Crisis in the SFUO and the way forward

There is a lot more than what appears on the surface concerning the financial crisis at the student federation (SFUO). As a militant anti-capitalist organization active on campus for 6 years now, we have been a part of, observed and struggled with the SFUO for some time and have noted what we have identified as structural weaknesses leading to an inevitable collapse as a center of power for students on campus. This is why the founders of our predecessor organization, the Marxist Student Association, broke with the politics of the core of left-wing militants who were struggling for power over the SFUO in the late 2000s and sought to lead a different way forward for the mass of students[1]. The current crisis is another sign that liberal politics are in decay at the SFUO and unfortunately it is afflicting students as well.

We’ll explain in this article how the crisis in the SFUO originated and how it’s negatively impacting us. We’ll also talk about how we can overcome this and organize ourselves to defend our interests not only as working-class students on campus but also to support the wider struggle for liberation from all exploitation and oppression.

The problem unfortunately runs deeper than this year’s budgetary situation. The current politics ruling over the SFUO are largely the result of a takeover by liberal, social-democratic student politicians with the support of radical militants in the late 2000s. The people who would later found the Marxist Student Association were then part of a wide coalition of militants organizing against tuition fees and in support of other progressive causes, such as opposing imperialist wars. One of the highlights of that time was when hundreds of students protested a planned talk by Ann Coulter in Marion Hall and forced her to abandon, in 2010. While never getting close to resisting the increase of tuition fees and other negative measures of the administration, the coalition did succeed in setting up a strong enough base to dominate student politics in campus over a number of years, and to get by referendum the SFUO to re-integrate the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), a liberal student union with locals (including many in dispute) across Canada but mainly centred on Ontario. The radical, combative movement that made this push would then gradually shift to reformist perspectives and bureaucratic tactics, forming a layer of cliquey student politicians. At the same time, through the connection with the CFS, the leading student bureaucrats placed the SFUO into a wide network of liberal organizations, chief of which were labour unions like CUPE, and the New Democrat Party (NDP), turning the SFUO into basically a revolving-door / escalator for aspiring politicians. To put it in other terms, the SFUO was sucked into a bureaucratic machine, and its resources were more and more preyed upon by bigger organizations.

In more details, a certain faction from the initial militant core set out to expand the organization’s bureaucracy rather than focus on building mass support and democracy on campus. From their elected position as executives, they built up a network of bureaucrats throughout the various departments and service centers of the SFUO, which would become their support base to engineer the re-orientation of the SFUO as a stepping stone for the bigger liberal organizations such as the labour unions and the NDP. By adding more and more positions and hiring their supporters, with the promise of further advancement as everyone graduating through the SFUO executive seemed to be moving on to fancy staffing jobs at the CFS, at CUPE locals and with NDP members of parliament, they established an effective support base that was constantly working to uphold the politics in power and direct the SFUO’s resources and the militancy on campus toward those ends.

But to keep things going, the mechanics had to be sheltered from oversight. What little transparency and accountability there existed in student politics at uOttawa at the time, it was thrown by the wayside; one of the ways this was done was to declaw the union of SFUO staffers, CUPE 4943, to render it unable to defend employees from the politics of management. Exec sympathisers were promoted to union leadership and gradually allowed their friends to strip the collective agreement of its power to resist management, paving the way for them to manipulate hiring for their political advantage. A toxic atmosphere of liberalism and opportunism set in the SFUO, causing lasting damage among people there. Another way bureaucratic control was installed was through the creation of the executive coordinator position; this un-elected, permanent, cushy and seemingly unsupervised job was designed to keep the CFS’  liberal politics in command at the SFUO in case some exec positions still ended up being lost to opponents, generally self-assuming conservatives, during elections. This is a common tactic employed by the CFS throughout its locals to ensure its hold over them. Needless to say, this position was consistently staffed with supporters who had carried the torch for the organization and subsequently went on to other bureaucratic positions in the movement. Through this kind of approach, the social-democrats were able to maintain their hold over quite some time in spite of consistent opposition from the anti-CFS right.

Energy was also sucked out of the combative left-wing elements on campus to sustain the machinery. Any legacy of combativeness as well as autonomy was drained away from the service centers for women, for queer people, for disabled people, for international students and others. Those centers came into existence as a result of intense struggle from oppressed people who wanted a center from which they could build resistance, but they were over time co-opted into the liberal SFUO politics. Similarly, the climate justice movement that was burgeoning in the early 2010s was diverted to make bureaucratic gains, and the more recent victories arising from intense mass work, such as the U-Pass and the healthcare insurance, were treated as mere services that only required an “apolitical” management, serving to justify the straight-up bureaucratization. This partly explains why the gap between the dues paid for the health insurance and its costs was allowed to increase since 2011; the health insurance was no longer being sustained as a material interest for the mass of students that needed to be fought for constantly. In this way, the SFUO began losing effectiveness even in its basic delivery of services, especially to students who needed them the most. Each scandal that made it into the news was another sign of cracks in the machine, from the fireworks debacle to Yogagate, from the sudden mass firings of last April to the unprecedented waiting lines for U-Pass this Fall.

Perhaps most sadly, the liberal direction over the SFUO failed to provide the leadership to tackle emerging problems arising on campus. The ills of rape culture, sexual harassment and the attempts by a tenured professor to organize students in an anti-feminist, misogynist and trans-phobic group for example require more mass action. There has been a lot of good work by many individuals from within student associations on campus, which has led to the issue of rape culture and specific acts of sexual harassment and violence to attain wide public attention, but it has so far been left to the initiative of the university administration. The mass of students, and especially gender-oppressed people, need be empowered to defend themselves against these threats. That is why we advocate organizing to fight the aforementioned anti-feminist group known as CAFE which actively denies the existence of rape culture and labels feminists as threats, while harbouring militant islamophobes and white supremacists. As well, the shameful loss by the administration of the personal information of hundreds of students who used accessibility services is another matter that should be met with more militant response. Under the democratic control of the mass of students, the SFUO could be brought more effectively to use in such campaigns.

Similarly, when it came to fighting tuition, which is most often used to justify the existence of the CFS, any expectations there were also fell flat. The CFS strategy on this issue amounts to nothing more than plain lobbying of politicians, cloaked in progressive discourse and assorted with stunt actions every 2 or 3 years. At the most crucial times in recent years, the CFS and the SFUO execs made little to no effort to express solidarity with and draw lessons from the student movement in Québec, the only movement that has had any success in Canada when it comes to fighting tuition fees. In 2015, when another attempt was made to launch a student strike in Québec and was facing heavy repression, and while the RSM was organizing a day of action of solidarity, the CFS and its local hacks were too busy networking on Parliament Hill to even pay attention. At best, the CFS will organize a “day of action” every 5 years or so to prove its combativeness, but these efforts do nothing to undermine the power of the bourgeois government and university administrations. The fact that for an 11th consecutive year now, the university has increased its fees, including an exponential growth over the year for international students, should lead everyone to reconsider the approach that has been taken.

From the beginning, as the Marxist Student Association and then as the RSM, we called for a different path to be taken, for attacking the roots of the system. We realized that fighting against tuition fees was part of a wider struggle against our exploitation and oppression as a class; the terms set out by the oppressing state and its academic institutions are only meant to disempower and manipulate us. As working-class students, we have to connect with the wider struggle for our liberation, and within our context, we have to build up a counter-power to defend our interests and win victories.

This is why in 2013 and 2014 we campaigned for GAs to be established, which was successful, in spite of opposition from such mainstream groups as the campus associations of both the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. It has been a struggle since then however to make effective use of the GAs, but we will continue to encourage students to use them and this year, more than ever, working-class students have a chance to turn things around in their favour.

The liberal politicians who ruled over the SFUO for all those years and who fooled so many militants into their trap are at their core a clique of petty-bourgeois students, attempting to draw power from their bureaucratic positions to go up while building themselves a nice base of loyal supporters. What is also interesting to note is that the first wave of these student politicians were overwhelmingly from white, settler backgrounds, while the next wave that succeeded them are in majority from racialized, colonized-nations backgrounds, who are left to pick up the pieces while a good number among the former are safely installed in their staffer positions further up the chain. Those petty-bourgeois politicians have caused enough damage, and they must never be allowed again to have leadership over left-wing organizing. More than ever, it is time for working-class students to chart their own path and organize their own power.

The MER-RSM will continue its efforts to organize students in this direction. If you want to participate in our initiatives, come to our general meeting on October 20, where we will discuss openly our plans for the coming year. This will include motions to bring to the GA to improve the situation and empower students with regards to the SFUO, as well as the continuation of our campaign to root out MRAs on campus, and participation in the planned day of action against tuition fees. There will also be other meetings and activities over the course of the semester. Nothing is lost! With mass work and organization, we can not only turn things around, but turn our student union into a powerful weapon at the service of the people!

[1] On this topic, you can read an in-depth analysis written by one of those militants in 2010, titled “Whither the student movement in Ottawa”

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