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.