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June 10, 2011

Which way forward for the University of Toronto General Assembly?

by Farshad Azadian


The University of Toronto (UofT) General Assembly, initiated primarily by a group of left-wing students at the University of Toronto, was launched on January, 2011. The first gathering of the assembly saw a hall packed with some 200 students, workers and community members. Many experienced activists were present. More importantly, however, was the participation of a significant number of youth who were recently politicized and interested in organizing.

The immense success of the assembly is a testament to both the long-term work that leftists and revolutionaries have done on the campus and the growing challenges facing working class youth who are struggling to pay for university and to find jobs in their fields. Furthermore, it indicates the real desire for struggle at the University of Toronto among students and workers, challenging the common refrain that students are apathetic.

The presence of many rank-and-file workers and faculty at UofT who participated in the assembly is of great importance. The struggle of students must be linked with the broader labour movement, beginning with campus workers. That the assembly, at its first gathering, was attended by teaching assistants, professors, cafeteria staff and clerical employees expresses the strong sentiment of student-worker solidarity at the university.

The broad support of campus workers came about through the patient and committed work of student radicals at the University of Toronto, many of whom are the organizers of the General Assembly, and who consistently mobilized in support of workers organized with Canadian Union of Public Employees, UNITE and the United Steelworkers. These efforts must be given their due respect.

It is very clear that the U of T General Assembly was, from the outset, a very capable body with the potential to be the force of the organized broad left to intervene at the university, and to organize, train and educate the hundreds of youth who are being radicalized in the coming period of economic crisis, austerity, layoffs and cuts.

Unfortunately, the General Assembly will not achieve its potential if it continues to organize as it has over the last two meetings. These criticisms are laid out in a comradely spirit, but with a sense of urgency.

The most important thing that all organizers must keep in mind is the importance of action. Democracy means nothing if those decisions do not translate into concrete movement. This is especially true for newly radicalized youth as well as workers.

The fact of the matter is that the attendance of the second assembly was perhaps half of the first. It is true that some trouble-making right-wing students did not attend the second assembly, but there was also visibly fewer left-wing oriented new students at the second meeting. Conversations with many fresh faces at the assembly as well as an academic worker, who indicated he would not attend again, is indicative of this frustration. If things continue the way they are going, the assembly will undoubtedly fall apart.

The reason for this frustration rests on several inter-related aspects. The organization and technical aspects of the assembly have meant that concrete political discussion and debate have typically been avoided on the plenary floor, as have discussions on concrete campaigns. As a result, real activism that can engage new radicals into political agitation (leafleting and tabling among other students), organizing public forums and organizing political action has not occurred. This is the fundamental aspect of all left-wing organizations, and this is how new members can get integrated, involved and trained in class struggle politics.

To correct this, all political discussions on questions of principles and broad direction must happen on the floor of the entire assembly, and not in working groups. Majority votes (ie. 50% plus one) must be taken for all concrete decisions and debates (except constitutional ones). This would prevent the right-wing or bureaucratic stifling of the assembly, by a small minority, who do not want to see a militant activist orientation. As has been displayed, relying on the working groups as the major organizing body has failed. Most do not operate and serve to scatter the General Assembly’s energies. The working groups should be made secondary organizing bodies that are struck up to co-ordinate concrete campaigns in-between assembly meetings, and whose direction is discussed by the entire group during the assembly.

Rank-and-file students and workers will not stick around for exhausting four-hour meetings on organizational matters that are regularly disrupted by the speech-making of the right-wing. They want action. They want solutions to their pressing problems.

At the last assembly, held on March 1st, the supporters of Fightback and many activists around them engaged the assembly to support two resolutions, one on Free Education and another on building a Campaign for Free Education (see below). The resolutions, which the majority of the crowd was interested in discussing, was shot-down from the agenda despite a majority vote, because two-thirds support was needed to adjust the agenda. A two-thirds vote is an absurd way of carrying forward a massive assembly, and allows student bureaucrats and the right-wing who are afraid of real political debate to stifle the movement.

The assembly needs open political discussion and debate on concrete campaigns. The Campaign for Free Education is the bread & butter struggle that will relate to the tens of thousands of students across this province who are struggling to pay their tuition fees and are leaving school with massive amounts of debt. The assembly must play a central role in raising this demand, popularizing it through agitation and forums, and directly pressuring and intervening in the Student Union locals (of the CFS) to challenge the apathetic leadership as to ensure the organizing of mass demonstrations and student strike action.

We hope that these arguments will be considered by our fellow activists. Our hope is that the left can unite itself on concrete principles and demands, and begin to move forward. In this regard, we are committed to supporting the UofT General Assembly despite our concerns that it will fail unless it puts politics and activism in command.

U of T


Resolution #1: Free Post-Secondary Education

Whereas tuition fees have increased by over 300% since 1993, far exceeding the inflation rate and the earning power of the majority of Canadians.

Whereas rising tuition fees makes post-secondary education inaccessible for many youth and working class people.

Whereas for most students, the cost of education is one of the most relevant and impacting challenges they face in their day-to-day lives.

Whereas the Canadian government has made it clear that funding for Free Post-Secondary Education exists, through massive spending over the past year on fighter jets, the war in Afghanistan, G20 summits, corporate tax-cuts and bailouts.

Be it resolved that the UofT General Assembly make the struggle for free and universal education a central priority.

Resolution #2: Campaign for Free Education

Whereas students and workers in Ontario have, in the past, significantly mobilized against tuition fees.

Whereas students in Quebec pay the lowest tuition fees in Canada, largely due to their willingness to protest and engage in strike actions against fee increases.

Whereas students in Britain have engaged in a very successful and popular campaign of mass protests and university occupations against massive fee increases.

Be it resolved that the UofT General Assembly engage in a Campaign for Free Education, which would include student mobilization and political education among students, workers and the broader community.

Be it further resolved that the UofT General Assembly, being made of rank-and-file union members, put pressure upon UTSU, APUS and the GSU to stand up for the interests of the membership by taking a lead on a province-wide campaign for free education.

Be it further resolved that the UofT General Assembly call for annual student union-organized plebiscites to allow students to vote to take strike action against tuition fees.

Reprinted with permission of the author at Fightback