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Beyond Bread and Butter

The University of Manitoba strike showed that worker power isn't all about money -- it's also about collective self-governance.

UMFA strikers picketing on November 16, 2016. @sherrivokey / Twitter

When we think of strikes, we usually think of disputes over wages and benefits. Strikes make the case that it’s easier for bosses to pay workers more than to run a company without them.

But unions often fight for more than money. Workers can walk off the job to demand new rights at work, fighting for control over their working conditions.

The recent strike at University of Manitoba focused on these issues. At the end of negotiations, the provincial government intervened, demanding both parties sign a one-year contract with no wage increase. The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA), which represents 1,200 full-time faculty and librarians, filed an unfair labor practice complaint.

But the government’s bizarre move helped clarify something else their members really wanted: power over how the university is run. When faculty and librarians walked off the job on November 1, they did so to contest the administration’s vision of the university as a corporation.

Speedup on the Line

As throughout higher education in North America, examples of the University of Manitoba’s corporatization abound. UMFA president Mark Hudson told me that the Faculty of Health Sciences successfully sold naming rights for $30 million to the Rady Family Foundation. When his own faculty, Arts, met to come up with their own donor-friendly fundraising schemes, he explained that “the process wasn’t about figuring out the university needs,” like a writing center or services to help indigenous students make a successful entry into university life, “but figuring out what donors would actually fund.”

One area that seems designed to draw in money is the university’s promise to “indigenize.” Winnipeg has the largest urban indigenous population in Canada, and the university has seen more and more First Nations students enroll. The 2015 strategic plan lists “creating pathways to indigenous achievement” among its central initiatives. It promises “to make Winnipeg the national center of excellence in indigenous education, and in particular to allow indigenous students to be prepared for and to achieve educational success.”

The campus is already home to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, set up to study, document, and make amends for the long-standing practice of removing First Nations children from their homes and sending them to residential schools. The school’s commitment to indigenous education and the presence of the TRC on campus should present amazing educational opportunities for students. But the university has consistently interpreted its promise as a chance to build more buildings and hire more administrators, not support faculty and students. The donations coming in to support this initiative seem to be going to administrators first, faculty second, and students only if there’s some leftover.

Niigaan Sinclair, chair of the Native Studies program, has repeatedly pointed out this irony. As he writes, the university decided to “indigenize without indigenous faculty.” In a video indigenous faculty members created in support of the strike, he describes how the push for indigenization has actually placed incredibly taxing demands on his department, which has not hired a new tenure-track faculty member in four years: “In a situation in which Native Studies should be a leader, should be the most supported program on campus, we are the least.” As Hudson noted, the university now has fewer indigenous faculty than they did when the strategic plan was announced.

When donations can’t be found, the administration turns to creating partnerships with businesses. At the Smartpark, for-profit companies like Monsanto lease space in the university’s innovation centers. These corporate interests are, of course, beginning to bleed into campus life.

Serenity Joo, associate professor in the Faculty of Arts, described a colleague who was “reprimanded for being uncollegial” after critiquing bad research put out by the factory-farm interests on campus.

And, like many other campuses in Canada and the United States, Manitoba is heavily recruiting international students, who pay three times what provincial students pay. While cashing their hefty tuition checks, the university has farmed out English language instruction to Navitas, a for-profit company.

Hudson explained that management fights to preserve “maximum flexibility to readjust [and] reallocate labor” to make sure revenue stays high. This so-called flexibility manifests in a number of different forms, but two recent developments contributed to the union’s anger going into contract negotiations.

Last year, the dean of the Faculty of Arts increased courses for non-tenure-track faculty from three to four classes a semester, a 33 percent increase. In past years, deans would have sought approval from faculty before making any change to workload requirements, especially one so major. As negotiating team member Brenda Austin-Smith reported, this time the dean responded to two negative votes from faculty by saying “‘Thank you very much, I’ve consulted with you, and now I’m going to go ahead and [increase workloads].’ Members were incensed.”

Austin-Smith likened the move to a “speedup on the line,” a logic that now permeates the university. When deans couldn’t add additional classes to instructors’ duties, they simply increased the number of students allowed to enroll.

Meanwhile, forty librarians were fired, massively increasing workload for everyone else. As Joo pointed out, “Even if you did get rid of the riff-raff, that’s an immense amount of labor that’s been shifted onto them.” University president David Barnard defended the move, explaining that technology had made librarians obsolete.

These decisions, and Barnard’s baffling defense of them, indicate that the administration and faculty fundamentally disagree about the university’s mission. The professors I spoke with all argued that the administration does not support the values of education, ignoring — either willfully or out of ignorance — the faculty’s expertise and the students’ needs.

Worker Power

The University of Manitoba’s corporate focus brings corporate management techniques with it, relying on, as Austin-Smith said, “top-down, hierarchical, command-and-control methods.” Faculty self-governance, in contrast, pushes towards the more horizontal and democratic. Committees of professors, which often include students, propose curricular changes, which then move to faculty council for approval. Research is assessed by experts in the field, not by external donors and investors.

This difference came to the fore in the fight over the university’s use of bibliometrics to measure and assess faculty research output. Hudson explained that the union knew that the university had purchased SciVal, a program that uses academic citation databases to “roll together a set of performance indicators based on citation counts, number of publications, [and] journal impact factors” and spits out a researcher’s “h-index.” As Joo noted, the purpose of these programs seems to be to “homogenize research and make all research in all fields look comparable, allowing non-experts to assess, evaluate, and hierarchize specialized research.”

The administration promised it would use those figures only to help sell the university to donors and the provincial government. But faculty feared that the university might begin using metrics to determine promotions and departmental budgets. If they do, Hudson argued, a lot of the real work of academia stops.

If a student’s coming into my office, and it’s going to take me an hour to explain, say, the relationship between exchange rates and interest rates, that doesn’t pay. I’m now in an incentive system where I want that student out of my office as fast as they can get out of my office. Because I’m not going to be in any way evaluated on the basis of my interaction with that student.

Not only do bibliometrics force faculty to prioritize research over teaching, but they are also notoriously biased against new research and against female academics. Joo pointed out that they favor certain research areas over others: “If you work on curing cancer, you get more hits than if you work on less popular diseases. It obviously disadvantages people who are working in more obscure or less popular fields.”

Jonah Olsen, a student activist, argued that metrics are always political: “They choose certain journals or publishing companies, and those are the only ones that really count. That seems like a rational thing, but how could you possibly determine that, and how could that not be a reflection of your political beliefs?” Austin-Smith summed the problems up, calling bibliometrics “completely gameable numbers.”

Further, faculty already have robust methods for determining what research is valuable: peer review. As Joo explained:

You don’t go to someone higher to review your paper and publish it. It’s passed around to your colleagues in your field . . . You get feedback from your peers, and that’s how you can attest to the validity the project, not [that] some manager thinks it’s a good project.

Bibliometrics erode academic freedom by pushing researchers into orthodox fields and punishing those who work on less popular areas or who make controversial findings.

UMFA fought another threat to academic freedom in their contract campaign: job security for non-tenure-track faculty. The faculty feared that if the union couldn’t extend the same job protections tenure-track faculty enjoy to librarians and non-tenured instructors, academic freedom might disappear on campus. This can happen in a less overt way than the teacher who was reprimanded for criticizing factory-farm propaganda.

Right now, management can only fire tenured professors — except in cases of gross wrongdoing — if the university can demonstrate extreme financial exigency, showing the union and faculty committees the campus books to prove that they really must let a professor go. Hudson described this as the “nuclear option.”

No such protections exist for non-tenure-track instructors or librarians. These workers do have academic freedom protections — meaning an instructor can’t explicitly be fired for criticizing the administration or its partnerships with business — but it can let any non-tenured worker go to cut costs, without justification.

So if a faculty member is critical of the administration, either in class or in the press, the university can fire that troublemaking instructor and use budget restraints as cover. As Hudson explained, “They don’t need to have a justification for who they lay off, they could just sort of pinpoint whoever they wanted . . . It hollows out academic freedom.”

Again, traditional faculty self-governance protects these core academic values that corporatization endangers.

Union Benefits

According to the faculty I spoke with, collective bargaining has become an essential tool for preserving the values of academic life. Without a union, Austin-Smith explained, all faculty can do is petition. “You can say please to your administration,” but with a recognized union backed by labor law,

You organize collectively, you meet collectively, you meet the employer face-to-face, and you bargain. Because when you bargain, you’re not petitioning anymore, you’re not asking for a favor, you’re not there with a begging bowl. You’re there to make demands based on principled, democratic decisions, undertaken by the members of the bargaining unit.

Moreover, Hudson said, the strike showed faculty how the administration had “quite deliberately discouraged” the ethic of collegiality.

The speedup on the line and the rationalization of research output reveals that the administration sees faculty as “productive automatons sitting at our desks twelve hours a day, churning out least-publishable units and processing student credit hours.” Walking the picket line together for twenty-one days reminded them that another way of working was possible.

Austin-Smith described a faculty senate meeting that took place during the strike. The senators who were walking the picket line decided to attend the meeting together.

Thirty UMFA senators all crowded into the senate chamber after having been on strike for about two weeks. And we sat in our usual places, and instead of the usual kind of silence . . . there was a buzz of conversation.

Rather than looking at their phones or grading papers while waiting for the meeting to begin, they talked: about the strike and the contract, about getting coffee later, and about their research.

This key element of collegial life — sharing ideas with people both in and outside your field — was further enhanced by fly-in pickets. The Canadian Association of University Teachers Defense Fund pays for workers from other unionized campuses in Canada to travel to an ongoing strike and join the picket lines. While faculty marched with their colleagues from across the country, they shared stories about past strikes and old contract negotiations. And, of course, they discussed their research.

Students participated in the newfound collegiality as well. The University of Manitoba Student Action Network organized teach-ins on the lines, so picketers could listen to lectures about the corporatization of the university or about how feminism relates to industrial actions. When students marched with their faculty, they engaged in precisely the kind of one-on-one conversations that the profit model of higher education does not value.

Olsen’s student group, the University of Manitoba Student Action Network, immediately joined the fight. They created a pamphlet to hand out to students with questions about how the strike would affect their education and signed people up to march with faculty. Olsen told me that much of his work before the strike started was simply talking to classmates. Students expressed concerns that the strike would delay their graduation and, in the case of international students, that a lost or extended semester would threaten their visas.

These one-on-one conversations worked: From the first hour of picketing, students joined faculty on the lines.

Over the course of strike, student support grew. UMSU, the officially recognized undergraduate union, endorsed the strike in its second week. The graduate student organization followed suit a few days later.

The support also took material forms. Students delivered coffee, chili, and even homemade pickles — with cheeky signs reading “The strike is a big dill” and “Gherkins of the world unite” — to picketing workers. They also planned a massive solidarity rally, which culminated in the occupation of the campus administration building.

After twenty-one days, faculty signed a one-year contract that enshrined many of their rights to self-governance. Now, if deans want to increase workload, faculty must ratify the new plan. If the faculty says no, the dean has to come up with something different.

The university and union will also assemble a committee made up of three faculty members and three administrators to study the issue of bibliometrics. If four out of the six committee members agree that using bibliometrics is damaging for scholarship and education, the language the union proposed around assessment will automatically enter the contract.

They were also able to secure a guarantee from the administration that no faculty or librarians would be fired before January 1, 2019. While the provision doesn’t have the strength faculty hoped for, they will return to table this spring to try again.

The strike at University of Manitoba demonstrates that the values of higher education and union organization fit together, suggesting the possibility that some of the principles of colleges and universities — self-governance, horizontal power-sharing, and collegiality — can be taken up by the labor movement outside the ivory tower.

The Fight for Control

It may seem surprising that, in the age of austerity, a labor dispute would largely set aside economic concerns and focus on non-economic provisions like the use of bibliometrics. Management’s refusal to grant workers significant control over their working conditions, however, reveals an important truth about the power of unions: Wages take money away from the boss, but self-governance takes away the boss’s power.

Academia was once seen as utterly removed from industrial labor. But education workers’ adoption of the principles of collective bargaining allow them to reinstate core principles. They’ve learned from the workers who have gone on strike before them. Workers outside academia could also look to them for a model of how to win back control at the workplace.