Canada: Unions affirm solidarity with pro-Palestine students as repression grows

May 30, 2024
protesters outside an arms fair
Protesting Canada's weapons ties with Israel outside the CANSEC Arms Fair in Ottawa, Canada. Photo: World Beyond War Canada

As student encampments in solidarity with Palestine have grown on campuses across Canada, some university administrations have turned to police violence and the courts to forcibly remove them.

Violent repression was first unleashed on student encampments in early May at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta. Then, on May 19, police armed with riot shields and batons beat Palestine solidarity demonstrators and deployed chemical weapons against them at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) encampment.

Solidarite Palestine à l’UQAM (SDHPP) reported that “several people were injured, including head injuries (falls and truncheon blows), facial injuries (tear gas grenades to the head and truncheon blows), minor wounds and contusions (truncheon blows and dispersal grenades).”

A Quebec judge has since granted the university a partial injunction against the encampment.

The repression has sparked calls for organised labour to come forward in defence of students, campus workers and Palestine solidarity movements. Some unions have answered the call. The challenge remains for a mass, active, direct mobilisation by organised labour that goes beyond symbolic actions.

Political policing at UBC

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrested one person at the University of British Columbia (UBC), after more than 100 Palestine solidarity demonstrators blocked a major intersection leading onto the main Vancouver campus, on May 29. An encampment has been ongoing at UBC for the past month.

A day earlier, participants at “The People’s University for Gaza at UBC” expressed outrage and concern over the presence of cops from the notorious Critical Response Unit in British Columbia (CRU-BC) who were apparently surveilling students. CRU is a recent rebranding of the Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG), a secretive tactical arm of British Columbia’s RCMP. It serves the interests of extractives companies by violently repressing First Nations’ resistance to ecologically destructive mining.

In addition to the name change, CRU has expanded its role to target community organising around Palestine solidarity, which now includes the UBC student encampment.

Steel workers, public sector workers at U of T

Unions from across Toronto showed up en masse in the early morning of May 27, to defend the student encampment at the University of Toronto (U of T) after the university president threatened protesters with police action.

Unionists mobilised by the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) responded to the threats, saying that if the university wanted to move against the students it would have to go through union members to do it.

The strong show of solidarity succeeded in getting the administration to back down. It is now seeking an injunction to have the encampment shut down.

The United Steelworkers (USW) and the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU/SEFPO), two of the largest unions in Ontario, and the largest unions at the University of Toronto, are seeking intervenor status in the university’s injunction application on the grounds that the institution is threatening university workers’ freedom of expression and freedom of association.

Myles Sullivan, USW District 6 Director (Ontario and Atlantic region) said: “We will defend the right to protest on public property, like the University of Toronto, and ensure Charter rights are not trampled. As far as we are concerned, the protest has the right to stay and workers have the right to participate.”

JP Hornick, President of OPSEU/SEFPO, added, “University campuses are precisely the places where our community debates the most pressing issues of the day. So to threaten to forcibly remove a peaceful encampment which is simply an expression of political opinion, where students and workers and other members of the University community are asserting their Charter rights — is an abdication of the University’s very reason for existence.”

That unions are explicitly recognising and affirming that students’ encampments and active solidarity with Palestine are fundamentally workers’ struggles is a positive and necessary development. Even more important is that some unions are actively putting bodies on the line to defend students at encampments.

Activating union power

These are initial steps, but more can and should be done. Unions should be mobilising for strikes in defence of campus workers and students and against corporations profiting from and arming Israeli state violence, and against the Canadian state’s continued partnership with the Israeli state in its genocidal project. Hopefully this would also educate union members about the Canadian state’s own colonial and imperialist projects.

As OFL President Laura Walton put it, “Students are making history. All of us should join them.”

Walton recently wrote: “The labour movement must not stand by and let these outrageous acts take place. We need to show up, speak out, and back the students. The forces attacking their rights are the same ones attacking ours.

“In recent months, trade unions across Canada have experienced rising police repression on picket lines — a direct attack on workers’ Charter rights to free and fair collective bargaining, including the right to strike. Workers have also experienced reprisals by employers — discipline, suspension and even termination — merely for expressing their identity as Palestinians or their support for Palestinian human rights.”

Campus-based unions could well argue that university administrators calling police violence onto campus create an unsafe work environment, and refuse to work on that basis. They could also raise attacks on academic freedom, collective assembly, and free expression as threats to union organising and collective bargaining.

In the United States, members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 4811 — which represents 48,000 academic workers across 10 University of California campuses — walked off the job at the University of California Los Angeles on May 28, in protest at the university’s turn to police violence against Palestine solidarity demonstrations on campus.

The striking workers asserted that their rights were being violated by administration and police actions in which more than 200 people were arrested. UAW members also picketed at the University of California at Davis and UC Santa Cruz.

Rank-and-file workers have been present and active at many of the encampments. The work they are doing with students and the discussions they are having can offer a basis for working class networks of action on a rank-and-file radical basis.

Organised workers have access to resources and infrastructures that can provide important bases for these interconnected struggles. And the central role of workers positioned within workplaces, and their capacity to withdraw labour, hold out the promise of material impact that can shut down the systems feeding colonialism, imperialism and genocide.

The organising and mobilising happening now in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle might well result in some of that promise being realised.

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