Monday, November 03, 2008

Striking Against Neoliberalism in the University

Guest post by Wynn Stanley.

Part 1
What is York University? If you ask different people, they’ll give you different answers. Some of us will say it is simply a place to get a degree, so they can get a decent job after they graduate. Some of us will wax poetic on the life of the mind, and rave about amazing professors and incredible resources. Still some of us will bitch about how this or that class sucks, unfair treatment, big class sizes. When it all comes down to it, all of these statements are true to a certain degree but don’t capture the magnitude of what York University is really all about.

York University is the organic outgrowth of scholars of all kinds, from first year undergraduates to tenured professors, engaging in the production of knowledge. In a society dominated by capitalist social property relations, knowledge, like so many things, is a material commodity, not, as some assert, something abstract and ephemeral. When we scholars at York, on all levels, produce knowledge, in the arts, sciences and points in between, we add value to York University as an institution. This value brings material gains to York University, in the form of funding, and in the form of enhancing its reputation as a serious institution that attracts students.

The material gains accrued by York University, alas, are not spread evenly among many of us who create value for this institution. For this reason, our union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3903 is currently bargaining with our employer. We use that phrase “employer” because we - the workers and students, the worker-students, of York University are York Unviersity. We are simply demanding that we are treated fairly and with enough dignity to maintain a semblance of productive life, to eliminate tuition and to be paid a living wage .

As an aside, one would think that our employer would be foursquare behind our demands, considering not only the fact that the means of knowledge production at York is heavily dependent on our labour, but that to a certain degree, from the vantage point of education funding, our demands are a “win win”. To wit, the employer seems to want to cut off its nose to spite its face, as opposed to forming a united front with the workers across the post-secondary sector to demand that the “education premier” Dalton McGuinty increase funding to to Ontario’s universities. These funds would allow York University to modernize infrastructure, modernize security and pay student-workers, contract faculty and others what they are worth, improve child care for all members of the York community with children, and expand our health care benefits to reflect our growing needs and growing community. In so doing, we can also create a more equitable workplace to reflect the cosmopolitan character of our community.

As Graham Potts, our chief negotiator shows in the sidebar, this would enhance York University life for all of us. At this point, however, the ball is in the air. “"The employer has yet to address CUPE 3903's serious concerns arround the indexation of our funds given the recent rapid growth in our membership “ Potts tells me, adding that this amounts to an even smaller stake in what is already a paltry amount of funding. This is a particular stickling point given the increased consumer price index, particularly on staples such as food and transportation. More details of our bargaining demands can be found at:

Part 2

One manifestation of the devaluing alienation of the York community is the casualization of academic employment. Let us then pose the question, what in the evolution of post-secondary education is the meaning of this reduction of university workers to alienated labour?

Those of you who are undergraduates may have a great course director and wonder to yourself why she is not referred to as “professor” in the course outline. This is because the course is taught by “contract faculty”, that is to say, Unit 2 members of our union, CUPE 3903. What is more, these academics are forced to fight for these contracts, and lack job security, often having to do contracts for a variety of universities simply to make ends meet. The travel time alone, when one considers the price of petrol, increases the precariousness of the situation of a great deal of our workers. What is more, not only must these academics compete with themselves over jobs, not to mention salaried professors, but increasingly with those of us coded “unit 1,” that is to say teaching assistants. In regards to the material value created by these academics, the remuneration is shockingly low when one considers what undergraduate students are paying to attend this institution.

Another manifestation is the exploitation of those of us who are graduate students. Not only do we create value for this institution with our innovative research and scholarly practice, most of us are like the proverbial diner with no cash who has to wash dishes in the greasy spoon kitchen in order to pay off his ham and eggs. In exchange for long and stressful hours of work that adds yet more value to this institution – teaching assistantship, marking and grading, research and graduate assistant work – we are “paid” with little more than our tuition. The work we do, for example, helping professors who by virtue of their sterling reputations (which they deserve!) are “selling points” for students to attend university, has far more material value than the sub-poverty wages we earn, in a city that is one of the most expensive places to live on this continent. Some folks may have a stereotyped idea of privileged grad students, and while there are probably a few people who may be supported by their parents, the vast majority of us, especially those of us who have re-entered academia after some time away, live from grant to loan to slave wage. We barely scrape by, and we spend all of our money on books! An extended research fund surely would help!

Perhaps the most visible manifestation of what we can call the “neoliberalization of York University”, referred to earlier, is the atomization of undergraduate student life. Take huge class sizes. Gone are the days, for many undergraduates, of even having the ability to form a personal relationship with those who facilitate their education. For those who are shy in the first place, it certainly isn’t easy to comment in a lecture hall of over 100 students! Another manifestation is the increased regimentation of campus life. The university doesn’t want to alienate any potential funders, and given the conservative government, and general conservative tenor of Canada’s ruling class and leading foundations, it is no accident that political and social activity at York has become highly regimented. Let us not even start to talk about the corporate monopoly on food and beverage services, the marked up prices at the bookstore, the diversion of capital away from student development and towards exorbitant salaries for the administration. Look at Schulich, the business school that certainly has plenty of funders in the private sector, then take a look at many arts departments.

Are we starting to see what this is all about?

At the same time, the president of York University is making nearly half a million dollars this year, in addition to an interest free loan and a variety of perks that most public servants couldn’t even imagine!

So where are we now?

Our employer is still refusing to address a variety of very important issues, both in terms of wages and in terms of job security, and many points in between. There is a chance, however this may freak a lot of people out, that CUPE 3903 may be forced to go on strike. Such a drastic step may be necessary to prove our point that York University simply cannot function smoothly without the collective labour of CUPE 3903 TAs, GAs, RAs and contract faculty. With this being said, this isn’t written in stone. We’d all rather be in a situation in which the employer sees the light, so to speak. Much of this depends, however, on the mobilization of our rank and file, and solidarity from undergraduate students. A mobilized student body and academic community on behalf of social justice can have a ripple effect on the broad array of social and political movements at York University. We are depending on our allies.

Wynn Stanley is the pen name of a Steward with the Canadian Union of Publice Employees Local 3903