In an article in the Nov. 12 issue of the Manitoban, “UMSU Gets it Right With Political Neutrality”, Ethan Cabel asserts that political action has a limited place within the mandate of today’s student unions. Singling out the “radical” University of Winnipeg Students’ Association, where we are executive members, he suggests that our student activism is out of touch with the needs of our membership.
We beg to differ. Were we to pursue Cabel’s “neutral” path to student unionism, the result would be devoid of meaning and direction. Instead of passively accepting inequalities and injustices, we choose a different path.
As tuition fees continue to rise, outstripping inflation, it’s clear that more and more students are having a tougher time paying for their education. It now takes twice as long for a student working a minimum wage job to pay for one year of tuition as it did in 1972. Average student debt in Canada stands at $27,000, while the total federal student debt has ballooned to over $15 billion and continues to grow.
As Cabel points out, this has consequences on the livelihoods of university students, who are forced to work longer hours, for low wages, all while balancing an education with severe implications for their future should they fail. As the pressures mount, students are increasingly put in precarious and unjust positions in their pursuit of higher education.
Students’ unions are witnessing the impact of this. Too many students don’t know where their next meal will be coming from. This year, we have seen the percentage of University of Winnipeg Students’ Association Food Bank users who are students increase to 25 per cent. Demand for our new Student Support Program—offering emergency food, housing, and transportation—continues to grow.
A high debt load and a lack of personal stability isn’t just a burden for the student. Debt makes graduates less likely to start a family or take on entrepreneurial risk. Insecurity stifles creation and muzzles the opportunity afforded to those who access higher education.
This is troubling, as universities are fundamentally agents of change. As institutions, they provide opportunities for research, debate, disagreement, and ultimately progress. Our responsibility is to build a better world on behalf of our members: to break down the barriers between the rich and poor, the privileged and the oppressed, the haves and the have-nots.
If our union fails to challenge an economic system that forces students to attend class on an empty stomach amidst a sea of food waste and conspicuous consumption; that ignores the intersectionality of economic privilege with patriarchy, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia; then we must be judged to have failed.
Cabel is correct that there are “no easy answers to some of the problems post-secondary institutions must confront.” Rather than shying away from the challenge, student unions have a responsibility to embrace it.
We must not simply acquiesce to the pressures of the present. We must defy, innovate, and strive to address our shortcomings with a fierce belief in the art of collective action.
We are proud to partner with groups like the Winnipeg Peoples’ Social Forum, trade unions, and indigenous movements that share our values and vision of a fairer society. The same neoliberal doctrine that undermines workers’ rights and slashes environmental protections also starves our post-secondary institutions of funding and forces students to graduate with crippling debt loads.
Cabel labels the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) as “notorious for harbouring a left-wing or social democratic ideology.” Perhaps he’s forgotten the gains made by working people in Canada; public healthcare, a national pension plan, old age security, and employment insurance are available to him because of the victories won by progressives.
We’re proud to build on this legacy through our membership in the CFS. We’ve been able to secure gains that not only work towards larger social goals, but better the lives of our members immediately. Ask one of the over 350,000 students that are now able to access $695 million in federal student grants; ask any international student who can now rely on the same health coverage all Manitobans benefit from. Far from the irrelevance that Cabel characterizes it as, the CFS is a genuine force for policy changes that directly benefit students and society as a whole.
The late American historian Howard Zinn famously said that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” In the face of a post-secondary system that is increasingly inaccessible, the persistence of racism, homophobia, and misogyny on our campuses and a labour market where the only jobs for young people seem to be part-time or precarious, “neutrality” means a forfeiture of responsibility.
“Neutrality” is the facade behind which the unimaginative, unambitious defenders of the status quo hide. While we all have different life experiences and identities, students share a desire to be treated equitably inside and outside the classroom. If receiving flak from pundits is the price we pay for seeking this goal, we’re glad to pay it.
Rorie Mcleod Arnould, president of the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association, and Peyton Veitch, vice-president advocate of the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association