YDSA Members Should Support Striking Students in São Paulo

Students at the University of São Paulo are on strike for better funding and the democratization of higher education. The authors argue that YDSAers should support their struggle by amplifying their demands, sending messages of solidarity, and following in their example by building broad, dynamic struggles of our own.

This past Tuesday, September 19, over 1000 students at the University of São Paulo (USP) gathered at a general assembly called by the university’s student union, DCE Livre, and voted to approve a strike in response to a severe lack of instructors in the school’s faculty of Philosophy, Letters, and Human Sciences. The strike began in earnest on Thursday, September 21st, and saw over 2000 students leave their classes early, with hundreds of these students gathering in democratic assemblies to elect the leaders of the strike. Since then, thousands have taken to the streets in support.

According to USP’s faculty association, there are over 870 teaching vacancies at the university –– with some departments seeing faculty retention decline by up to 47 percent in the last 9 years –– resulting in delays to graduation, overworked instructors, and underserved students. 

The general assembly united various currents from the organized student left, including JPT, the student movement affiliated with Lula’s governing center-left Workers Party (PT); members of youth collectives affiliated with the multi-tendency democratic socialist Party for Socialism and Freedom (PSOL); various anarchist and Marxist-Leninist tendencies; student leaders from over 25 “academic centers” (departments) on campus; and unaligned, yet sympathetic students looking to get involved. While some groups, such as the Sector Assembly of the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters, and Human Sciences, have already voted in favor of joining the strike, other academic centers will deliberate over their official participation in the coming days.

The strike calls for the University to promptly hire instructors to fill vacant positions, alongside boosting scholarships and providing greater support for vulnerable students. Additionally, it stands in solidarity with university workers opposing the privatization of public transportation and public utilities.

Brazil’s Student Movement

Brazil’s ultra-wealthy have historically attended elite private schools in their youth, before attending the country’s strong public universities. On the other hand, working-class students historically were forced into dilapidated public schools for primary and secondary education, before  attending poor-quality private universities. But in 2003, the first Lula government passed expansive affirmative action measures that led to a newfound influx of working-class students into its public university system. However, despite efforts to provide working-class Brazilians a robust higher education, neither the public university system nor the government provided apt support for working-class students who had found themselves thrust into institutions originally built to serve the wealthy. This has created a mass base for class-struggle politics in Brazil’s public universities, which are now home to millions of undersupported working-class students who anchor Brazil’s powerful student movement. 

The university student movement is organized around the National Union of Students (UNE). The union was founded in 1938 and today boasts a membership of five million Brazilian students. The UNE significantly grew during Bolsonaro’s years in office, organizing mass protests against neoliberal education and pension reform that brought hundreds of thousands of students and teachers out onto the streets. On campuses different youth collectives affiliated with various left-wing political parties have worked to build mass movements and influence the political direction of the UNE, which is highly politicized along partisan lines. 

Some of these groups within the UNE, especially those aligned with PSOL, engage in similar strategies to YDSA. This includes building mass actions around austerity in the public education system and taking rank-and-file jobs in strategic industries to help build democratic struggles in the labor movement. These groups in the UNE have advocated a more independent and confrontational strategy. Despite the existence of a center-left government, these sectors of the student movement argue that it is essential for students to maintain independent mass mobilization to win the demands of working-class students. 

Meanwhile, other groups within the student movement, such as the youth wing of the PT and the more moderate sectors of PSOL, advocate for a conciliatory policy toward the government, including opposing mass disruptive actions against government policies that harm working-class students and public education. For example, Lula’s government passed a new neoliberal fiscal framework with support from Brazilian financial capitalists. The policy is intimately related to continued austerity within higher education. However, the more moderate wing of the student movement has prevented the UNE from opposing the framework in the name of unity against the right. 

Though these moderate groups continue to lead the organization, the left opposition continues to pick up steam, with 100,000 student votes having sent 1,000 of their delegates to the recent UNE national conference, where they elected three members to the UNE leadership.

International Solidarity

Last week, organizers from the University of São Paolo sent a request for YDSA to express solidarity with their struggle by issuing public statements in support, and having members and chapters send solidarity videos and pictures. This request was passed along to the Youth Leadership Committee of DSA’s International Committee (IC-YLC), the body that facilitates YDSA’s international work. The IC-YLC, though, is overseen by the DSA IC, not the YDSA NCC. This means that this request for solidarity needs to be approved by the IC Steering Committee, not YDSA’s elected leadership. Though they are still voting, the IC Steering Committee reported to the IC-YLC concerns that their contacts in the USP faculty union don’t support the strike.

However, there are many reasons why publicly supporting the strike is a strategic and moral imperative for YDSA. First, the faculty union has in fact endorsed the strike, and is in fact planning a work stoppage in support. And just yesterday, the national union for university professors endorsed the strike as well. It is true that some faculty members oppose it, including prominent faculty like the director of USP’s humanities department who is a member of the PT. This opposition from some in the university parallels the divides within the national student movement. One side of the divide favors democratic mass action. The other, insider relationships with the governing party.

While some faculty members may oppose the strike, taking their word as law and withholding our solidarity from a burgeoning mass student struggle would be an incredibly poor decision. It would mean prioritizing “diplomatic” relationships with the center-left party in government over connecting with masses of students and workers in motion against neoliberalism.

Over the past few weeks Brazilian workers organizing in industries ranging from metal and auto manufacturing to healthcare have issued statements of solidarity with the UAW strike in the United States. This is an incredibly exciting development, and points toward building an international working-class movement against the capitalists that oppress and exploit all of us. But solidarity is a two-way street, and just as they have our backs, we must have theirs. We strongly urge the DSA IC to endorse the student strike. In addition, we encourage YDSAers and YDSA chapters to issue photos and videos in solidarity.

The kind of mass disruptive actions being carried out at the University of São Paolo are building working class and student power, challenging the status quo, and putting forward an expansive vision of public education. More generally, they are building real power for a different kind of world that serves the working class. These are the exact kinds of strategies and tactics we hope to carry out here in the US. Brazilian students, like students in the US, are facing the dual tasks of building mass mobilizations against the far-right while also building broad struggles around public education against elites of all partisan persuasion. We have so much to gain by connecting and expressing solidarity with these students on the front lines of the class struggle. 

We believe that expressions of international support will contribute to the strength of the student strike by boosting the confidence of the student strikers. And, should we follow in their footsteps and build broad, dynamic struggles of our own, we can expect a strong show of solidarity in return. By building relationships through reciprocal solidarity we can begin to exchange strategies and tactics that will strengthen both our movements. 

Together we can work towards an international movement, uniting across borders in a universal struggle for a dignified life. We cannot let international ‘diplomacy’ come before international solidarity.

Correction: A previous version of this article insinuated the political alignment of unknown contacts. This was removed.