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Student representatives worthy of applause

During bitter faculty strike St Thomas SU represented students, not ideology


 

Student unions don’t often distinguish themselves. Not because they are populated with incompetent fools, though some most certainly are, but because the business of student governance, like all governance in stable societies, is mundane. The true measure of leaders at any level can often be not how they handle day to day operations, but how they handle crisis.

The St Thomas University Students’ Union (STUSU) distinguished itself this past year with how they responded to a bitter faculty strike that delayed the start of the winter term until February 5. When faculty returned to work, the dispute was left unsettled and in the hands of an arbitrator, whose report was released earlier this month.

The strike was back in the news last week when it was announced that the university, following recommendations made during arbitration, will be providing financial compensation for students.

This is certainly an appropriate response. And, if compensation wasn’t forthcoming STUSU would have sued not just the university but the faculty association as well. This is notable in and of itself, but more interesting is the fact that STUSU publicly denounced the faculty, amounting to a de-facto endorsement of the administration.

Such a position on the part of a student union is almost unheard of. Nearly every time university professors have taken to the streets since 2000 (and likely further back than that), student executives have opted for biting their neutral tongues.

When asked to comment publicly student representatives often offer little more than derivative platitudes — that they are “meeting with both sides” to ensure the “interest of students” are “taken into consideration,” and that they are hoping for a “quick” and “fair” resolution.

Such neutrality should be puzzling. After all, there are few events that are as potentially devastating to university students than a faculty strike. It would appear to be precisely the time for student government to scream.

Many student unions see faculty associations as their natural allies. Not for what should be obvious reasons, that universities are a place of teaching and learning, but because of the notion of “solidarity” that all unions (apparently) have with one another.

However, for a student union to declare its support for striking faculty could be read (and justifiably so) as support not just for some abstract principle, but for the cancellation of classes. It is a potential public relations disaster, especially if the consequences for students are severe. Similarly, supporting the administration can be seen, particularly by campus activists who are most likely to vote in student elections, as an affront to the antagonistic role many see the student union as serving.

Neutrality, therefore, is a safe position to take.

And, when the St. Thomas faculty first walked off the job, STUSU initially took the typical neutral position. It wasn’t until the unreasonableness of the faculty association’s demands were painfully evident to everyone, that the student executive denounced the work stoppage.

Prior to the Christmas break, the administration offered the union a reduced teaching load and straight salary increases of around 20 per cent over three years for many pay scales. When the union rejected the offer, the administration responded by locking them out after the break, which then led to the union going on strike.

The union wanted salary increases closer to 30 per cent for the same pay scales over the same period, and demanded a mediator be appointed to settle the issue. However, the mediator, Milton Veniot sided with the university, and recommended that the faculty association take the deal offered prior to the Christmas break. Veniot found that the administration’s offer would ensure that St. Thomas professors would be among the highest paid in the region. He could not “embrace either the [faculty association] model or its consequences.”

The administration then asked the provincial labour board to order the union to hold a vote on the pre-strike offer.
The union, despite having requested the mediator’s report, promptly advised its members to vote no, and a majority did.

It was in the lead up to the labour board vote that STUSU added its voice to the choir of the faculty’s critics. They released a statement declaring:

“We cannot support the faculty association’s continued solidarity in the impediment of classes. In the eyes of the St. Thomas University Students’ Union, a vote against the offer this Monday and Tuesday will be considered a vote against students.”

The position was seen by some on campus observers as “extreme,” but when STUSU’s position was taken, any pre-tense to neutrality would have been absurd, and alignment with the faculty (solidarity for solidarity’s sake) would have been not just politically impossible, but given Veniot`s report, ridiculous. That STUSU was prepared to sue the faculty along with the administration proves that they were doing more than simple, and angry, foot stomping.

As an aside, binding arbitration resulted in a deal that more or less resembled the administration’s offer that the faculty association had initially rejected. A rejection that precipitated what was surely a productive way for the union to display its relevance!

The student role in ending the strike should not be overstated, as there is very little that a student government can directly do. What is important, however, is that students were represented in difficult circumstances to the best of STUSU`s ability.

When this past year’s St Thomas student executive looks back on the way they responded to the strike, they won’t have to settle for appreciating the prudence of neutrality, or glowingly remembering some vague notion of principled solidarity. No, they can look back with true pride at the fact that they did their job.

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Student representatives worthy of applause

  1. Hi Carson. I think I missed this piece on first pass. I’m as pro-labour as anyone I know, but I agree that not every workers’ strike is necessarily a reasonable one. I don’t have all the details in front of me, and I’m not qualified to judge from where I am, but I’m willing to believe this was one of those times where faculty demands exceeded the reasonable.

    Being a representative is often a tough job and requires difficult decisions. I also applaud the STUSU for doing the job they were elected to do and protecting students’ interests. Too often I see students’ unions avoid the tough, immediate issues in favour of abstract debates about social or political issues they have little real power to influence. In this case the STUSU sunk their teeth directly into the issue most relevant to the students who elected them, and they deserve to be recognized for that.

  2. Carson Jerema:

    Where did you get your 20-30% figures? Do you have a link?

    I might be reading this wrong, but I thought the final terms were closer to 2-3%.

  3. “Full-time faculty members had their workload decreased from six courses per year to five and will receive a three per cent salary increase annually for the duration of the three-year contract, retroactive to July 2007.” — From the Gleaner.

    Three percent over three years is not much. In fact, it is below the inflation rate, which was just announced today (3.1%)

    “Part-time faculty, paid on a per-course basis, will have their base pay increased by $150.” — From the Gleaner.

    Again, there does not seem to be anything abusive from these agreements.

  4. Hi Wassim, the final figures were three per cent a year over three years. Unfortunately, I was unable to find what the union was calling for, presented in the same way, as the university had said that the union’s demands would account for a 43% total increase over three years. But, this figure likely includes increased costs due to decreased teaching loads.

    The numbers I am using in this post are from the Veniot report which is linked to in the story. That report compared the faculty association’s request with the university’s proposal. I did the math.

    There were four payscales listed. The top one was not very different between the two proposals. The first one showed a difference of 33% for the faculty proposal versus 22% for the university. The second was 28% versus 19% and the fourth was 25% versus 16%.

    I chose to present it as the total increase for the life of the contract, because presenting an aggregate number for the union’s proposal and a yearly number for the university’s proposal didn’t seem to make sense.

  5. Wassim wrote: “Again, there does not seem to be anything abusive from these agreements.”

    I never said or implied that the final agreement was abusive. The final agreement was very close to the university’s initial offer.

  6. You never used the word “abusive”. Instead you mocked the union for rejecting a very weak offer:

    “As an aside, binding arbitration resulted in a deal that more or less resembled the administration’s offer that the faculty association had initially rejected. A rejection that precipitated what was surely a productive way for the union to display its relevance!”

    Condescending aside, the Union was in its legal right to Strike. It chose to strike and demanded better conditions for its employees. One of those demands was a lesser course load. Objectively speaking, this will benefit students by allowing Professors more time per student than before.

    The Union did not reject the offer to “display its relevance”. It objected because quite frankly, 3% over three years is pathetic.

    I fail to see the heroism with the stand the student union chose to take by condemning a legal strike.

  7. Wassim,

    You miss a few key points.

    The union did not want to decrease the amount of teaching conducted in order to spend more time with students – they want more time for research. In effect, they want to move away from the undergraduate institution model to the research institution model. There was a split within the union over this demand.

    The union demanded a lot more than 3%. They were “stuck” with 3% based upon the decision of an arbitrator which both sides agreed to.

    The students’ union did not condemn a legal strike, they spoke out against the unreasonable demands of the union executive.

    Not all “bosses” are wrong and not all unions are right – the world is not that simple.

  8. Right, but in your previous comment you said you failed to see how the final agreement was abusive, which to me implied you were responding to a claim in my post. A claim I did not make.

    Wassim wrote: “I fail to see the heroism with the stand the student union chose to take by condemning a legal strike.”

    So, If a strike is legal it is beyond criticism?

  9. I would also add, that teaching load did not appear to be a major contention, as a reduced load was part of the university’s pre-strike offer.

  10. Joey Coleman:

    Firstly, unlike Jeff Rybak, I did not say I am “pro-labour” or “pro-union”. I never said it was black or white.

    Despite your caricature, you raise a good point on the research v. teaching issue. But like Carson said, this was not a contentious issue from the get-go.

    Carson Jerema:

    Of course not. I just do not think it is heroic or should be applauded. There are three possible positions a student union can take when faced with a Faculty strike.

    1) Stay neutral.
    2) Support the Faculty.
    3) Support the Administration.

    All of the positions can be valid in any given circumstance. I don’t think one is more heroic than any other.

    But let’s put things into perspective: The Strike was legal. The initial demands seem to be more reasonable than the settlement (1% raise per year). The Student Union condemned the Union.

    I, for one, see a close relationship between Faculty and Students and can see why many student unions support Professors when they go on strike. I also understand why many Grad Student Unions do the same.

    I do not think it is a vague principle of “union solidarity” or timidness.

    To paint unions who support professors – or who prefer to stay neutral – any differently than the ones that choose to support the Administration is dishonest.

    Every case should be viewed independently and no decision – from the three choices enumerated above – is more worthy than another.

  11. I’d like to avoid fully wadding into this discussion, but your assertion Wassim comes very close to an argument I’ve heard at a lot of academic committee meetings. “What’s good for professors is good for students.” Frankly, that’s not always true, and I’d tired of that fallacy.

    Allowing faculty to instruct only five courses per year rather than six allows more time per student? Maybe if you assume that the university hauls a huge pot of money from under the desk and increases it’s faculty complement by 20% before the new teaching load takes effect. Because that’s the only way you can reduce everyone’s teaching load without offering fewer classes. No one, including faculty, is under the illusion this is going to happen.

    As Joey says, the issue was always that faculty wanted more time for research. There’s no reason to imagine they wished to simply devote more attention to their remaining classes. And reducing the number of available instructors would simply have reduced the number of available classes, and expanded the size of those remaining.

    I don’t know for a fact that faculty demands were unreasonable. But I categorically reject (which is the point of Carson’s article) the idea that students should always line up behind faculty demands. What’s good for professors is not always good for students. I’ve sat on Academic Committee at UTSC making that point time and again for five years now. Some professors squirm when I say it, but I’ve yet to hear anyone deny the point. Different estates have different interests. A good student representative must always remember that.

  12. Jeff Rybak:

    When did I state that what is good for Professors is always good for Students?

    As for the Research v. Teaching issue, again, I agreed with Joey (and Carson) and now I am telling you, I agree with you. So there is really no disagreement here.

  13. The comments are flying fast and furious here. I think four of us might be writing at the same time. So I apologize if anything I say is about five comments behind the pace. I didn’t have the benefit of reading several replies when I posted my last comments.

    I apologize if I over-stated your position, Wassim. I think we are closer to common ground than it has seemed. Like Carson, I’m inclined to give props just because there are many disincentives to agreeing with the administration and almost none to agreeing with faculty – other than the fact that they might in some cases be wrong. I have some natural respect for people who take the harder road, and also (this may be weak logic) I’m inclined to suspect the STUSU is probably right in this case for the same reason. Aside from the merits of the issue, they have scant reason to support the administration. It won’t win them many friends. Except apparently Carson.

  14. Also, my point was not that the student union in this case was heroic, it is that they did their job.

    As Jeff pointed out at the beginning of this thread, student unions sometimes preoccupy themselves with issues that they either cannot influence or that are of little direct relevance to the representation of students.

  15. Maclean’s should rate the spectrum of student unions in its university issue. Some seem to be attempting to represent students as best they can, while others are just dysfunctional.

    The UBC AMS has habitually failed to investigate abuses at the university, including practices such as the bogus English test called the LPI, patterns of corruption at the main bookstore, and professors who sell their own books to classes without reasonable justification.

    Sometimes we find, as at MUN, that medical faculties have not made themselves aware of and challenged publically systemic malpractice in local pathology labs, for example. Some of these medical issues extend near a decade. Should student unions, undergraduate and graduate, conduct investigations into matters of this type? I think that it would be a valuable learning experience for them. If they were to become skilled at structural analysis, they would find that organizations such as The Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada, in Ottawa, are not functioning up to standard in many areas.

    Also, it is a national disgrace that we have not acted on the CanWest articles of Margaret Munro to insist on appropriate sanctions for scientific misconduct in Canadian universities.

    Some student union members have fallen into the pattern of being for sale. At the UBC AMS, it is not uncommon for a “good” member to gain at some point employment or other benefits from the university. Even though I have noted this pattern over the years, I have kept relatively quiet about it, given that students are involved and they obviously have a right to work. However, timid responses to complaints and the ready acceptance of benefits from the university should raise questions.

    Speaking of buying and selling, Maclean’s might examine the relationship between UBC and The Vancouver Sun (I exclude The Province newspaper). As background, BC has a very weak press council, turning over very few cases.

    If you present The Vancouver Sun with important news material with implications for UBC, such as follow-up to the Dr. Marcel Dvorak letter in the National Post, March 29 2008 (“The sad state of our health system”), even if you e-mail the paper an extensive response directed to you from the Minister’s office, The Vancouver Sun does not ask questions of you. Unlike Maclean’s, The Vancouver Sun often suppresses blog comment that might reflect poorly on UBC or itself.

  16. Yeah, I am sure that a Macleans’ survey of student unions would be really, really impartial.

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