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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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Still, there are aspects of the Maple Spring we must refuse to replicate. For instance, the Quebec strike has not yet adopted anti-racist analysis regarding what true access to higher education might look like. Many of the students of color we spoke with offered mixed reviews of the student associations and the representation of racialized people in the movement. While they all clearly asserted they were anti-tuition hike, they also said they would feel more comfortable voicing and expressing solidarity if the movement adopted an anti-racism platform as a component of the strike. 

Though anti-racism is and always has been a part of the analysis of the CUNY student struggle – from the 1969 occupations of City College and Brooklyn College by Puerto Rican and African-American students, to the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM) at Hunter College in the mid-1990s – not every campus has been so thoughtful about the role race plays in access to higher ed. As we build a national movement for student power we must maintain our vigilance in keeping these issues at the center of our work.

How do we begin to establish the structures of power we need? The task may seem daunting, but at the Edufactory’s University is Ours! Conference we attended in Toronto at the end of April, we gained even more insight from our comrades to the North about how we might start. For instance, building toward a new student unionism from within departments – where we and our classmates are already organized into majors and similar academic interests – could be an effective way to gain momentum and generate collective buy-in from communities that already exist. These departmental unions would then become part of a larger, university-wide student union, would bridge the interests of many separate groups, and join them into an organized and non-hierarchical governing body. This is a model of organizing student unionism that has roots stretching back to the 1960s – and has been used to great effective in Quebec.

As Jasper Conner points out in his treatise, Towards a New Student Unionism

“In Quebec, University unions take action when department unions put forward proposals to the rest of the campus. University unions are where students coordinate on things that affect all students, but again, don’t make decisions on issues that don’t affect all students. [Student] unions would follow this pattern, federating outward to the state level where most issues of funding are decided, at least for state schools.” 

It isn’t nearly as hierarchical as it sounds; in fact, the larger bodies proposed here would be made up of delegates, as well as assemblies much like the spokescouncil institutionalized by Occupy Wall Street last fall. Furthermore, student unionism structured in this way also addresses important feminist and anti-racist critiques around lack of accountability in our movement leadership, which often leads to the reproduction of social hierarchy and the continuation of organizational practices that exclude women and people of color from the decision making process.

Alongside strategic unionizing, it seems to us self-evident that occupation of physical spaces must play a larger part in student organizing in the future. Occupy Wall Street was not the first movement to emphasize occupations as a key tactic; the US student movement has a rich history of reclaiming administrative offices in order to achieve our goals. At CUNY, the student movement has begun to move in this direction: in recent weeks, we at Brooklyn College launched a mass student day of action to protest tuition hikes, which included a rally and sit-in at Boylan Hall -- right outside the office of the president. Street protests in other parts of the city are now taking place as well. It is a good beginning, but it is only that. We need so much more. 

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