Saturday, 5 November 2016

Thoughts on the UMFA Strike 2016


Okay, it’s about money.  What it’s not about is salaries.

It is true that University of Manitoba pay scales are the lowest of the U13 Canadian universities. It’s true that every contact for 30 years before the 2001 strike had salary increases that failed to keep up with inflation.

It’s about protecting the quality of the University of Manitoba. The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) is there to advocate for full time faculty, librarians, instructors, and head coaches.  It isn’t the Excellence Task Force.  There are limited ways for UMFA to exert its influence on the University. And one of the ways is negotiating salaries. And yes, that is about our ability to make mortgage payments and pay for our children’s schooling and all that.  But that’s not all that’s on the table, and for many, probably most of us, it isn’t the top priority.

The quality of our university is under assault.  For the last several years, the Faculty of Arts, as an example, has faced a 5% cut to its budget.  Meanwhile, more Vice Presidents and Assistant Vice Presidents are created, and their offices staffed.  The Faculty of Arts budget covers payroll for all Arts staff, including members of UMFA, members of CUPE (including part time and sessional instructors), AESES (support staff), office supplies, upkeep, overhead, and so on.  Salaries in most positions are collectively bargained.  There aren’t that many budget lines that the Dean can wield discretion over expenditures.  

So, librarians (who cannot be protected by tenure) are laid off, classes that could be taught by sessionals (people hired term-by-term to teach single classes--last check about 1/3 of undergraduate hours in Arts) are not offered; remaining class sizes increase.  Instructor workloads are increased. Dead computers aren’t replaced.  

All of this harms the university, diminishes student experience, devalues the education we can offer.  So yes, it’s about money.

Without competitive salaries, the UofM cannot hope to attract and retain quality staff.  Who in their right mind is going to choose to come to Winnipeg to make less money than they could make elsewhere?

Research is threatened.  The creation of arbitrary ‘performance metrics’ at a central level undermines quality research, because it forces researchers to prove their value in page counts, in ‘impact fators’, in funders’ dollars brought in in hours spent and a desk or in a lab, or appearances at conferences; in short-term tangible output, rather than long-term quality of scientific results.

Collegial governance is threatened. Consolidating decision making in an increasingly bloated central administration means decisions are made by people far from the front lines, many of whom are not scholars, who don’t have to do their own paperwork, who don’t have to budget down to the box of paperclips.  Without buy-in, let alone input or even consultation with academic and support staff on the front lines of their budget dollars.

Academic freedom is threatened.  As we become more and more beholden to arbitrary ‘output’ and securing funding from outside sources, we trade our academic freedom to pursue the issues we think are important, for work that looks good in a press release, that will attract funders’ dollars.  Scholars can be threatened with less funding, less staff support, less money for graduate students, if they don’t do sexy, high-output, highly fundable projects.  

So yes, it’s about money.  But it’s not about salaries.  It’s about building an academic institution of the highest quality possible, and in the end that’s going to cost money.  But it also requires an environment where academics’ opinions and experience are valued, where support stand and graduate students are valued, where undergraduates can receive not only information they need but experiences in critical thinking, judgment, argumentation, even grammar and writing style, supported by academic and support staff who aren’t under constant threat.

Brian Pallister, premier of the province of Manitoba, has imposed a mandatory one-year contract extension on ALL unionized public employees, with a 0% increase in salaries.  If the university doesn’t comply with that order, the province can cut funding even further.  Talk about a threat to the academy.  But that also means that salaries are off the table.  So it can’t be about salaries, even if we want it to be.

As of 1 November 2016, after being without a contract since March, after months of negotiations and a last-ditch attempt at mediation, UMFA has gone on strike.  It’s inconvenient for everyone.  It’s frustrating for everyone.  You’ve paid for a quality university experience, and strike action is impeding that.  That’s true. But it’s also the only we have to fight for the things that go into building that quality university you deserve.  That you want.  That we all need.

So, in the end, it is about money.  But then everything is, just as everything, in the end, is about politics.  It's about building and maintaining a quality university: excellence in instruction, in undergradaute expereince, in graduate and professorial research.  And in the end, quality costs money.  I get that.  But there's so much else on the table before we get to salaries.

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