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In Portland, Student Union Plays Key Role in Faculty Union Win

With scant representation on campus, students are building student unions to defend their own interests -- and the interests of university workers as a whole.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Bette Lee via portlandstudentunion.org

 

Over the last few months, it appeared that the faculty of Portland State University would be going on strike for the first time in the school’s history as negotiations over a new contract with PSU administration stalled. The strike date was set for April 16. Just days before, it was averted as the PSU administration and the faculty union—the PSU branch of the American Association of University Professors (PSU AAUP)— came to an agreement.

PSU AAUP worked hard to bring enough pressure on the administration to force it to give PSU faculty a fair deal, but one aspect of how the union built up enough pressure to win the new contract has been underreported—the support and solidarity of the student union. The students of PSU recently formed the  Portland State University Student Union, and PSU AAUP’s efforts were bolstered every step of the way in the recent negotiations by the extra pressure being brought by PSUSU’s student organizing.

The effectiveness of Portland  students’ support of their teachers is part of an important trend on US campuses. Despite the fact that they pay thousands of dollars in tuition each semester, students often find themselves with little to no substantive representation on campus, and in recent years, many have turned to building student unions (not the confusingly named “student union” buildings on campus). Since the widely celebrated, though little publicized, success of the  2012 student strike in Quebec, a veritable student unionism movement been spreading across the country, a trend that bodes well not only for students themselves, but also for teachers increasingly being squeezed by austerity policies in education.

PSUSU’s success is an important lesson in what is possible when students and teachers work in solidarity. In the age of austerity and budget cuts to education, teachers and students have many mutual interests to defend. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions (and in the case of many graduate student employees and student athletes, working conditions). The more students and teachers use their combined influence to steer institutions of education, the more those institutions will become democratized and serve the interests of the public.

To help gain a better understanding of the situation, Cameron Frank, a PSU student and a PSUSU organizer, shared his insights on the dynamics of the recent PSU labor struggle and the burgeoning student unionism movement.

Roshan Bliss: What is the PSUSU?

Cameron Frank: The Portland State University Student Union is a union of students—though not in the traditional sense of a bureaucratic trade union. We’re a coalition of student organizations and individual students founded on the principles of horizontality, equality and direct democracy. We use direct action and community organizing tactics to bring students together in order to leverage our collective power around the causes and struggles that affect our lives.

We’re a group of radicals, volunteers, activists, organizers, militants, parents, workers, and everything in between, but we’re all students at Portland State who see our university as an institution experiencing a crisis of democracy; put simply, students pay but have no say. We see PSUSU as eventually becoming an open decision-making structure capable of empowering students to collaboratively decide what kind of university we really need, and how we can go about bringing the fruit of that process into existence.

RB: How did PSUSU form? What did its initial work look like?

CF: PSUSU began during a conversation I had in a Portland bar this summer with Inna Levin, another member of a debt-resistance organization on campus, just after I attended the  2013 National Student Power Convergence in Madison, WI. We were encouraged to see hundreds of students from all over the U.S. at that gathering working to build student unions modeled after the Quebecois student union,  ASSÉ, which was behind the 2012 student strikes there known as the Maple Spring. Our student activist group, the PSU Student Action Coalition (StAC), had been talking about starting a student union at Portland State for some months, but last August we actually sat down and really hashed out a specific vision and a campaign for executing that vision.