Yesterday, my union went on strike, and I went with it. The strike touches on a core purpose of this blog, which I started several years ago for a graduate seminar on public intellectuals in Canada. That purpose is to reflect on publics and the public interest. I'm not a political scientist, so I have not researched different conceptions of the public interest, but for me it is basically synonymous with the common good. It is a democratic and egalitarian concept that helps to rationalize benefits for large numbers of people: societal benefits. It is related to rights, like the right to organize, bargain together, and withhold labour.
In the case of this nascent strike, the administration at Memorial University remains committed to clawing back pension benefits. The proposal is to leave benefits as they are for existing faculty members but to reduce them for new members in the future. In recent communications, the administration has given a rationale: other unions have been persuaded to accept the structural inequality that the proposal would create, so we should too.
The rationale implies that we should be fair to other unions and accept the same worsening conditions that they now face. Another way to look at it is that we would be introducing new iniquities into our own union. Perhaps the administration even hopes for that outcome, because the union's solidarity would be undermined—actually, further undermined, because it already has different classes of employees, such as tenured and tenure-track members who enjoy benefits that are not shared with contractual members.
The administration has another rationale: we're a publicly funded university in a province that is defunding the university seemingly on the assumption that we cannot afford it, given our public debt, which skyrocketed as the budget for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric power station ballooned out of control. The competing assumption, or contention, is that the university is an economic powerhouse and creator of knowledge and cultural products; as a site of critique, it can also help our society to avoid mistakes that will entail unsustainably huge long-term costs, such as continuing to invest in fossil fuels.
I prefer the competing assumption, but I still have difficulty in campaigning for higher salaries, even when recent inflation has dramatically decreased my buying power, and even when the delay in getting a new contract (ours having expired in 2020) means years of no improvements in working conditions. But why should our working conditions improve? We're fat cats, right?
I do have a squarely middle-class income; I'm not poor, but I probably cannot afford a house big enough for my growing family, certainly not without a lot of help from the extended family. Many professors earn far more than me, especially in other departments and faculties such as Business, Medicine, and Engineering. And the building that houses my office, the Arts and Administration Building, has a multitude of large holes in the walls, covered up many years ago with plastic and fabric tape; bathroom facilities with constantly out-of-service toilets, broken stalls, missing tile, and holes in the ceiling; and drinking fountains that are either out of service or suspected of providing water with too much lead in it. Granted, these are matters of capital and infrastructure, not salaries and benefits, but they are signs of where the money is going on campus, and where it is not. (Cross the highway away from Arts and toward Core Science and Engineering, and it seems clear.) Bringing visiting professors and job candidates to campus is embarrassing when the facilities are in such disrepair. I do not need to be "above" the middle class; I'm not asking for a palace, but I'm a self-respecting person who wants to feel good about not only my work but also my workplace.
When employees go on strike, it is not only because of a contract, but because of the environmental conditions that suggest that the management of the university, including the government that funds it, is either ineffective or unconcerned for equal treatment. The president of the university gets a base salary of $450,000 plus bonuses, and has continued the trend of expanding the "upper" administration with other well-paid positions, and yet they have not succeeded (yet, anyway) in advocating convincingly for us.
When will it happen? Today on the picket line we were joking with the old union call-and-response: "What do we want?" "A fair deal!" "When do we want it?" "Three years ago when our contract was up!"
I acknowledge the logistical challenges of an administration that has to bargain with multiple unions while watching and waiting for the results of bargaining in other parts of the public sector. Nevertheless, I can also deduce that there is a financial incentive to delaying new contracts, especially when inflation is rising not only for employees but also for the university as a whole. In this context, my willingness to make sacrifices for the university would get a significant boost from timely and responsive administrative efforts to renew contracts.
Cynically, I suspect that the administration's schedule is now driven primarily by the math. It's a cost-benefit analysis. The university's finances improve as long as it doesn't have to pay professors, but eventually it will have to refund a lot of tuition. Another factor is the administration's interest in drawing out the strike to empty the union's coffers so that we will not be able to afford to strike again in four (or six or eight) years if bargaining goes badly for us.
Maybe one of my colleagues has found the information to do this analysis, but I doubt it, because the university also has an opacity problem. We want a definition of "collegial governance" in our contract that would improve our sousveillance of budgeting, hiring, and other procedures. We think that a strongly supported mandate of collegial governance would help to convince the government to include a faculty member and a student on the Board of Regents, thereby increasing transparency. As the only university in Canada that has no such representation on its Board, Memorial University is at risk of corruption.
Corruption can be reduced through equally shared power, which would also lead to more equitable distribution of resources. The administration would gain so much good will from the union if it immediately dropped its demand to claw back pension benefits and made progress on collegial governance and (which I haven't yet mentioned) the "conversion language" that would turn some of the contractual positions into tenure-track positions. We know the world is not a fair place, but we think that universities can be models of fairer, safer, more sustainable places. That's what I voted for, though I'd prefer to be in class and at work.
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.