By Roshan Bliss
Students often find themselves with little to no substantive representation on campus, and in recent years, many have turned to building student unions
Over the last few months, it had appeared that the faculty of Portland State University would be going on strike for the first time the school’s history as negotiations over a new contract with the PSU administration stalled. The strike date was set for April 16th, but just days before, it was averted as the PSU administration and the faculty union – the PSU branch of the American Association of University Professors (PSU AAUP) – came to an agreement.
The PSU AAUP worked hard to bring enough pressure on the administration to force it to give PSU faculty a fair deal, but one aspect of how the union built up enough pressure to win the new contract has been underreported – the support and solidarity offered by the student union. The students of PSU recently formed the Portland State University Student Union (PSUSU), and the PSU AAUP’s efforts were bolstered every step of the way in the recent negotiations by the extra pressure being brought by PSUSU’s student organizing.
The effectiveness of Portland students’ supportof their teachers is part of an important trend on US campuses. Despite the fact that they pay thousands of dollars in tuition each semester, students often find themselves with little to no substantive representation on campus, and in recent years, many have turned to building student unions (no, not the confusingly named “student union” buildings on campus). And especially since the widely celebrated, though little publicized, success of the 2012 student strike in Quebec, a veritable student unionism movement been spreading across the country – a trend which bodes well not only for students themselves, but also for teachers increasingly being squeezed by austerity policies in education.
The PSUSU’s success is an important lesson in what is possible when students and teachers work in solidarity. In the age of austerity and budget cuts to education, teachers and students have many mutual interests to defend. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions (and, in the case of many graduate student employees and student athletes, working conditions). The more that students and teachers to use their combined influence to steer institutions of education, the more those institutions will become democratized and serve the interests of the public.
To help gain a better understanding of the situation, PSU student and PSUSU organizer Cameron Frank shared his insights on the dynamics recent PSU labor struggle and the burgeoning student unionism movement.
What is the PSUSU?
Cameron Frank: The Portland State University Student Union is union of students – though not in the traditional sense of a bureaucratic trade union. We’re a coalition of student organizations and individual students founded on the principles of horizontality, equality, & direct democracy. We use direct action and community organizing tactics to bring students together in order to leverage our collective power around the causes and struggles that affect our lives.
We’re a group of radicals, volunteers, activists, organizers, militants, parents, workers, and everything in between, but we’re all students at Portland State who see our university as an institution experiencing a crisis of democracy; put simply, students pay but have no say. We see PSUSU as eventually becoming an open decision-making structure capable of empowering students to collaboratively decide what kind of university we really need, and how we can go about bringing the fruit of that process into existence.
How did PSUSU form? What did its initial work look like?
CF: PSUSU began during a conversation I had in a Portland bar this summer with Inna Levin, another member of a debt-resistance organization on campus, just after I attended the 2013 National Student Power Convergence in Madison, WI. We were encouraged to see hundreds of students from all over the U.S. at that gathering working to build student unions modeled after the Quebecois student union, ASSÉ, which was behind the 2012 student strikes there known as the Maple Spring. Our student activist group, the PSU Student Action Coalition (StAC), had been talking about starting a student union at Portland State for some months, but last August we actually sat down and really hashed out a specific vision and a campaign for executing that vision.
That same week a friend of mine got working on a logo and we never looked back, never doubted it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Maple Spring really changed absolutely everything about student organizing in North America, or at least, it showed us in the States what has always actually been possible given the right conditions and the right organizing. Since tuition in the U.S. has gone up 1120% in the past three decades, and with the administration of Barack Obama set to make $127,000,000,000 from student loans this year, it is starkly apparent that no one will be saving our generation but ourselves, and that the moment for action has never before been so utterly crucial.
In mid-September, Inna and I basically brought forward a proposal to StAC to make building a directly-democratic student union our campaign for the foreseeable future. Our thinking was that the best way to fight student loan debt and the neoliberalization of public higher education would be to build the kind of popular power we would need to take control of the university itself, rather than waiting in vain for the legislative intervention that, by now, we should all know is never coming.
Campaign-wise, the Fall term we began with a petition to freeze tuition, administrative salaries, hold a student referendum on deputizing our campus security office, create a safe-walk program to combat sexual assault, and to call on the administration to sign mutually acceptable contracts with our full-time and adjunct faculty unions. Any student who signed the petition became an automatic member of the student union.
After four short weeks of working with supportive faculty to rap dozens of classes, we delivered the petition on Halloween 2013 to our university president, Wim Wiewel, with more than 700 signatures, at which point we engaged in a spirited debate as to whether or not the sort of job he was doing was truly deserving of his nearly $500,000 yearly salary before walking out of the conference room en masse. One week later, administrative salaries were frozen for the next two years, though Wiewel took the credit himself for such an ingenious cost-cutting measure instead acknowledging that he did it in part because students demanded it.
Five months on, our membership has hit just over 1,000, we have roughly two dozen active organizers, a stipended organizing fellowship program funded through local labor, a collectively drafted and ratified values charter, and a variety of promotional and recruitment materials to spread around campus.
How and why did PSUSU come to be involved in the AAUP faculty struggle at PSU? What role did the group and students on campus play in it?
CF: PSUSU was invited to join in a coalition with our campus labor unions to coordinate our collective organizing, and we’ve just won our biggest campaign to date, an eleven-month struggle for a faculty contract that protects academic freedom, democratic shared governance of the university, markedly improves job security for precariously employed faculty, and puts our tuition dollars where they belong: back in the classroom.
I think faculty, particularly faculty involved in the union, recognized early on the potential that a mobilized student body could have for changing the way our university operates. Last spring, before we even founded PSUSU, a few members of the PSU-AAUP came to one of our meetings to ask for support in their contract struggle. They explained that the administration was beginning an unprecedented attack on contract language that since 1978 gave legal protections to the faculty’s role in determining the direction of the university, among other things, and that such a strategy could very well lead to what would be the first faculty strike in Oregon history. Their ask of us was simply that we nominate a delegate to observe collective bargaining and stay engaged with the process as it moved forward. I was going to be around for most of the summer, so I took on the role of attending bargaining meetings.
By the time summer had ended, our collective attitude with regard to bargaining had shifted: we knew there might be a faculty strike, and we saw the need to organize students to stand with them, because together we can actually win some really important changes in the university. The aggression and outright disdain demonstrated by the administration’s bargaining team, both in terms of tactics and general attitude, had catalyzed the situation into something far bigger than just a union contract. At one point, the administration’s team went so far as to call a proposal by the faculty union for contract language to improve student to faculty ratios and other academic quality related provisions “ludicrous.”
Negotiations became more and more contentious as the school year wore on, until in late November, when the administration unilaterally called for a state mediator to intervene as the faculty union refused to accept their premises such as a manufactured budget crisis and the need for greater “flexibility” to remain “competitive”. Due to the administration’s recalcitrant position, mediation was even less productive than regular face-to-face negotiations, and by the end of winter term, nearly 50 hours of mediation had failed to produce results.
On Thursday, April 3, 2014, President Wiewel’s administration became the first in the state to ever be served with a strike notice after the faculty union voted 94% in favor of authorizing the bargaining team to call a strike.
Throughout the fall and winter, PSUSU held information sessions about the potential strike, oriented new organizers, visited classes, tabled in the park, hung flyers like mad, and organized a late February walkout of nearly 1,000 people in the pouring rain by utilizing a text loop.
Following the walkout, campus publications began running cover stories drawing parallels between the contemporary campus atmosphere and the 1970 PSU student strike following the Kent State Massacre which culminated in a 5-day occupation of the university and several blocks of downtown Portland.
As spring term began, the campus was alight with both anticipation and confusion around a potential strike. Of the 25 department chairs in the College of Liberal Arts & Science, 24 wrote an open letter to President Wiewel declaring that his plans to scab the jobs of nearly 1,300 professors and academic professionals were patently absurd. Following a nearly 3 days of marathon contract negotiations, the administration finally caved on nearly every issue and at 5:23am, April 6th, I watched as the two bargaining teams signed a tentative agreement – notably, the last day students could withdraw for a full refund. After 11 months, our hard work had come to fruition, but also, PSUSU as an organization had left a branded mark on university politics for years to come.
Ultimately, it was not PSUSU alone that helped win a faculty contract that will force Portland State to begin to move in a more just direction. What we managed to accomplish would not have been possible without our allies in other student groups, PSU AAUP, ASPSU (student government), SEIU 503 (campus staff), PSUFA-AFT (the adjunct faculty union), and the support of the Portland community at large, particularly those who had also helped support the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) in a parallel struggle.
The unity that bloomed this year between students, faculty, and workers has set a powerful precedent. Now that we’ve won a student-centered contract, the next and far larger fight is for a student-centered and student-controlled university. Those affected by decisions should be the ones making them, and an out-of-touch, parasitic class of professionalized bureaucrats who PSU pays $44 million annually (based on data obtained through PSU H.R. via collective bargaining) have decidedly proven themselves unfit for the task of governing our city’s public university with intelligence, mutuality, and the necessary imagination that the crisis in which public higher education now finds itself requires.
Many people question student unionism, saying that students are already represented by student governments on campus, so the union isn’t needed. Why form a student union? What do you think a student union’s relationship to student government and the administration should be?
CF: We founded PSUSU this Fall because we saw that the inside strategy of student government on its own was not capable of making the kinds of changes to our university that students really needed, and that we needed yesterday; there needed to be a complimentary outside strategy – a concentrated radical voice capable of catalyzing action in a way that student government simply cannot.
We don’t presume to represent the student body (no one is elected; we’re all volunteers). Rather, we see PSUSU as a channel through which students can create for ourselves the voice we are being denied by university administration and those who deliberately profit off of our collective misery and indebtedness. We can no longer defer solely to those representing – or claiming to represent – our interests for us. For PSUSU, direct democracy means students ourselves are the main actors in our struggle for a better university.
Many have offered far deeper critiques of student government elsewhere than I intend to here, though again, I do want to really stress that we work with student government literally constantly and that our relationship is one in which we are able to raise each other up rather than bickering for turf. We can do things they can’t, this is true. They are funded through the student fee, which comes with a whole special set of leashes. They also use full Robert’s Rules which can make their meetings very long, inaccessible to most, and generally, in my experience, can lead to a lot of passive-aggression.
We on the other hand get to be a lot more efficient and nimble in our process. The work that the student government does largely depends on a sunny relationship with administrators; ours necessarily is in conflict with not only the practices, but in a sense, the very idea of administrators. At the same time, they can do a great many things we simply cannot, as they are both better connected to, and far better at utilizing official, institutionally-permissible channels to get what they want. They have certain social capital and sources of funding that we will never have access to. They also run social services for students that are crucial on an urban campus like PSU, such as our food pantry.
There are a great many very capable organizers in student government at Portland State who I would love to draft to our team. At the same time, our passion and our strengths do not lie in doing legislative advocacy, and we in PSUSU, for the most part, have little faith in forms of representative governance in which we abdicate our power to an intermediary.
What do you think is next for PSUSU? What do you hope the group will accomplish in the long run?
CF: Next up we’ve got a few different things simmering. The administration recently shut down – with no warning or transparency whatsoever – a decade-old, collectively-managed, student-run vegan cafe on campus that was a hub for activism. Many believe this was in retaliation for student involvement in the contract fight. We intend to get it back before the end of the year.
Additionally, through a similarly shady process, the administration is attempting to move forward with deputizing the Campus Public Safety Office into an armed police force. We intend to stop them, while simultaneously forcing the institution to take meaningful preventative measures to counteract the sexual assault epidemic on our campus, such as mandatory rape-culture orientation, a safe-walk program, better campus lighting, and the installation of a far greater number of emergency call-boxes (currently, we have only 4 on an urban campus of 50 acres).
Our long term vision is for the collective governance of the university, the abolishment of tuition and student debt, the removal of barriers to access, and a paradigmatic shift in both the way in which we receive and the way in which we conceive of our education. We believe that education is a self-transformative process, a social good, and a human right. We would be remiss if we ever rested before our university is one that exemplifies these values.
In order to bring this metamorphosis about, we must continue to nurture and grow the Student Union into the sort of community and the sort of structure capable of forcing those in power to cede their control for legitimate fear of the result of not doing so, while being an accountable source of bottom-up power capable of replacing the old system.
As the PSUSU’s official statement on their faculty’s new contract deal says, “Students and professors standing together is what made our collective struggle for PSU so decisively successful.” Their model of student-teacher solidarity is one that, if replicated at schools across the country, could change the face of education as we know it. And with the advent of new experiments in labor organizing that have been taking hold recently, the prospects for such a transformation are promising, indeed.
Roshan Bliss is a student organizer, inclusivity & anti-oppression trainer, and democratic process specialist with a passion for empowering young people to defend their futures and democratize their schools. Bliss, a former occupy activist, serves as Assistant Secretary of Education for Higher Education for the Green Shadow Cabinet.