UNB professor thinks faculty should never strike

Prof. Pettigrew on why walking the picket line is justified


Strike at St. FX (Clayton Blagdon)

Last week I received the disheartening news that conciliation talks between my faculty union and the Cape Breton University administration had ended without an agreement. Under Nova Scotia labour law, both sides will have to wait for the conciliator to file an official report, and then wait another two weeks before any job action can be taken. Everyone hopes for an agreement before a strike or lockout happens, but the prospect becomes more realistic as each day passes.

And if misery loves company, the good folks over at the University of New Brunswick should feel a bit better about things, since they too are staring down a possible labour conflict in the new year. Tis the season, apparently.

So I was intrigued to see this very courageous piece by UNB professor Leah Theriault, who vows not to support a strike, and even to cross the picket line if there is a strike.

Some of Theriault’s arguments speak specifically to the situation at UNB, but others relate to the notion of whether profs in general should ever strike, and so it deserves a more thorough hearing. Her arguments go something like this:

1.  Any “right” to strike (scare quotes hers) is outweighed by the responsibility of educators to educate. It is “unconscionable” for professors “refuse to educate” (regular quotes mine).

2. Strikes don’t do very much anyway. They don’t hurt the university because universities usually save money since they can stop paying their professors.

3. Strikes are not necessary. At St FX, a three-week strike ended in a modest compromise on salaries that could have been obtained through negotiation.

4. Strikes hurt students. This is particularly true for students in professional programs.

5. Strikes send the wrong message: that there is nothing special about classes.

Let’s take each of these points in turn.

1. First, it is dangerous to dismiss any rights. Indeed the notion of legal rights was hard won over centuries and is a treasure of western civilization. In this case, the right is a particularly important one. The ability for employees to withdraw their labour and to do so with legal protections was a major victory for ordinary people and it came relatively recently. In Cape Breton, and elsewhere, people died for it. Moreover, though I too take education very seriously, I can’t see a good argument why educators should somehow be exempt from the normal rules of labour negotiations. Heart surgeons maybe—because there is an immediate threat to life—but if it is unconscionable for me to stop teaching, is it similarly unthinkable for a high school teacher to do so? For a nurse to strike? A pilot? Any job could be declared sacred and above job action but that is circular reasoning. Theriault effectively argues that professors shouldn’t strike because they shouldn’t strike.

2. Not all strikes accomplish much, but some do. The last strike at my own institution resulted in a collective agreement that improved, in a wide variety of ways, how the university was run. It introduced new rules for tenure and promotion, new rules for hiring, and a host of other changes that brought CBU up to date with the practices at most Canadian universities.

3. The notion that whatever one accomplishes in a strike could be accomplished in other ways strikes me as naive. After all, it seems unlikely that the profs at St FX would have been able to get what little they did without a strike. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the administration would have offered what they had in the first place if they had not known that a strike was an option. What many people forget is that while professors have extensive authority in day-to-day academic matters, they have almost no say in how the university is run at the highest levels. In fact, for the most part the only real lever that faculty have to change the way the university is run is the collective agreement. And the only real leverage they have in those negotiations is the threat of a strike. Without it, what is to stop an administration from refusing raises indefinitely? Or, indeed, even rolling salaries back? Or any of a thousand abuses to academic freedom and protocols?

4. In the short term, strikes can hurt students. No doubt there. But in the long term, the things that faculty are fighting for often benefit students. At CBU, the biggest hurdle in our current negotiation is the teaching load. The faculty association wants a slightly reduced teaching load for all — to bring our load in line with similar universities across the country. The administration is willing to allow that reduction for some, but wants a drastic increase in teaching for others. Such an increase would, undoubtedly be bad for students in any courses taught by such overburdened faculty. Why? Because the only way for the high-load profs to handle it would be to change the way their courses are taught. Fewer papers, less rigorous exams, and so on. Students might like that at first, but if giving students a good education is what’s at stake, then part of this strike—if it comes to that—is going to be about helping students in the long term.

5. I agree that strikes send a bad message. But it’s not that classes are meaningless. In fact, strikes tend to underscore how important it is for students to be in class. Rather, they send the message that university faculty are merely employees of the university. But we aren’t employees of the university. We are the university. It’s not faculty against the university; it’s faculty against the administration and what administrators increasingly see universities as organizations dedicated to economic growth, not as academies of learning.

And so it is, that, given current laws and the current culture of higher education, the system we have—us vs. them , labour vs. management, union vs. bosses—is the system we have to work with. Everyone wants a deal, and no one likes the idea of students missing out on valuable classes. But university professors, like anyone else, can eventually be reduced to the point where they have only one card left to play. Without that final ace in the hole, professors would ultimately be powerless in confronting administrations that increasingly treat the highest values of education with disdain.

In the academy, the power should be in the hands of the academics, but it’s not. Let’s not take away the one bit of power academics have left.


UNB professor thinks faculty should never strike

  1. I enjoyed Leah Theriault’s insight and perspective. It is refreshing. I also enjoyed this other MacLeans article.


    Very frustrated with UNB Professors threatening to strike. They are demanding a 20% + increase in salary to put them on par with professors in other provinces. Well,… they do not live in other provinces. A 20% increase would make their average salary $124K / yr. Nice work if you can get it. That would boost them to 7th place in the MacLean’s ranking. Ahead of professors in; Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal.

    • The raise they are asking for would put them at #7? Well, UNB is at #4 in its group. Maybe they should pay their people what they are worth. And no, those professors don’t live in other provinces, but most did before they came here. And some of them are leaving so that they don’t keep getting paid 20% less than everyone else. I want my kid to get a good education and I’d like her to get it here but if she has to go somewhere else to get a worthwhile degree, we will try and send her. This province is penny-pinching it’s way right to the bottom and driving the kids away.

  2. Pettigrew’s article side-steps the key issues. Strikes are coercion that is warranted where excessive power exists on the employer’s side of the contract relationship – something that wouldn’t seem appropriate in a university setting, where professors are able to simply move elsewhere if they are worth more money than the administration is offering.

    Also, in fairness to taxpayers it’s questionable whether anyone who’s mostly paid from taxes should strike for more pay for less work, considering such employees already receive 20% or more higher wages and benefits than in the private sector.

    In many industries, a strike would not be effective if workers didn’t have an accepted ethical right to use intimidation to deter scabs. That also wouldn’t seem appropriate for highly paid professors in a university setting.

    A professional association representing professors may be appropriate for establishing mutually agreeable benefits, but the use of threat of strike to set pay and promotions in many universities has led to even less emphasis on merit pay.

    It’s time to reconsider limits to the right to strike in the public sector.

    • M. Anderson is way out of touch with the realities of real work in today’s universities. The workload has gone up steadily, the salaries have stalled, and fewer and fewer academics get real jobs. University administrations are happy to take advantage of people by stringing them along with temporary contracts year after year. They don’t replace retirees or they replace them with part-timers earning poverty wages. In a few years we are going to get what we paid for: no real research, nobody committed to the universities, no-one there for the students. And it’s the students who will suffer.

      • The complaints mentioned by Ciley have been made for decades now, but with few exceptions unionisation hasn’t been a solution. Worse yet, in the university context it is a bureaucratization that can hobble merit pay, encouraging the further reduction of university standards.

        Prof. Todd Pettigrew seems to conclude universities should be operated as co-operatives of academics – a lovely idea, unfortunately unsuccessful historically; presumably because most academics don’t have financial expertise.

  3. When I was at university in the 60s, there was one major thing that students had to learn. That was that they were on their own. The university did not care if they passed or failed. The lectures were a waste of time. The professors had no training in teaching and very few cared that they had no ability to teach. Perhaps things have changed since then but I find it difficult to believe that.

    University classes, at least in my experience, are useless.

    • Tom,

      You hit the nail directly on the head. Very little has changed with how universities are operated since the 60’s. The market to which universities are catering have changed dramatically. Students are a much different beast today then they were in the 60’s. Some of these differences are good and others are not good. One major change is university students want to find a good job when they graduate. What does your university do to assist students in meeting this end? Not enough if it is like our University. Why? My favorite question. Because as you stated Profs have no training. They have skills in their field, but rarely do they have skills in any other area, like teaching, finance, real world job search, etc… Who runs a university? Administrators. Who are these administrators? Former profs with skills that do not match the job they are trying to do as admins. So they are subject to the Peter Principal. Rising to their highest level of incompetence and getting paid very well to do so. A degree in any field or even a PHd in any field does not qualify you to run a University, but it is the requirement to do so. If you run a library you need a degree in Library management. Perhaps we need a degree in University Administration and have it be mandatory for those who wish to fill the positions at all Canadian Universities.

  4. “Because the only way for the high-load profs to handle it would be to change the way their courses are taught.”

    I think it’s a little bit naive to think these profs don’t have TAs that are doing most of the grading on tests and papers.

    • Smaller campuses don’t always have graduate programs, so they don’t have TAs because TAs are graduate students. And graduate funding isn’t what it used to be. Lot’s of graduate students don’t have TAships.

  5. I am currently a third year university student and I agree with Tom. After three years of optimism of my courses and the way they are currently taught gives way too much leverage and way too much to be left defined by the professor. This includes the horrific teaching methods demonstrated within several courses I have taken and even courses where no one in the class had any idea of a topic we were currently learning until a midterm or final exam. I truly think the real question here is to ask why professors are treated so highly when clearly most of then are makng detrimental mistakes to education in general. My grade two, three… teachers could teach better than a lot of professors I had.

    This is not to say that I havent had excellent professors and maybe a couple kf excellent TAs. One of my favorite profs was actually a temporary prof who has been reinstated yearly for the last ten years. Iam referrong to him as my favorite because all of his students clearly excelled in learning because he was and still is amazing.

    Instead of permitting these professors to get another increase in pay, they should have to prove that their time is worth it in the first place. If salarues are tk be increased than so should the qualifications or at least offer high level teaching and course construction to the existing profs.

    Also most professors are boligerent in many accounts. They disregard so many questions or concerns of students. I had one professor refuse to direct me to appropriate course information or a textbook. I also had one professor post hundreds of words per slides and refuse to allow students enough time to take notes or view them on the university electronic teacging aid outside of class. Professors are making so many attempts to keep students in class rather than to support progressive learning.

    As stated by Tom, find new profs or train them to teach. Enough is enough when a professor records low marks for a student who was never directed or taught properly in the first place. Attracting great profs isnt about money, its about finding great profs. It is simple. Why do we want to find an individual based on how much money they want. Does this mean a professor who obtained 4.3 in school has met teaching standards? No. Education in university as it stands is highly subjective to the professors point of view when they administer their marks. Their is no foundation for marking other than a professor who is set free on his high horse.

    Curriculum is the key word here. Invest in a research driven course building and stop these mad profs at once; which still rule the teaching world.

    If they want a pay raise, tell them to get themselves educated as educators.

  6. In response to George: if the university wants to hire the best educators then they have to be offering salaries that are on par with the rest of the country, otherwise they will only attract second-rate professors.
    I vote for fewer administrators, a smaller salary for the president and to increase salaries for professors.

  7. It’s just a race to the bottom in the “no can do” province of New Brunswick.

  8. University has become like highs school and elementary school. No one left behind. It’s near impossible to fail. Students are given a+ for work Tht was a b on each test. Exams have gone from 60% value to 25-30% because they were “too stressful”. Most courses are filled with group projects since profs have lost TAs to do marking. 8 of the last 10 courses I took (year3+) had no assignments. A group presentation, with sometimes a report. Midterms were mostly multiple choice and marked by machine.

    Sorry. Universoty has failed.

  9. I feel the reasons given for UNB faculty and librarian to be striking, as provided by the AUNBT president in a recent newspaper article (Daily Gleaner January 11th), are entirely noble and justifiable, aiming for the general good of UNB itself and for the betterment of the Province as a whole. The UNB Administration appears to be myopically focused on its balance sheet and to lack clear vision for UNB as a place for advancement of knowledge through research and teaching, and UNB nevertheless has huge investments secreted away for some purpose(s) and could afford to pay its faculty and librarians comparable wages to other medium-sized universities within Canada. Perhaps UNB should stop calling itself a university, rather a teaching college. In order to be competitive in attracting and retaining those who can hold their own on the national/international stage of universities, particularly in the realms of research and innovation for the betterment of the Province’s weak economy, comparable wages simply must be offered. Why should the highly qualified want to come to an economically depressed part of Canada to take relatively low-paid employment in a university that places routine undergraduate teaching ahead of advancement of knowledge through research, when there are more attractive options? Moreover, based on the AUNBT newpaper article, the UNB Administration evidently has deceived many about its financial position, and in the absence of integrity one cannot expect UNB faculty to have confidence in the Administration. This clearly is a very serious problem, and the deceit on the part of the UNB Administration is likely to hurt UNB’s morale for decades. In a competitive industry (which seems to be how the UNB Administration views UNB), the usual solution is a change of command. However, with MOOCs, distance education, Wiki, Google and other online material readily available, the university and its sociological purpose is clearly evolving. This strike and those looming at other universities within New Brunswick beg for more than simply a settlement of the disputes. UNB is one of several universities in New Brunswick and a good number more in Atlantic Canada, an area with low population, high unemployment and many impoverished and far too many illiterate people. The region cannot justify having so many universities, so many professors, so much duplication. The problem is not with those who apply for and ‘win’ the tenure-track jobs advertised by the universities, rather with university administrators, provincial governments and the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Council, all of whom have facilitated the inefficiency, duplication and downward spiral.

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