Okupations and strikes amidst students: Amsterdam and Toronto

With each passing day of the New University/Amsterdam student occupation, the movement resonantes locally and beyond the country’s borders.  The commodification of education is global; if restrained in the past, it is today without leash, and runs amok among the commons that are systems of State-public education. Without being apologists for State managed schooling, its creation was not without unpredictable political consequences  for regimes of social reproduction.  And what today rises in its stead, radically privatised institutions of learning and curriculum determination, is arguably far more oppressive.

The student movements of the present, or the immediate past, may appear to be essentially defensive, but they have rarely remained at such a limited horizon.  Whether we speak of the chilean or quebec student movements, they in the end spilled out into much broader social movements, movements that have expanded political possibilities.

The Amsterdam movement, in its creation of a “New University”, has already done far more than merely protest;  it is their creative gesture which today sustains their resistance.  And if the Toronto universities’ teaching assistants strike is still a child, there is an awareness that what is at stake is not merely a local affair.

We post below a recent text by the Nieuwe Universiteit  (20/03/2015) collective on the state of the University of Amsterdam occupation, followed by a report on the Toronto teaching assistants’/students’ strike by CUPE labour union members, posted on Roarmag (20/03/2015).

From Amsterdam …

Values that can’t be quantified: Statement on thr appropriation up til now

Over the last week statements from all around world have reached us. From London to Italy, from Australia to Toronto, from Mexico to Jena. Universities all around the world have started occupations, sit-ins, walk-outs and protests or reached out to us to show us their solidarity. These universities have their different issues, from Ofxord occupying for divestment to the London School of Arts occupying against budget cuts, but they are united in their fight for tomorrow’s education. Even though it’s hard to get a uniform picture, all these universities seem to be protecting values that can’t be quantified. Values that might not give economic results, values that might weigh on the balance of universities, but vital values nonetheless because they are human, they are inclusive, because they are the values of the civilization we are striving towards. Inside and outside academia.

All these universities are citing the maagdenhuis as their inspiration and we are delighted with this unintended result of our actions. Every new message lifts our spirits, and nourishes our souls. “Toronto in the house” someone shouts “Dublin has posted their solidarity!”. We cheer, look each other in the eye and realize again that we are trying to change the world. To facilitate this global movement and connect the different universities we’ve decided to communicate in English more than in Dutch accept for issue that are explicitly local. We encourage the existing actions and hope for new ones to come. A wish we explicit on twitter by the hashtag #whosnext ?

Occupying a building is easy. It starts with five determined people in a room that don’t leave when security asks them to do so. What comes next is more difficult: agreeing on demands, negotiating with the board, maintaining a clear image in the press and marching across the institutions. We’ve been working on this for the last months and we will keep on working in the future. We are not (yet) satisfied with what our board has offered and want to stress the importance of a democratic elected board that can be held accountable and a research of the financial status of the university especially regarding real estate as well as our other demands.

We’ve noticed that the counterforce has been awakened. Last week 30 of our students were hit by the police in a narrow alley in a way that seems not entirely according to the regulations for student beating. In the media we perceive that the lack of progress in our negotiations with the board leads to a focus on less relevant issues. The frame that some journalists are trying to push is that the protest is seized by “professional radical activist”. We would like to know who is paying these people (Russia?) and wether they are currently hiring. We also encourage journalists to actively research this claim and present us the results. In our current view it’s different. Although some experienced activist have indeed joined our ranks, the majority consists of students who have found slightly more radical means after the democratic means were exhausted. The wearing of masks during demonstrations for instance has been a reaction of students on the 100.000 euro fines that the board tried to impose on specific students during the occupation of the Bungehuis. Wearing a mask during protests has been necessary for parts of our group although we try to keep an open character.

Our protest has not been a painless process. Students of our ‘University of Colour ‘ department have been threatened and others have been aggressively treated by media. But our movement is not saintly either. We regrettably have heard that one of our group has threatened a journalist of Folia. This does not benefit our movement and we want to fight with more peaceful means. We will try to prevent such incidents in the future but cannot, like a formal organization, control the behaviour of everyone. If such things would happen again we hope they will be reported immediately and solved on the spot.

We have turned the Maagdenhuis into a public place. Apart from the appropriation, apart from the internal and external negotiations and apart from being beaten in a narrow alley, we’ve run somewhat of a cultural centre over the last three weeks. We’ve had great speakers such as Gloria Wekker, Joris Luyendijk and David Graeber speaking to large crowds. We’ve had great bands like de Kift, Jungle by Night and the Mysterious Nomad Travellers (amazing!). We’ve had theatre workshops, cinema nights and endless discussions on everything. But all these activities should not lead attention away from our political fight.

Because we are an open space we are also currently attracting a minority of mentally fragile people who are attracting attention from the ever story searching media. These people are indeed in small numbers present in the Maagdenhuis, we wouldn’t want to hide this if we could for they are part of the society we live in, even if you normally don’t see them. Because we are striving towards an open, inclusive and human society we’ve not excluded anyone up until now and we hope to be able to maintain this . Should this be our pitfall, we will jump in it, consciously and with open eyes. But before we do so we urge media, big and small, to focus on the political process that is occurring, however slow that process may be.

A last word needs to be said about the red square that has become the symbol of this movement that originates from the Quebec protests of 2005. It refers to the English expression “Being squarely in red” which means having a high student debt and experiencing difficulties to pay that. This issue is very relevant in Anglo-Saxon cultures and is of increasing importance in the Netherlands where student subsidies will be cut as of next year resulting in ever increasing debts. This is a vital issue, way more vital than the resonance with some square in Moscow that is, by the way, originally baptized as “The beautiful square”. The red square became the symbol of the student protest in Quebec, and it has been adapted by student protests ever since.

May the word spread, may students and professors speak up and address their issues with or without occupation, may we live as if the universities and societies we want are already here.

With hope,

The Maagdenhuis



From Toronto …

Article written by various rank and file members of CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903.

As we enter now into the third week of strikes at two of Canada’s largest universities — the University of Toronto and York University — we believe this is a vital moment to reflect upon the aims shared by members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals 3902 and 3903, representing over 10,000 teaching assistants and course instructors with the majority of them graduate students at both University of Toronto and York University, and to explore the larger structural issues that led to strike actions at both campuses.

We contend that the casualization of academic labor and the commodification of education must be seen as components of the larger framework of the neoliberalization of state and society. This is seen quite sharply in the demands put forth by members of both CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903. The authors of this piece are a collective comprised of rank-and-file members from both CUPE locals. Our aim is to provide an analysis of the present situation with united voices, exploring linkages between these specific articulations and the ways in which our strikes are situated on the horizon of a growing movement.

While the particular details of each local’s bargaining position are specific to existent relations within each university, upon brief reflection it becomes remarkably clear that the foundational concerns raised in each case are symptomatic of the neoliberal restructuring of the university system, and indeed, of society at large, and represent a concerted push-back against austerity and the casualization and precarization of labor within and beyond the academic institution.

In conjunction with increasingly assertive organizing on the part of adjunct faculty across the continent, with a second round of student strikes about to kick off in Quebec, and with student occupations taking off across the Atlantic inLondon and Amsterdam, these concurrent strikes have become increasingly powerful articulations of an emergent student and contract labor movement growing across university campuses globally.

Sparking the match

CUPE 3902 at the University of Toronto was the first to declare the strike, on Friday, February 27, with York joining shortly thereafter. The University of Toronto strike deadline had been set months prior, but the employer had delayed bargaining until the very last minute, when at 3am, after a marathon negotiation session, it tried to push through a lackluster deal which the membership would swiftly and decisively reject.

The tentative agreement offered by the University of Toronto included minor wage increases, some limited financial allocations available by application for those in the final years of PhD studies, and several modest improvements in the language of the collective agreement, but it did not address the substantive issues members had entrusted the bargaining team to negotiate. In fact, written into the deal was the employer’s assertion that CUPE 3902 does not have the mandate to negotiate on either of the core matters which membership had authorized it to negotiate — an increase in the overall guaranteed minimum funding package of $15,000 per year, and a reduction or remission of tuition fees for graduate students beyond the funded years.

Given that teaching assistant and course instructor work is a requirement to fulfill more than half of that funding guarantee, this was widely seen as a political attempt by the administration to limit graduate students’ capacity to deploy our collective power as unionized workers and address the terms of our relationship with the university holistically.

In response to this insult, CUPE 3902 members raised picket lines at all three University of Toronto campuses the following Monday, and were joined by CUPE 3903 at York the very next day. Similarly, York’s offer also evaded the union’s core bargaining points, which included tuition indexation for all members, job security for contract faculty members, and a reasonable funding package for graduate assistants.

Tuition indexation ensures that every dollar added to graduate tuition fees is met in kind by additions to graduate student compensation. This was already won through a protracted strike in 2000-’01, and secured for all members of the local, but York’s administration recently reinterpreted the language and now claims that it only applies to students already under the collective agreement, excluding incoming students. As a result, the tuition fees of international graduate students increased by a whopping $7,000 in 2014.

A second core demand at York is for an increase in the guaranteed minimum funding to Research Assistants and Graduate assistants, currently set at $9,000 per year. In a city such as Toronto, in which the Low Income Cutoff (LICO) is set at $23,000, it is clear that guaranteed minimum funding at both universities leaves graduate students struggling substantially below a livable income.

The financial enterprise of knowledge production

The systemic indifference of university administrators towards the experience of graduate students and course instructors reflects the extent to which institutionalized knowledge-production has become a financial enterprise. In fact, this indifference marks a class conceit particular to the neoliberal moment. As David Graeber argues, the neoliberal university is exemplary of the emergence of a modern class alliance between financial elites and corporate bureaucrats, which he terms the professional-managerial class; a class position which university administrators have increasingly come to occupy over the past few decades.

Alongside the casualization of academic labor that marks diminishing prospects for the attainment of tenure-track professorship and replacement with highly insecure and poorly compensated adjunct teaching positions, there persists a hiring spree of senior administrators with progressively higher salaries and compensation packages emulating that of corporate executives. A brief glance at the Ontario Sunshine List, which shows the annual salaries throughout the past decade of any publicly employed person making over $100,000, reveals the bloated and rapidly increasing salaries of administrators at both universities.

Meanwhile, the ratio between senior administrators and tenured faculty is decreasing dramatically across universities in Ontario. This exemplifies an ongoing trend in which universities have become sites for the reproduction of the professional-managerial class; a reproduction that we emphatically insist comes at the expense of the political place of labor in our society.

The form this class reproduction assumes is unequivocally corporate. Universities are constantly engaged in orienting their policy outlook to the private interests of investors and shareholders, where “revenue shortfalls” and “budget surpluses” dictate policy, albeit without any change in employee working conditions either way, as the conditions of our current strikes reveal. After all, although U of T reported a budget surplus of $200million last year it refuses to negotiate the value of its guaranteed graduate funding, which hasn’t seen an increase since 2008. Meanwhile the average salary of a University of Toronto dean has risen by $20,000 since then.

Prioritizing “fiscal responsibility,” often at the expense of educational quality, universities are becoming technocratic financial institutions in all but name. Consequently “asset management” and “market value” have come to signify the quality of research and education on offer, both of which achieve popular mass consumption in the form of global institutional rankings, themselves evocative of corporate performance reviews.

And yet for all their pomp and “prestige,” such global indices belie the exploitative conditions that await international graduate students whose untenable economic position at our universities exemplifies the extreme edge of precarity experienced across the graduate student population. The often undervalued contributions graduate students make as cutting-edge researchers and contract education workers are essential to the international prestige of these institutions, and indeed, their very functioning.

The pedagogy of student indebtedness

Another crucial dimension in the reproduction of the neoliberal university is student indebtedness. With tuition fees increasing well above the rate of inflation on an annual basis in Ontario (by provincial law, universities can increase tuition by up to 5 percent per year), and with meager stipends that fall well below the poverty line, graduate students and course instructors are often forced to debt-finance the completion of their degrees.

As one CUPE 3902 union member succinctly puts it, when we speak about precarity in the university, we are primarily speaking about debt. Exemplary of a neoliberal strategy beginning in the 1970s, the right to a publicly funded education is increasingly being substituted with easy access to credit. And although the university is not a primary issuer of student loans, it plays a formative role in the financialization process by intentionally fostering mass student loan debts. Thus it is through student debt that we can more clearly discern how the university articulates and produces a larger neoliberal order based in the reproduction of financial capital.

Most importantly, student indebtedness designates a pedagogical dimension of the neoliberal university, one central to the reproduction of the professional-managerial class (or, more accurately, the sensibilities associated with this class). That is to say, in the name of their professionalization, students are taught through their debt to reflect on their status as human capital, or as University of Toronto administration has termed its students, “Basic Income Units.”

In order to acquire the habit of valorizing themselves through personal “investment” in their (unforeseeable) futures, they are taught to make an enterprise of themselves, engaging incessantly (and anxiously) in acts of self-marketing. As such, an audit-culture is instituted in the neoliberal university through an ethos of indebtedness whereby student-debtors are incessantly interpolated as manager-professionals split between the contrarian injunction to embrace risk and the prudent warning to take precautions against making bad investments.

Whose university? Our university!

At a recent solidarity rally outside the administrative offices of the University of Toronto, thousands of graduate and undergraduate students together chanted “Whose university? Our university!” With blinds tightly shuttered and campus police standing guard at each locked entrance, our voices rang in unison so that we might be clearly heard, if not seen, by the administrators cloistered within.

While our respective strikes are but a beginning, the terms in which they are articulated show clear linkages with a wider global struggle to reclaim the university as a public space for free and guaranteed accessible education for all. In this sense, the fight of striking student union members at the University of Toronto and York University for increases to the basic funding package, tuition relief and/or tuition indexation, and improvements to overall working conditions, cannot be separated from the wider global struggle for broad structural transformation within the fiscal and pedagogical governance of the contemporary university.

Students in Canada have been at the forefront of the struggle for high quality accessible education for all, with the 2012 student strikes in Quebec a telling example. The struggle of Quebec students against austerity challenged multiple aspects of neoliberal governance within and beyond the university setting. As striking Quebec students in 2012 articulated opposition to both proposed tuition increases and the sweeping northern development project Plan Nord, this movement cannot be separated from the struggle against the exploitation of land and resources, and the ongoing internal colonization of Indigenous territories. Indeed, in 2012 lines of solidarity were produced between Indigenous and student activists articulating an overall critique of neoliberal restructuring in all sectors, and a shift toward alternate visions for the futurity of political-economic relations.

The momentum of the present movement is escalating rapidly. Our own administrations have taken hard offensive lines against our unions necessitating prolonged strikes, while concurrently, Quebec students from 24 student unions across six Montreal campuses have declared a second wave of student strikes beginning March 21. From the picket lines on Keele, Mississauga, Scarborough, and St. George campuses in Toronto to the occupied Maagdenhuis (the main administration building of the University of Amsterdam), one thing is clear: resistance against the neoliberal regime within and beyond the university setting is growing, and it transcends the bounds of academia.

At present, we need solidarity across all universities and workers’ unions, whether through active participation in pickets, the launch of mirror strikes on other campuses, or the drafting of strong letters of support. CUPE 3902 and 3903 members must escalate our tactics in solidarity with supporters within and beyond the city of Toronto, and demonstrate the extent to which our labor is fundamental to the effective functioning of the university. Following a victory regarding our specific aims, we must ensure that any “back to work” agreement does not end in the abandonment of this wider struggle.

A victory for striking graduate student workers will signify a decisive step toward the reversal of neoliberal policy and provide an example and a source of inspiration for others moving forward. The momentum for a campus-based global anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal movement is strong at present. Our moment is now. We invite you to join us on the picket lines, out on the streets, and inside occupied administrative buildings. Together, We Strike to Win!


Jennifer Gibson, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
George Mantzios, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
Sardar Saadi, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
Behnam Amini, MA student in Social and Political Thought, York University
Gülay K?l?çaslan, PhD student in Sociology, York University

To follow events in Toronto, one may consult the CUPE 3902 strike information posts.

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