It is an honor to speak to you today. I see in this gathering a symptom of an awakening, once again, of the critical spirit in this country, of the political and moral energy needed not only to fight for the university as a democratic public sphere but also against the growing corporatization of the university. You are not alone. You are part of a labor movement today that is young, dynamic, militant, and willing to struggle for crucial personal, political, and economic rights. You represent the spirit of a collective resistance that refuses to be written out of the script of democracy–a resistance marked by a willingness to stand up and battle against oppressive labor conditions.
Your struggle today, along with ongoing struggles for a wide range of democratic rights–extending from justice for Indigenous and trans people to the struggle for students, workers, women, and others–speaks to a future of possibility that refuses to be contained in the shackles of the present. Your demands for a meaningful wage increase, relief from higher tuition increases, and guaranteed access to TA work in Year 5 testify to your willingness to fight for labor conditions and a work environment that do justice to your sense of dignity, professionalism, and your willingness to stand firm against a university whose model of governance refuses to take seriously how education and democracy inform each other. I mention dignity, because it is hard to believe that this administration does not recognize the hardship imposed on TAs whose wages have barely kept up with inflation, especially when combined with the extreme cost of housing. Such policies steal your time and crush your spirits. This is more than an act of imperious disregard; it is an act of moral and social irresponsibility.
My argument today is not restricted to McMaster University, but to higher education more broadly, especially in North America. Your strike cannot be separated from wider struggles over the university as site of critical teaching and learning, a site that embodies a vision of social justice, and a vision that refuses to turn the university into an adjunct of corporate ideology and values. The university is more than a market; it is more than a space in which the only interactions that matter are based on a commercial exchanges, and it is more than a site in which higher education is harnessed to the demands of the warfare state, fossil fuel industries, and the needs of corporations. You have refused a corporate-based ideology that defines you as commodities, a casual labor force, and consumers. Your vision is much larger than this repressive view of higher education. Your struggle is fundamental to the success of the university as a public good and its potential role as an invaluable resource for defining itself as a critical institution in the service of civic society, civic courage, social responsibility, and democracy itself. Your refusal to give up brings to life an image of the university as a site of critique, academic freedom, and social justice, while making clear that it has a noble civic purpose that rejects a corporate model that often confuses education with a form of training and sterile management methods.
The university should not be an institution that is massively defunded, students should not have to pay tuition fees, or lack services that can only be afforded by the wealthy and the privileged. Higher education should be a space in which the call for democracy is not interpreted as sedition, the call to freedom is not viewed as a form of violence, and the call for social justice is not the object of censorship, the repression of student voices, the suppression of labor rights, or the undermining of the right for students and faculty to think, engage in critical dialogue, be self-reflective about themselves, others, and the larger world.
I want to end by first speaking of the admiration I have for your courage, your sense of collective struggle, your refusal to submit to policies that write your voices out of the bargaining process. Your strike is not only for short-term gains, it is also marked by the courage to imagine another world, another vision of the university; it is the condition for mobilizing opposition, making power visible and accountable, and embracing the virtues of collective struggle. It combines a sense of justice with a gritty sense of limits and a lofty vision of possibility. I want to conclude with a quote from the great abolitionist, Fredrick Douglas, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.…Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” You continue not only to take these words seriously; you demonstrate in your solidarity the power of the radical imagination and the necessity of political struggles in addressing injustices, which can and must be changed.
Text of a speech given on December 7 at a rally of striking students at McMaster University.