I’m on strike. My faculty union at Memorial University, after fourteen months of frustrating and fruitless negotiations with an utterly recalcitrant administration, called a strike vote. Ninety-three percent of members voted, of whom ninety percent (myself included) called for a strike. And so now we are in our second week of walking the picket lines.
I’ve never been on strike before, so this is a new and interesting experience for me. I have no idea how it compares to other such job actions, but I can confidently make two observations that may seem to contradict each other: one, everyone is desperate to end this in a satisfactory manner and get back into the classroom; two, everyone is having a blast.
To emphasize the second observation, let’s keep in mind that this strike is happening in February in Newfoundland, which means the weather has ranged from bad to shitty—at best, inoffensive gloom, at worst sleeting rain and blizzards. After our first day I invested in thermal underwear, good mittens, snow pants, and several pairs of thick socks. But once so fortified, walking the picket line for two and a half hours a day has become something I look forward to, because it has meant spending time with my colleagues, who are to a person smart, dedicated, funny, compassionate, and profoundly, inspiringly dedicated to their teaching and research. Those two and a half hours fly past as we chat, joke, talk about our research and writing projects, and—most importantly, perhaps—have very intensive discussions about the strike itself and the broader issues at stake.
That being said, none of this is a lark. Everyone is concerned for our students; we worry incessantly about the adverse effects this might have on their term; and we worry about the future of the university—both our specific institution and the “university” more generally. What is most heartening and keeps our hope and energy up is that our students are firmly behind us. Every day they come out to the line with signs of their own, often bearing coffee and donuts, shouting and singing their solidarity and voicing the same ire at our current tone-deaf and bafflingly obtuse upper administration. I have little doubt that this strike would sputter and die if we found our students foursquare against us; even just ten years ago, there would likely have been, at the very least, ambivalence and a more pervasive skepticism about tenured professors making a comfortable living demanding more.
To my mind, the signal shift in the present moment is exemplified by our administration’s consistent failure to frame the strike in those very terms. By the old rules of the game, it should be the easiest thing in the world to vilify the striking faculty as a bunch of sheltered, tenured Sunshine List elites making unreasonable demands in a time of economic straits. They have certainly tried, but it seems for once that people—both our students and the public more generally—aren’t buying it. The administration has attempted to make this all about professors asking for more money, but for once the more complex argument is finding a receptive audience. It’s not the salaries of tenured professors that has people’s attention, but the pittance paid to precariously-employed contractual professors on one hand, and the $450,000 salary of the university president on the other.1 It’s not the putative ivory-towered academics understood to be out of touch, but the university’s managerial class—who for the duration of the strike thus far have issued occasional and increasingly petulant messages making verifiably false claims, refused to accommodate students uncomfortable with crossing picket lines, and forbidden administrative staff and per-course instructors from joining faculty on the picket line on breaks and lunch hours. It’s not so much about professorial compensation as it is about collegial governance and faculty having more of a say in the university’s future.
The fact that these knottier, more complex issues seem to be eclipsing the easier to understand snooty-professors-want-moar caricature is heartening; in my more hopeful moments I think it signals a shift, moving our cultural center of gravity away from the neoliberal dominance of the past few decades to something more humane and empathetic. I’m reasonably convinced that the experience of the pandemic is at the root of this apparent shift: we have a generation of students who endured two years of remote learning, who found their professors to be sympathetic people understanding of their travails and saw them also struggle to do their best in bad circumstances. All of which unfolded in a larger societal context in which prior verities about work and recompense came into question: the category of “essential worker” extended to people working minimum wage jobs in grocery stores; people fortunate enough to be able to work remotely realized they could do the same job in half the time while wearing pyjamas; quality of life became a more pronounced concern, something made plain by the general reluctance for people to return to shitty jobs simply for the sake of having a job; meanwhile, the problem of wealth disparity became ever more glaring as the wealthiest sectors did not share the pain but grew even wealthier.
Much of this is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. Hence, I should be cautious and note that what I’m describing is less an objective, empirical reality than a vibe. But it is a profoundly powerful vibe that currently thrums through the energy on our pickets. And, well, I’m a humanities professor: qualitatively considering and analyzing vibes is more or less my stock in trade. To put it another way, I work in intangibles.2 In the context of a corporatized university whose administrative class has become increasingly preoccupied with “outcomes” and “finding efficiencies,” this has meant fighting a protracted rearguard action against a pervasive attitude (epitomized by but not limited to university administrators) to which intangibles are anathema.
I’ve devoted a lot of thought over my career as an academic to the question of how to argue for the value of intangibles. Walking the picket lines with my brilliant colleagues and talking with the many, many students who come out to support us has made one thing clear to me: if I’m looking for a concrete manifestation of this intangible value, it’s here, in the human beings who comprise the university.
The most common refrain among the students articulates this sensibility: professors’ teaching conditions, they say, are our learning conditions. And in the end, it is the classroom that is the most fundamental university space, and the students’ experience that is—or should be—the central focus of the university project. Because if not, then what are we doing otherwise? Professors with time and resources to do research bring that depth and breadth of thought to the classroom; perhaps more importantly, contractual and per-course instructors who aren’t run ragged with massive teaching loads, under constant financial stress, and who have a reasonable chance at converting their precarious positions into full-time careers, are going to be far more effective in the classroom (the fact that so many of them are exemplary educators now speaks to an inhuman level of dedication).
As I write this, the faculty union and the university bargaining team are back at the table. I hope they resolve this satisfactorily so we can resume our real work. But since before this started, it has felt as if the administration is speaking a language with no meaning for the rest of us. And if that continues, I and my colleagues are in for the long haul.
1. Memorial’s current president Vianne Timmons is paid $450,000 as a base salary, along with an $18,000 housing allowance, $1,000 monthly vehicle allowance, $25,000 research, and the standard travel perks afforded her position (which most recently included travel to Monaco for a conference of—wait for it!—arctic university administrators). The process for “finding” and recruiting Timmons cost the university $150,000. A CBC report about negative responses to Timmons’ lavish compensation quoted someone familiar with her hiring process as saying “Only a handful of people are qualified to lead a university like MUN, and finding that person takes time and money.” I think it’s safe to say, especially given Timmons’ utter lack so far of public statements about the strike—given that a university president’s central task is presenting a public face of the institution—that we’re not getting our money’s worth, and that the remarkable solidarity on display is at least partly a backlash against the assumptions quoted above.
It also needs to be emphasized that this state of affairs is pervasive across academe, something usefully discussed by Amir Barnea in the Toronto Star.
2. Again, I am a humanities professor, so my perspective in ineluctably informed and shaped by that context and training. But I should note that the intangible value of a university education—the intrinsic value of the university experience—transcends discipline. Whether your degree is in philosophy, chemistry, or engineering, if your sole metric of value is your ultimate salary, you’ve sadly missed the larger point. In the end, as I conclude above, it is the human dimension that defines the university.