's look at a few reasons why CFS can seem to be on the defensive:

1. CFS is only as good as the local student union VP External.

Even though CFS represents 450,000 members, has full time researchers, organizers, communications specialists, a large and profitable student services business, has been around for 25 years and has acknowledged standing before every relevant legislative committee in the country, and even though any real gains made by students are clearly due, in large part, to CFS's ceaseless activism on the issues, still, if a hostile or indifferent student union executive is voted in, especially in the key VP External spot, then all CFS's material is bottlenecked in the student union offices and few people on campus will know of its campaigns. One semester of that and it's "What has CFS done for us lately?" and soon the right is organizing a disaffiliation referendum and there's little CFS can do to stop it.

CFS flies in its organizers and spends a lot of money, all to protect what should be its own. The perpetual procession of new student union executives is a huge achilles heel for the federation and has cost it millions of dollars that would have been far better spent on campaigns work. For a seven year period from 1986 to 1993 virtually all CFS did was fight disaffiliation referenda, and the organization is still paying the political cost of those years that it was unable to focus on its core issues.

2. The competition is always lurking nearby.

There is a right-wing national association that has developed over the last 15 years in direct competition with CFS for student dues. It's called CASA, and while its "put on a tie and meet the minister" lobbying approach is demonstrably useless to real progress on the issues, it provides a focus point for anti-CFS campaigns, has a cheaper dues structure, and supplies enough of a veneer of 'consumer choice' to woo away the gullible and those conservative students who will always be uncomfortable with CFS policies and rhetoric.

The masterstroke of CASA was to figure out something that also may illustrate a major difference in political culture north of the border: it seems Canadian students just don't want to be left without a national organization to pay dues to, even the right-wing ones.

3. CFS's membership structure has no plan Plan B.

When times are tough and the local student union has disaffiliated, who will carry the flag on campus? No one, since CFS has never developed a viable way to offer memberships other than the student union. Offering associate memberships through TA unions, PIRGS, Womens' Centres, etc would never generate the same resources that Student Union affiliation does, but it would keep a presence on campus, develop alternate leadership, and lay the groundwork for successful re-affiliation at a future date.

4. The emergence of trusteeship as a threat to student unionism

Many of the new corporatized university administrations are showing little patience with the so-called 'gentlemen's agreements" by which student unions were first voluntarily recognized decades ago. Increasingly they seize on any hint of mismanagement to place student unions under trusteeship, and when that happens all the funds collected by the union for any purpose are often frozen, including the CFS levy. So far the administration have been picking on small student unions, but more and more we hear of the imposition of measures such as "student codes of conduct", heretofore a phrase heard in Canada only at the high school level. CFS is no doubt preparing for the day when a university finally decides enough "violations" of some farcical code have occurred to go after one of the bigger student unions, and by extension, CFS itself.

So these are some of the structural factors that can feed the anxiety, and often leave CFS scanning the horizon for the first puff of smoke that means they've another fire to put out.

Some Canadian Conclusions

To conclude, I want to suggest a reason why the history of the two distinct student movements in Canada, one English and one French, appear to be so different.

As we have looked at, English Canada's student movement, even after 25 years of organizational continuity, is still focused on preserving what it has gained, rather than risking all in a direct confrontation with the state, as has been seen in Québec. English Canada's student leaders know how quickly they can lose membership, they know the huge cost of fighting to keep previous gains, and know by long institutional experience just how far to push their activism before it provokes a backlash that sees the right take over member unions. After nearly 25 years, survival itself has become a major achievement of the student movement in English Canada, and it is unlikely to be gambled on anytime soon.

And rather than making attempts at mass mobilization on the scale of the Québec example, English Canada's students best chance for future gains likely lies in continuing to strengthen the links with organized teaching and research labour as well as with affinity groups such as PIRGs; successes on certain campuses would certainly suggest this as a way forward.

On the other hand, while it would not be appropriate for an outside observer to make hard-and-fast conclusions as to why the Québec experience of student mobilization is so different to that of English Canada, I would suggest that the potential for direct public support of Québec's largely francophone student movement is historically much greater than in English Canada. Québec's French-language majority consider themselves as a distinct people, and view the existence of their educational institutions as part of national project. French-language post-secondary institutions are not mere places of learning in such a context, they are tangible products of a long-term drive to nationhood, and the government of the day limits access to them at their peril.

Additional Information: 

Evan Thornton is an associate of the Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution, and director of University Watch. Thornton has three decades of experience in campus organizing, first as a student union organizer, then with labour, and most recently as director and editor of University Watch.

Uwatch.ca is an independently incorporated, non-profit donor-financed organisation largely run by volunteers committed to the vision that universities ought to be transparent institutions serving in the public interest. It is also intended as an umbrella organisation linking various stakeholders, including interested private citizens, community groups, students, student governments, agencies, think tanks, and so on.