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Toward a More Perfect Student Unionism: Lessons From the Maple Spring

Activists from CUNY hold forth on what the US student movement needs now.
 
 
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We students have become morbid about our future. On campuses nationwide, it has become commonplace to see activists holding mock funerals for public higher education. At Brooklyn College at the City University of New York, we too held a funeral procession: out on the quad, in front of a coffin filled to the brim with diplomas, students were able to stand up in front of their peers and share what the death of higher education meant to them. One student, bravely holding back tears, shared how her troubles with financial aid, in addition to the death of her father, had made it impossible for her to continue her degree this semester.

For the majority of us seeking degrees, higher education is indeed dying a slow and painful death. Too little considered, however, is the role we as students are playing in its demise. The combination of tuition hikes, a lack of democratic governance in our schools, ballooning student debt, and the intimate relationship between our financial institutions and our academic ones are certainly killing higher education – but what is killing the student movement is our own complacency with these policies. While here in America, students on many campuses have limited themselves to mourning, elsewhere in the world they have taken to the streets – and there is much we can learn from their activism, in order to better our own.

What We Learned from the Maple Spring

Over spring break this year, we were privileged to travel to Montreal, Quebec, where we witnessed their 200,000-person-strong student strike. In the city of Montreal, francophone students have effectively shut down universities in response to a $1,625 tuition hike, proposed to be implemented incrementally over a five-year period. Since February, they have filled the streets en masse in protest, and as of this writing, they remain on strike (despite some injunctions by fellow students), having refused a set of “concessions” recently proffered by the Quebec government. (The government’s new proposal actually amounted to an increase of the previously proposed tuition hike, though it would have spread the increase out over an extended period of time – seven years, rather than the originally proposed five.) 

The position Quebec’s students find themselves in is not unique: at CUNY, we too are facing a tuition hike of $1,500 over the next five years. What has been unique is their ability to build a powerful movement in response to these increases. Here at home, our response has come nowhere close to matching what we saw in Montreal.

When tuition has gone up at CUNY over the past few years we have responded with a rally here and there; it has been decades since students have been able to effectively shut down the university. The 1960s was the last time we saw mass student protests and building occupations at CUNY; the result was the opening of the university’s doors to students of color – and unfortunately, the transformation of what had once been called the "free academy” (where state funding once fully covered the cost of education) into an institution where tuition became a mandatory part of enrollment. 

What allowed our counterparts in Quebec to mobilize so quickly and with such numbers, when our own student response to similar increases has been so subdued? We realized that the main difference lies in their movement’s ability to obtain real, institutionalized student power – something we do not yet have in the United States.

In Quebec, student organizing bodies on campuses have equal seats at decision-making tables alongside faculty and the administration. In the United States, we have nothing like this. Just as unions have been on a steep decline in this nation for decades, so too have campus organizations that answer to students (rather than the whims of the administration) and that hold real power. We believe that if students in the United States hope to have the kind of impact on our universities that we witnessed in Montreal, we will need to first establish radical, federated student unions here at home, organizations capable of replacing our currently weak systems of student participation. Without this shift, our struggle will be long, indeed.

 
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