As a graduate student and member of CUPE 3903 at York University, I am currently on strike. Our fellow grad students at the University of Toronto, members of CUPE 3902, are also on strike. And as both unions go into our fourth week of withholding our labor, I’m starting to hear one word repeated more and more frequently: “emergency.”
- At York, the Senate Executive committee claimed “emergency powers” to mandate the resumption of classes without a full vote of the Senate, all the while ignoring objections from faculty members and departments.
- At U of T, senior administrators are apparently moving to declare a “state of emergency” in order to override the academic freedom of both contract and tenured/tenure track faculty and finish the term without the labor of striking members of CUPE 3902.
- I have also heard the leaders of our own union, on the CUPE 3903 executive committee and representatives of CUPE national, use the words “emergency situation” to run roughshod over bylaws and democratic processes.
This language is quite troubling and problematic.
First, calling strikes “emergencies” implies that strikes are somehow unforeseeable, unmanageable events. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Strikes are actually heavily regulated by law. They only occur after months and months of failed bargaining and mediation. And even then, they only begin after a lengthy process that involves week-long strike votes and more failed rounds of bargaining. Strikes hardly come out of nowhere or with little more than a few days warning like, say, a snowstorm or hurricane.
Second, they are utterly preventable. Especially in the university setting, where the mandate of administrators should be to provide a high quality education free from the profit motivated structures and labor tactics of corporations, it is shameful and embarrassing that administrators are so focused on spending as little as possible to pay the highly qualified and highly educated contract faculty and graduate students who do the bulk of university teaching. What is the profit motive here? Where are all the state funding and tuition dollars going? (I’m asking rhetorically. We know where: administrator salaries (they are getting paid more and more like corporate officers and CEOs), PR campaigns, and capital expenditures like a new stadium for the Pan Am Games at York.)
Thus, despite what should be a lack of profit motive to oppress and exploit their most precarious workers, administrators choose to prioritize lining their own pockets and spending millions on facilities and projects that are not central to what should be the core mission(s) of all universities. This is a choice, not an uncontrollable disaster. The strikes at York and U of T could be resolved for very small amounts of money in the grand scheme of billion dollar plus university budgets. But instead of making fair and reasonable offers, these administrators intentionally provoked extended strikes when they could have prevented them to begin with. And then, now that the strikes have commenced, the administrators pretend like they have no power to resolve them when they could end them immediately for relatively little cost.
So why are all of these people suddenly screaming “emergency?”
For the same reasons that the governments of the US, Canada, and other nations invoke the abstract concept of “terrorism” to declare “states of emergency:” in order to bypass, override, and/or permanently do away with any vestiges of democratic processes that may still remain within these institutions. It is no coincidence that university administrators are trying to re-brand a strike as a “state of emergency” at the same time as the Harper government is trying pass Bill C-51, a sweeping, so-called “anti-terrorisim” bill that would potentially criminalize most forms of public protest and justify intrusive spying on any and all ordinary people. In addition, these “emergency powers” are used, like those marshaled by universities and union leadership, to disproportionally target and disenfranchise people of color especially, as well as others who are marginalized on the bases of class, gender, sexuality, ability, and more.
University administrators have long been attacking the principle of “academic freedom” as they endlessly shift tenure-lines to much more vulnerable contract faculty and graduate students. It only makes it that much more disgusting that they then turn around and use the fact that they fail to pay these adjunct faculty living wages (and more) — thus causing them to organize and strike for better treatment — as an excuse to further erode or destroy principles of academic freedom.
Unfortunately, it is not just fatcat administrators and co-opted senior faculty that are touting these “emergency” calls.
Even more inexplicably, our own local and national CUPE leadership, which should understand a strike as one of the functions of and recourses available to their organizations to secure the best contract possible for members, continue to throw around the word “emergency” as an excuse to ignore democratic processes that should foster member participation. For example, these union “leaders” refuse to follow our own bylaws or respect motions passed at general membership meetings, claiming that the decisions of a handful of members are more democratic than ones made at publicly announced meetings in which hundreds of members participate. Why our own union is continually engaging in strike breaking tactics as bad or worse as those of the university is incomprehensible to me. But my point is this:
Strikes are not emergencies, nor are they disasters. They are foreseeable, and, given the only ever increasing precarity of adjunct faculty, as well as the central role of university administrators and faculty in creating these precarious labor conditions, strikes should actually be expected regularly unless university administrators immediately take steps to adjust their unsustainable and destructive labor and management practices.
In any case, a strike is a process that is, at base, the democratic expression of workers’ political and economic rights to have a say in their (collective) working conditions. And it’s high time that all the institutions involved started respecting these, and future strikes, as such.