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As I write this, the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, which represents faculty members, librarians, and other academic staff, is on day 4 of a strike. Today, they are leading a march to the Administrative Offices of the University to demand improved working conditions and job security. After interference from the Government of Manitoba, UMFA has agreed to move forward with mediation on non-salary issues.

In September, faculty and librarians at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus were locked out for 12 days by their administration, who attempted to replace them with scab labour, many of whom - being non-unionized - had no choice but to comply.

In June, library workers in Mississauga were on strike for nearly three weeks. Once you start looking, conflicts between administrators (whether academic or municipal) and workers can be seen everywhere, all the time. We may be past the historical period of mass industrial strikes and lockouts (thought the threatened CUPW strike this summer argues otherwise), but labour issues in librarianship simply show that the class struggle is alive and well.

In January 2015, the Supreme Court found that a government interpreting “essentially services” too broadly abrogated the constitutional right to strike, which (as I understand it) made the collective agreement between University of Saskatchewan and its faculty members unconstitutional. This has had an effect on all other non-union faculty associations in Canada, association which are bound by provincial legislation but not by the province’s labour relations act (or its executive body, the labour board). This is true in Alberta as well, where the government is now trying to decide whether simply to modify the existing Post-Secondary Learning Act to make it constitutional, or to take all labour-related language out of the PSLA and make the academic associations subject to the Alberta Labour Relations Act. The presidents of the three largest universities in Alberta - Alberta, Calgary, and Lethbridge - obviously want to continue under the PSLA rather than give academic workers the protection of the labour board. James Turk of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (which includes librarians) wrote a letter to the AASUA (UAlberta’s faculty association) in support of the associations being recognized and covered by the labour relations act. In the letter, Turk identifies several problems with the PSLA:

  • It does not allow the membership to decide the structure of the organization
  • It gives the employer sole power to determine who is and is not a member of the organization
  • It has no statutory powers (e.g. to compel witnesses) in the case of disputes
  • It includes no requirement to bargain in good faith
  • It includes no requirement for fair representation by the association of a member
  • It denies the right to strike

Now, the three presidents who submitted letters in support of the PSLA to the province of Alberta used several arguments, but I want to talk about one in particular: They argue that the labour relations act is unnecessary for academic institutions because they are managed through collegial governance. In this view, there is no conflict between employer and employed, between administration and rank-and-file workers. Partly this can be explained through the fact that the Board-of-Governors and the Province are not private corporations, partly due to the fact that much of a university’s administration is composed of (usually ex-) faculty members. Under the PSLA, academic staff members remain in scope for the collective agreement even while bargaining on the other side of the table. Move along, there can be no class struggle here because our minds are on higher things, the summit of intellectual achievement, and collective bargaining is simply a material blot on our proverbial copybook, a necessary evil, but we’re really all on the same page.

This argument is patently absurd. And yet, the presidents double-down on it by claiming that, by making the academic faculty associations subject to the labour relations act, this will cause collegial governance to be destroyed. So the argument runs: we have no conflict, but if you try to protect yourselves, then we will have conflict. The argument used by racketeers for generations.

I have written about collegial governance (or lack thereof) elsewhere. We do not have collegial governance, so the argument that it will somehow disappear if we become subject to the labour relations act is a straw man.

But there is something more interesting I want to bring up here: the question of ideology. Emily Drabinski, one of the librarians heavily involved in union organizing at LIU, wrote recently about her experience on the board of Radical Teeacher, beginning in 2008. At one point, she writes:

Managing an explicitly radical journal like Radical Teacher, the editors might have been expected to understand scholarship as a material practice. For Marxists, life is produced and reproduced through material conditions. Under capitalism, factors such as surplus labor and the demand for profit constrain these conditions—factors that also play into scholarly publishing as librarians experience it. When the board members didn’t see their labor as such, I felt I should intervene, in order to articulate some of these practices. As a librarian, I understood and was able to explain to the other board members why people weren’t buying our journal.

And again:

Taking Radical Teacher open access meant working with scholars until they understood that scholarship requires work beyond the realm of ideas. Even though the Marxist materialists on the board understood on some level that people made the journal with their hands, it was harder for them to see that we were part of a bigger economic structure.

This last part strikes me as strange because seeing the bigger pictures is, in my view, one of the foundational ideas of Marxism. One of the best discussions of Marxism and “the totality” is in Georg Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, but is a hallmark of most Marxist writers, especially those writing after the Western Marxist “return to Hegel” of the 1920s and 30s.

If the presidents of Alberta, Calgary, and Lethbridge are in good faith (though the PSLA, of course, does not require good faith), then the absurdity of the collegial governance argument can only seem convincing to them if they are unable to understand a) “scholarship as a material practice” and b) that they (and we) are part of a larger economic structure in which struggle between those who own the means of production and those who do not is guaranteed and a first-principle. I do not think they are speaking in good faith, neither do I think they are ideologically naive. I think the know full well they are arguing for the maintenance of a system that - in the ongoing class struggle - benefits them and the economic, social, and political structures of capitalism.

The fight keeps going on, as we can see right now at the University of Manitoba. Maybe next week it will be Saskatchewan’s turn, the week after that Edmonton Public Library or University of Victoria. If nothing else, worker solidarity requires that we recognize that while the location of the struggle may change, the identity of those on either side do not change. As Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto more than 150 years ago, the workers have nothing to lose but their chains; they have a world to win.

I see that this blog post is long enough already. I have some thoughts about the right to strike, but those will have to wait for a part two…

It should go without saying that I support the University of Manitoba Faculty Association in their ongoing strike.

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Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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