The root of the problem behind the strike and students’ woes
The central issue in the UNB strike is that the salary for professors isn’t comparable to other universities that the union and administration have already agreed upon. The professors have characterized the salary issue as a problem that has hurt the university as a whole. Due to the low comparability (UNB is at the bottom) of UNB professors’ salaries, departments are having difficulty attracting and keeping quality faculty. The professors are concerned about the quality of education at UNB as teaching loads have increased substantially as more professors have been been laid off and not replaced over the last eight years. As a consequence, professors are overworked and the quality of education for students suffers.
In a now publicized letter to UNB president Eddy Campbell, signed by 35 department chairs at UNB, the starving of teaching and research were addressed. The authors additionally disclosed how, throughout departments across the campus, there has been a diminishing of funds to education and research (the core) as the banner of austerity has been waved overhead. While the university administration has declared an essentially permanent crisis over the last several years, they have pushed departments to share in the supposed debt burden; however, as independently audited financial statements have revealed, the university actually had a revenue of $28 million over expenses for 2012-2013 alone. The movement of money out of the UNB operating budget has been obscured and concealed as it has made its way to areas known only to a select few. The authors of the letter expressed grave concern over these developments.
As disturbing as these developments should be to students, faculty and other campus workers, who obviously could have used either more funds or a break on tuition fees, they are actually not at all that surprising. The concrete revelation of the fact that money has been “disappearing” is the proof of a condition that must have been true considering the rapidly increasing administration salaries over the years; the fact that there have been 84 new admin positions during the time 48 faculty spots were let go; the fact that the university has leased out a vast amount of real estate to big box stores at the Corbett Centre; and on the list can go. Perhaps there was an inkling of suspicion when Eddy Campbell was selected as one of the top 50 CEO’s in Atlantic Canada by Atlantic Business Magazine in 2013? One does not get such a nod unless one runs an efficient business, which means maximizing returns. How else can that be done other than through overworking and underpaying the workers and then overcharging students for diminishing services? And how can such treatment be justified other than by telling everyone there is no money to go around?
A snapshot of the how the dominos fall in such an education system is the scene at the Faculty of Nursing. The faculty has been starved of core funding from the University for years. Successive deans there have responded to the ever greater crisis by seeking out additional provincial funding. But these monies have always come with strings attached. The Faculty of Nursing was required to graduate more students, requiring more clinical placements. The trouble is, there were none. While the admin may have been pleased with the increased tuition dollars, students were put into dire straits.
This kind of story is not uncommon for students across campus. Programs are heavily advertised to ramp up enrollment, but there is no legitimate connection between these numbers and the numbers of available jobs in associated fields. And all the while, tuition just keep going up. But when students are merely seen as customers, or walking dollar signs, international students in particular on account of the differential fees, expectations must be low for any kind of responsible behaviour by the executives at the top or their Board of Governors. Squeezing students wallets and stretching faculty and other campus workers thin is all a matter of course when education is a treated as a commodity. Ever increasingly, that is what it is. Unless students, faculty and all campus workers want to keep losing ground, the commodified nature of the university itself must be utterly transformed. This does not mean simply getting rid of Eddy Campbell and other admin. They are part of the problem, not the source. Others would not have been fundamentally different. The roots of the problem are much deeper.
The resolution: solidarity between students and all campus workers
On January 16 and 17, there were two solidarity rallies for the striking workers. The first of these was organized by the Campus Labour Council, an association that brings together the unionized workers from across the UNB and STU campuses. Ever heard of them before? The next day, unions from beyond campus gathered with the striking workers for a rally and march. Both events brought out campus workers and students to stand together. These are rare incidents.
One of the only times when there seems to be any kind of solidarity – sharing in struggle – between students and campus workers is during times of crisis. Such crisis times include the present moment, with the ongoing strike. There has been some student support shown for the striking workers, as many have walked the picket lines at times or shown up at a solidarity rally. Faculty have spoken warmly of this support in person and on their websites. However, such gestures, while obviously appreciated, are far beneath a mass, organized student support.
But while there has been some obvious student support for faculty, the inverse has sadly not been the case. Finding traces of faculty support for students’ struggles against rising tuition and debt would be a treasure hunt. Yet such support for ongoing student struggles against rising tuition could have been helpful, and not just for students. What if there had been active and organized solidarity by the faculty for students during their times of struggle, such as when upcoming tuition increases have been announced? What if AUNBT members marched with students in numbers as they made their way to the president’s office and legislature over of the years, demanding a stop to the bleeding of their finances? If such solidarity had been there in the past, would it not be reasonable to expect that the favour would be duly returned by a much more organized and powerful student presence than we are currently seeing?
The cracks in a could-be foundation of solidarity run much deeper. There are many more workers on campus than just the professors, researchers, librarians and various support staff. There are the cleaners making barely above minimum wage. There are the similarly cheap food service workers. Sodexo food service workers have been punished by their employers during this strike. Many have suffered the loss of needed work. Many of the cleaners were very nervous as the strike began, but have survived so far, hanging onto their end-of-the-line jobs. Many years ago, the cleaners lost their union, but there was no organized outrage by other campus workers. Reports are that many individual faculty and other workers were unhappy about this occurrence, and spoke about it, but in the absence of organized solidarity, nothing was done or even could have been done to help.
The backdrop to the present strike is that individual groups and bargaining units have struggled with the Admin or pressured the government on their own and have, at best, diminished some of their losses, perhaps made marginal gains. However, it has been a zero sum game, so any positive for one group has meant a negative for another. A culture of solidarity, from worker to worker and between all workers and students has been missing. In fact the commodification of the university could not have ever happened if such a force was there to stand against it. Especially now, during times of increasing pressure applied on all parties under a banner of austerity, it must be built. The starting point is recognizing that all the campus workers and students are integral to the functioning of the university. It is one industry, and we all face one administration.
This analysis is the opinion of one member, not the Fredericton IWW.
First published by Fredericton IWW.