Photo: Bernard Weil

Toronto strikes back against neoliberal education

  • March 20, 2015

Education & Emancipation

The university strikes in Toronto are a powerful articulation of an emergent student and academic staff movement that is growing on campuses globally.

Article written by various rank and file members of CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903.

As we enter now into the third week of strikes at two of Canada’s largest universities — the University of Toronto and York University — we believe this is a vital moment to reflect upon the aims shared by members of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) locals 3902 and 3903, representing over 10,000 teaching assistants and course instructors with the majority of them graduate students at both University of Toronto and York University, and to explore the larger structural issues that led to strike actions at both campuses.

We contend that the casualization of academic labor and the commodification of education must be seen as components of the larger framework of the neoliberalization of state and society. This is seen quite sharply in the demands put forth by members of both CUPE 3902 and CUPE 3903. The authors of this piece are a collective comprised of rank-and-file members from both CUPE locals. Our aim is to provide an analysis of the present situation with united voices, exploring linkages between these specific articulations and the ways in which our strikes are situated on the horizon of a growing movement.

While the particular details of each local’s bargaining position are specific to existent relations within each university, upon brief reflection it becomes remarkably clear that the foundational concerns raised in each case are symptomatic of the neoliberal restructuring of the university system, and indeed, of society at large, and represent a concerted push-back against austerity and the casualization and precarization of labor within and beyond the academic institution.

In conjunction with increasingly assertive organizing on the part of adjunct faculty across the continent, with a second round of student strikes about to kick off in Quebec, and with student occupations taking off across the Atlantic in London and Amsterdam, these concurrent strikes have become increasingly powerful articulations of an emergent student and contract labor movement growing across university campuses globally.

Sparking the match

CUPE 3902 at the University of Toronto was the first to declare the strike, on Friday, February 27, with York joining shortly thereafter. The University of Toronto strike deadline had been set months prior, but the employer had delayed bargaining until the very last minute, when at 3am, after a marathon negotiation session, it tried to push through a lackluster deal which the membership would swiftly and decisively reject.

The tentative agreement offered by the University of Toronto included minor wage increases, some limited financial allocations available by application for those in the final years of PhD studies, and several modest improvements in the language of the collective agreement, but it did not address the substantive issues members had entrusted the bargaining team to negotiate. In fact, written into the deal was the employer’s assertion that CUPE 3902 does not have the mandate to negotiate on either of the core matters which membership had authorized it to negotiate — an increase in the overall guaranteed minimum funding package of $15,000 per year, and a reduction or remission of tuition fees for graduate students beyond the funded years.

Given that teaching assistant and course instructor work is a requirement to fulfill more than half of that funding guarantee, this was widely seen as a political attempt by the administration to limit graduate students’ capacity to deploy our collective power as unionized workers and address the terms of our relationship with the university holistically.

In response to this insult, CUPE 3902 members raised picket lines at all three University of Toronto campuses the following Monday, and were joined by CUPE 3903 at York the very next day. Similarly, York’s offer also evaded the union’s core bargaining points, which included tuition indexation for all members, job security for contract faculty members, and a reasonable funding package for graduate assistants.

Tuition indexation ensures that every dollar added to graduate tuition fees is met in kind by additions to graduate student compensation. This was already won through a protracted strike in 2000-’01, and secured for all members of the local, but York’s administration recently reinterpreted the language and now claims that it only applies to students already under the collective agreement, excluding incoming students. As a result, the tuition fees of international graduate students increased by a whopping $7,000 in 2014.

A second core demand at York is for an increase in the guaranteed minimum funding to Research Assistants and Graduate assistants, currently set at $9,000 per year. In a city such as Toronto, in which the Low Income Cutoff (LICO) is set at $23,000, it is clear that guaranteed minimum funding at both universities leaves graduate students struggling substantially below a livable income.

The financial enterprise of knowledge production

The systemic indifference of university administrators towards the experience of graduate students and course instructors reflects the extent to which institutionalized knowledge-production has become a financial enterprise. In fact, this indifference marks a class conceit particular to the neoliberal moment. As David Graeber argues, the neoliberal university is exemplary of the emergence of a modern class alliance between financial elites and corporate bureaucrats, which he terms the professional-managerial class; a class position which university administrators have increasingly come to occupy over the past few decades.

Alongside the casualization of academic labor that marks diminishing prospects for the attainment of tenure-track professorship and replacement with highly insecure and poorly compensated adjunct teaching positions, there persists a hiring spree of senior administrators with progressively higher salaries and compensation packages emulating that of corporate executives. A brief glance at the Ontario Sunshine List, which shows the annual salaries throughout the past decade of any publicly employed person making over $100,000, reveals the bloated and rapidly increasing salaries of administrators at both universities.

Meanwhile, the ratio between senior administrators and tenured faculty is decreasing dramatically across universities in Ontario. This exemplifies an ongoing trend in which universities have become sites for the reproduction of the professional-managerial class; a reproduction that we emphatically insist comes at the expense of the political place of labor in our society.

The form this class reproduction assumes is unequivocally corporate. Universities are constantly engaged in orienting their policy outlook to the private interests of investors and shareholders, where “revenue shortfalls” and “budget surpluses” dictate policy, albeit without any change in employee working conditions either way, as the conditions of our current strikes reveal. After all, although U of T reported a budget surplus of $200million last year it refuses to negotiate the value of its guaranteed graduate funding, which hasn’t seen an increase since 2008. Meanwhile the average salary of a University of Toronto dean has risen by $20,000 since then.

Prioritizing “fiscal responsibility,” often at the expense of educational quality, universities are becoming technocratic financial institutions in all but name. Consequently “asset management” and “market value” have come to signify the quality of research and education on offer, both of which achieve popular mass consumption in the form of global institutional rankings, themselves evocative of corporate performance reviews.

And yet for all their pomp and “prestige,” such global indices belie the exploitative conditions that await international graduate students whose untenable economic position at our universities exemplifies the extreme edge of precarity experienced across the graduate student population. The often undervalued contributions graduate students make as cutting-edge researchers and contract education workers are essential to the international prestige of these institutions, and indeed, their very functioning.

The pedagogy of student indebtedness

Another crucial dimension in the reproduction of the neoliberal university is student indebtedness. With tuition fees increasing well above the rate of inflation on an annual basis in Ontario (by provincial law, universities can increase tuition by up to 5 percent per year), and with meager stipends that fall well below the poverty line, graduate students and course instructors are often forced to debt-finance the completion of their degrees.

As one CUPE 3902 union member succinctly puts it, when we speak about precarity in the university, we are primarily speaking about debt. Exemplary of a neoliberal strategy beginning in the 1970s, the right to a publicly funded education is increasingly being substituted with easy access to credit. And although the university is not a primary issuer of student loans, it plays a formative role in the financialization process by intentionally fostering mass student loan debts. Thus it is through student debt that we can more clearly discern how the university articulates and produces a larger neoliberal order based in the reproduction of financial capital.

Most importantly, student indebtedness designates a pedagogical dimension of the neoliberal university, one central to the reproduction of the professional-managerial class (or, more accurately, the sensibilities associated with this class). That is to say, in the name of their professionalization, students are taught through their debt to reflect on their status as human capital, or as University of Toronto administration has termed its students, “Basic Income Units.”

In order to acquire the habit of valorizing themselves through personal “investment” in their (unforeseeable) futures, they are taught to make an enterprise of themselves, engaging incessantly (and anxiously) in acts of self-marketing. As such, an audit-culture is instituted in the neoliberal university through an ethos of indebtedness whereby student-debtors are incessantly interpolated as manager-professionals split between the contrarian injunction to embrace risk and the prudent warning to take precautions against making bad investments.

Whose university? Our university!

At a recent solidarity rally outside the administrative offices of the University of Toronto, thousands of graduate and undergraduate students together chanted “Whose university? Our university!” With blinds tightly shuttered and campus police standing guard at each locked entrance, our voices rang in unison so that we might be clearly heard, if not seen, by the administrators cloistered within.

While our respective strikes are but a beginning, the terms in which they are articulated show clear linkages with a wider global struggle to reclaim the university as a public space for free and guaranteed accessible education for all. In this sense, the fight of striking student union members at the University of Toronto and York University for increases to the basic funding package, tuition relief and/or tuition indexation, and improvements to overall working conditions, cannot be separated from the wider global struggle for broad structural transformation within the fiscal and pedagogical governance of the contemporary university.

Students in Canada have been at the forefront of the struggle for high quality accessible education for all, with the 2012 student strikes in Quebec a telling example. The struggle of Quebec students against austerity challenged multiple aspects of neoliberal governance within and beyond the university setting. As striking Quebec students in 2012 articulated opposition to both proposed tuition increases and the sweeping northern development project Plan Nord, this movement cannot be separated from the struggle against the exploitation of land and resources, and the ongoing internal colonization of Indigenous territories. Indeed, in 2012 lines of solidarity were produced between Indigenous and student activists articulating an overall critique of neoliberal restructuring in all sectors, and a shift toward alternate visions for the futurity of political-economic relations.

The momentum of the present movement is escalating rapidly. Our own administrations have taken hard offensive lines against our unions necessitating prolonged strikes, while concurrently, Quebec students from 24 student unions across six Montreal campuses have declared a second wave of student strikes beginning March 21. From the picket lines on Keele, Mississauga, Scarborough, and St. George campuses in Toronto to the occupied Maagdenhuis (the main administration building of the University of Amsterdam), one thing is clear: resistance against the neoliberal regime within and beyond the university setting is growing, and it transcends the bounds of academia.

At present, we need solidarity across all universities and workers’ unions, whether through active participation in pickets, the launch of mirror strikes on other campuses, or the drafting of strong letters of support. CUPE 3902 and 3903 members must escalate our tactics in solidarity with supporters within and beyond the city of Toronto, and demonstrate the extent to which our labor is fundamental to the effective functioning of the university. Following a victory regarding our specific aims, we must ensure that any “back to work” agreement does not end in the abandonment of this wider struggle.

A victory for striking graduate student workers will signify a decisive step toward the reversal of neoliberal policy and provide an example and a source of inspiration for others moving forward. The momentum for a campus-based global anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal movement is strong at present. Our moment is now. We invite you to join us on the picket lines, out on the streets, and inside occupied administrative buildings. Together, We Strike to Win!

Authors:

Jennifer Gibson, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
George Mantzios, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
Sardar Saadi, PhD student in Anthropology, University of Toronto
Behnam Amini, MA student in Social and Political Thought, York University
Gülay Kılıçaslan, PhD student in Sociology, York University

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