“Power goes to two poles – to those who’ve got the money and those who’ve got the people.” — Saul Alinsky
May 1st marks May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, when countless workers across the globe take to the streets to commemorate the sacrifice and struggle of a strong labour movement that faced state-sanctioned violence to bring us the 8-hour work day, wages, benefits, and safe working environments, while continuing to hold institutions and governments accountable in what shouldn’t be an uphill battle for fair working conditions and living wages but often is.
As a student at Memorial University for the past six years, I am no stranger to the immense contribution workers on our campus make, to allow students to learn in a safe and supportive environment. Despite the crumbling infrastructure due to years of upper level mismanagement, a profound amount of effort goes into keeping classrooms, hallways, and residences functional and free of clutter. Anxiety-driven late nights spent at the library during exam season were made tolerable by the friendly workers providing us with caffeine, snacks, and words of encouragement. I have had the privilege of interacting with faculty who perform cutting-edge research and critically analyze societal hierarchies in efforts to dismantle inequalities, who mentor dozens of student researchers and young academics, myself included. Furthermore, a lot of the foundational knowledge in various programs are owed to contract faculty who—unbeknownst to a lot of the students they teach—navigate job precarity, workplace abuse, and exploitation with little to no institutional protections.
Being on the board, and eventually the executive, of a students’ union deepened my profound appreciation of workers. Students, faculty, and staff have stood in solidarity against institutions that seem to constantly tread on the backs of students and workers. We have stood shoulder to shoulder against a bloated University administration that has a history of mismanagement of public funding through discretionary spending and extremely high salaries. Although we come from different perspectives, students and workers have collectively remained ever-vigilant against the increasing corporatization of our University. This creeping corporatization happens not just through growing corporate influence over our public institution, but also and especially through the imposition of corporate models of governance and business-style operations onto what is supposed to be a public good. This translates into the privatization of our public learning institution through tuition fees, contracting out labour, and cutting lower-level jobs.
Time and time again, students workers and the general public have collectively demanded better from a provincial government that shows no vision for the province and its homogeneous, shrinking, and aging demographic; a provincial government that fails to invest in public post-secondary education and the youth of this province, and seemingly fails to recognize the value of Memorial University not only as an economic generator, but as an institution that produces talented thinkers for this province and a more diverse, healthier community.
Mass movements are not new to this province
Newfoundland and Labrador is a province that is no stranger to the immense power of collective organizing. Just two years ago, this incredible power was on display as about 3,000 people, all coming from different parts of our communities, marched to the Confederation Building in a movement known as NL Rising. United against austerity measures that would severely erode the public sector and impact the most vulnerable members of our community, students and workers demanded better from elected leaders who are disproportionately comprised of the wealthy elite. This movement has been crucial to saving public libraries and reversing the book tax in a province that has one of the lowest literacy rates in Canada.
Student-worker solidarity comes from an understanding of the institutional and systemic perpetuation of income inequality, and the importance of coming together against the wealthy who continuously download costs onto the backs of those who are most vulnerable. Amidst the tightening squeeze of budget cuts and job losses, in these times of desperation it is all too easily fall prey to fighting amongst ourselves—to scramble for scraps while wealthy administrators and politicians get to preserve the wealth. It is imperative to recognize that the question of who gets to claim vulnerability, and which community gets prioritized, are distractions—intended to foster an individualistic approach to a collective problem. It is crucial that we recognize that united, we are stronger, and that our experiences are connected in a multitude of ways. Students will be, or already are, part of the workforce in a province where the distribution of wealth is so dire: recently released income figures for 2015 by the Canada Revenue Agency show that over half the population in the province earns one-fifth of its total income, while a fifth of the population earn more than half. It is also important to recognize that we do not live in silos. A huge chunk of university students come from low-income families and have taken on massive amounts of student debt in the hopes of pulling their working-class parents and families out of poverty.
The month of May brings about many uncertainties. The weather swings from double digits to almost freezing, we have a government that seems to be entertaining the idea of yet another megaproject despite still reeling from a boondoggle that will poison Labrador’s Indigenous people, and Memorial University’s Board of Regents votes on fee hikes and budget cuts that have a huge impact on the future of this province. In the face of yearly cuts from government to Memorial University’s operating budget; an ongoing failure to invest in our post-secondary institutions; and a University administration that treads on workers and students alike, we need solidarity more than ever. Everything that makes our lives good today—from the eight-hour work day, to affordable post-secondary education, to safe working environments—has been won through struggle. The time to organize is now.