Full time professors and library staff at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) have been on strike since January 13, after months-long negotiations between the university and the Association of University of New Brunswick Teachers (AUNBT) failed to reach an agreement by the strike deadline. The UNB faculty’s salary levels and salary increase rates are lower than those at comparable Canadian universities, and have pushed the union to demand a 7 per cent increase in salary each year for the next two years.
Classes have been cancelled for the duration of the strike, and the university has hired a private security firm – a company that markets itself as “strike security” – to be stationed at the campus entrances where strikers are picketing. Meanwhile, students have expressed concern for classes missed and a possible cancellation of their semester.
The parallels to the general strike of non-academic staff at McGill in Fall 2011 are many, but none more evident than the apparent student-centricity of the university campus during times of labour action. In the same way that many UNB students bemoan the possible loss of their semester (though strike action has never led to the loss of a semester at any Canadian university), so too did McGill students denounce the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) strike for threatening their ‘right’ to go to class.
The lack of student support for striking university workers is premised on a rhetoric of students as the centre of the university, and as the group whose needs must be prioritized at the expense of others’ – a rhetoric that is wildly untrue, but that the university is glad to buy into at times of strike. It is imperative that students recognize the professional and financial needs of those who provide the services that help keep the university running, and that these needs do not undermine students’ interests. This is the only way that students are able to refuse the university the opportunity to pit them against staff and faculty.
The anti-strike rhetoric that comes from university administrations at UNB and McGill alike seeks to undercut the validity of strike action, and the demands of workers by extension, especially in the eyes of students. At UNB, the rhetoric of “structural deficit” was criticized by departmental chairs as an excuse for the downsizing of academic positions while money was re-allocated to administrative or other non-academic positions and expenses.
Another highly visible form of discreditation is based on the portrayal of strikers as violent, disruptive, and potentially dangerous. At UNB, this has taken the form of stationing private security close to picketing workers; at McGill, this took the form of an injunction against MUNACA. In both cases, the administration has chosen to portray striking workers as threats to the campus community, and reject them as the necessary members of the community that they are. These attempts at isolation seek to paint a picture of competing interests between workers and the campus at large, thereby threatening support for workers from the community to which they belong.
Much of an administration’s anti-strike rhetoric is predicated on the false assertion that striking workers’ interests run counter to those of the campus community at large. The success of this rhetoric in generating the disunity the university desires depends on students’ engagement with, and sympathy for, the issues affecting others at the university. Students must educate themselves on labour issues at play within their community, and refuse to allow their interests to be co-opted by the administration to delegitimize workers’ drive for fair compensation.
—The McGill Daily Editorial Board