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Solidarity or else: the state of democracy in the CFS

by Ashleigh Ingle

Photo of Quebec students CFS meeting from twitter by @MorganCrockett "Québec component meeting. Oh, wait they all decertified."
Photo of Quebec students CFS meeting from twitter by @MorganCrockett "Québec component meeting. Oh, wait they all decertified."
Ashleigh at the Ontario Student strike training camp (photo: The Indignants)
Ashleigh at the Ontario Student strike training camp (photo: The Indignants)
Photo of graffiti outside the CLASSE office during the student strike, text reads "The fight is on the streets" (Megan Kinch)
Photo of graffiti outside the CLASSE office during the student strike, text reads "The fight is on the streets" (Megan Kinch)

I'm Ashleigh Ingle and I'm from the UofT Graduate Students' Union. I'm here to speak to you a bit about the current state of CFS and possible directions for our collective future. When we come together like this, with student organizers from across the country, what I really hope we can do is talk about strategy.

 We have access to campuses across the country and if we decide to, can have a significant effect on the strategies employed by the Canadian student movement as a whole. But we need to have frank discussions, not just about specific campaigns or the production of materials, but the over-arching tactical and political orientation of the CFS.

The first thing I would like to address is the issue of democracy. Contrary to what I've heard many times throughout this and other AGMs, democracy is not just a buzz word. The nature of our organizational democracy is a political debate that needs to be had. Partially because of the Quebec student strike, the issue of student association structures and decision-making processes has become a recent topic of conversation – but this is not the first time this conversation has happened. The perceived top-down, undemocratic nature of CFS has been a long-standing concern of local executives and members for years, and has been raised at multiple AGMs. These conversations have historically been met with hostility, aggression and ad-hominem attacks. If you are interested in learning more about these interactions, I would recommend that you look for documents, which are available online, such as “Solidarity for their own good” and “The CFS is broken and can't be fixed”. The CFS runs in a representative democratic structure, where power exists in the hands of executives, increasingly at the provincial and national levels, and decisions are significantly influenced by the opinions of long-term staff. There is also a deeply embedded paranoia of being public about our internal practices, often justified by the specter of a right-wing attack of our organization. Even in this AGM, myself and others who have put forward critiques of the status quo have been called right-wingers and have been accused of trying to break down the student movement. The truth is that CFS is its own worst enemy in this regard. It is through this tendency towards secrecy and consolidating power that we alienate our members – especially those in the left-wing – and we provide fuel to the arguments of those few people who actually wish to undermine the student movement. This is self-defeating and self-perpetuating. This secrecy and consolidation of power leads to legitimate criticisms, in the face of these criticisms CFS moves towards greater secrecy and a greater consolidation of power in order to protect itself from these supposed attacks.

This is exactly what played out with our sister student unions from McGill and Concordia, who held defederation votes in 2010 in response to what they perceived to be the undemocratic practices of CFS, and to the hostility and dismissal that they received at the 2009 AGM when they tried to put forward reforms as member locals of CFS. These 3 defederation votes all had record high turnouts for those institutions – higher than any vote or referendum they had ever had on any topic, including joining CFS – and the students overwhelmingly voted to defederate. The Concordia undergrads voted 72% to leave CFS, The Concordia grads voted 75%, and the McGill grads voted 86% to defederate – based on the treatment that those locals received when they tried to reform their student federation at the national level and based on what they saw as systemic undemocratic processes. The CFS' response to that was to deny the democratic will of those members to the point that their local names are still being read out during roll call till this day, the CFS is still trying to collect dues from these students, even though none of those student associations consider themselves members. They have been mobilizing quite successfully on those campuses. These defederation votes came from critical leftists, not right-wingers. They all had substantial student strike actions on their respective campuses only two years later. This is the first time that this has occurred in the history of these Universities and it happened without CFS.

This is no way to maintain our membership. In fact, the CFS is currently hemorrhaging members and this type of behaviour will only make this worse. As the McGill graduate student union said in the statement that they asked for me to read at this AGM, “Perhaps, as the CFS ponders why student unions might wish to defederate from it, in lieu of searching for some potential flaw or fault within the member union, the CFS would do well to reflect on its own internal practices”. I would like to put forward that we need to move towards participatory democracy and a strategic not legalistic orientation to local autonomy.
We need to be working on the development of the decision-making structures required for us to have membership determined actions, where the job of the executive is to facilitate member education, and ensure that the decisions of the membership are followed through on and made effective. As we've seen in the Quebec student strike, it is collectively-determined sustained actions that exert the financial pressure that will lead to results in our struggles. We can participate in the dissemination of information to our fellow members through our organizing networks about the power of direct democracy and the need for organizing that involves workplace actions, student strikes and other efforts that will assert financial pressure on our educational institutions, businesses and government. Then they will take our demands seriously because they will be actual demands – where we have leverage behind them to ensure they are carried out.

We need to decide whether we want to continue towards being the largest consumer products company to ever masquerade as a social movement or whether we want to be a real combative union of students who will run based on member mandates and use collective direct action to achieve our demands.

We don't just have strength in numbers; it's about what we do with those numbers and I hope that we can make the time now to have a fruitful discussion about what the most effective use of our numbers really is. I would say that it's using directly-democratic structures to ensure that we fully empower our members and make our best pitch for the types of actions that have proven themselves to be effective: those that exert real pressure.

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