A 20,000-strong Facebook protest led by a Humber College journalism student failed to prevent professors from giving a strike mandate to the Ontario Public Service Employees Union on January 13. Without a settlement, broadcast and journalism students at Ontario colleges could be out of school as early as mid-February, according to a press release from OPSEU. Union and administration negotiators returned to the table Tuesday, after a break of more than a month.
Graeme McNaughton first learned of the possibility of a strike vote in December. A journalism student at Humber, he found that very few students had heard anything in the news or from friends. He started a Facebook group, Ontario College Students Against A Strike, to raise awareness, and said that the group grew to 1,000 students in the first 24 hours. At time of writing, the group has nearly 27,000 members.
Despite this show of numbers, the spectre of “slacktivism” hangs over the online protest. More than 300 confirmed guests to a Facebook event for a walkout turned into fewer than 60 actual attendees across 11 campuses. At some colleges, such as Northern College, not a single student turned out to hand in an online petition associated with the Facebook group. McNaughton, who credits his journalism studies in helping him clearly present the strike situation to his audience, thinks he could have done a better job organizing the walkout. Others might fault Ontario’s journalism students for failing to use their education to mobilize and inform the public on an issue that directly affects them.
Facebook protests have a reputation for “flopping,” according to Denise Balkissoon at the Toronto Star, who declared the walkout a “spectacular case of diminishing returns.” Matt Gurney at the National Post called Facebook protest groups “just about the dumbest way to advocate a political cause.”
McNaughton acknowledged that college students are a disaffected demographic. “There’s a lot of people posting stuff like ‘don’t even bother trying, nothing’s going to come of it.’ Which really isn’t true,” he said. While the group and petition together were not enough to stop the strike vote from passing, he is hopeful that students can pressure university administrators and union representatives to put the students’ education first and avert a strike. “Both sides have now said that they want to return to the negotiating table,” he said.
But whether Ontario’s students will keep the pressure on, or stand by while administration and union officials run the show, remains to be seen.
Matthew Hayles is a techy freelance journalist and all-round PR professional. In addition to his hometown of Toronto he has lived and written for media outlets in Vancouver, Kobe and Tokyo. He wants to add London, San Francisco and Berlin to the list. He tries to be a better photographer, is fascinated by urban space, and thinks the dinner party is the greatest invention ever.