The following article was originally published in Openwide Volume 15, Issue 2 and online here. It provides context and a discussion about the faculty association’s contract negotiations that happened at Western University in the fall of 2014.
How do I make wage negotiations sound sexy? Wait– why do I need to try so hard to get students interested in the future of contract faculty here at Western when the results have a direct impact on them? Is it really an issue that students don’t know enough about, or is it just that they don’t care? I’m not saying that students don’t know anything about it– in fact, I’ve witnessed class discussions that go on tangents for this topic alone. It’s difficult to navigate issues like these, revealing the injustices isn’t enough to resolve them, but there is also a hopelessness by students that they can bring about any change. On that positive note, let’s dive in.
Precarity and PSE
There is a greater trend toward precarious labour in our economy right now. Given the unpredictable state of– well everything– employers are having a tough time committing to hiring full-time employees in case the demand for their products or services falls. It’s becoming an employer’s market. There is more supply of labour than demand, and this drives down wages. It is well known that contract faculty do not receive fair compensation for the work they do. This is all further complicated by the slowly decreasing amount of government funding for the Post-Secondary Education (PSE) sector. In 1993, 71% of operating funding came from the provincial government, and now it’s less than 50%. For Western in particular, only 42.4% of their revenue is made up of government grants. No longer considered the benevolent public goods they once were, universities are not immune to participating in this trend of precarious labour as they try and stay afloat.
Although this may be the situation in theory– this doesn’t seem to be the case for Western, which is recording massive surpluses and healthy finances. According to a UWOFA report, Western has amassed a $202 million surplus since 2009. It was acknowledged that a lot of this money went into capital projects, but a large portion also went into restricted funds, which the UWOFA committee did not have access to review.
Western’s financial statements, which are available for anyone to view, also show its strong standing. Revenues are high– but so are expenses. Compensation (i.e. salaries and benefits) is the largest expenditure making up 61.2% of all the university’s expenses. A better question would be, out of this 61.2%, how much of the money is going toward the compensation of administration versus faculty? Part of the trend of precarious labour is an increase in administration and bureaucracy. As Noam Chomsky eloquent put it, “there’s layer after layer of management— a kind of economic waste, but useful for control and domination.” According to the most recent financial report, salaries and benefits increased by $34.3 million since 2013. So clearly, Western is not against increasing its expenses. This increase was attributed to growth in employee future benefit costs and salary increases.
If we were to think about the university like a business, wouldn’t it be in their best interest to have leaner operations by cutting the superfluous administrative staff in order to relocate funds to the faculty? Faculty members have higher ROIs (return on investment). They offer tangible direct benefit to students (the “customers”…or so I would idealistically assume) and also play a heavy hand in student retention. If student retention rates are high, that’s a steady stream of profit for the institution. In my own personal experience, the great upkeep of buildings on campus has never been a factor as to whether I stay in university or not. Likewise, I’m never sitting in those child-sized desks in a worn down Middlesex lecture hall thinking about abandoning my pursuit of higher education. Perks are nice, but they aren’t the principal reason students are drawn to Western. This logic has been proven by Iowa State University which saw an increase of 3% in student retention after hiring more full-time faculty and shrinking its administration.
“Every budget is a choice” was part of the title for UWOFA’s financial report. Although there is great truth in this, this issue is ridden with complexities. The individual budget choices of Western’s administration are situated in the greater neoliberalization of our world. There are also factors influencing both sides that we as outsiders to the deliberations can never know.
The complexity of the issue is shown in the duration of the faculty negotiations. UWOFA has been engaged in constant negotiations with the administration since May. More recently a conciliator was appointed to assist with the negotiations. Prior to meetings where the conciliator, appointed by the Ontario Ministry of Labour, will be present a strike vote was held.
A strike vote sounds intense but is really common at this point in the negotiating process. A strong strike vote is used as a tool to give the negotiating team more leverage, as it shows strong support by their membership. On October 27th, faculty had voted 90% in favour of a strike mandate showing the administration that they refuse to accept the current offer. It is also the strongest strike mandate UWOFA has ever received. That being said, UWOFA has made clear in its bargaining updates that a positive strike vote does not mean there will be a strike and a strike will only come “after all other options have been exhausted.” Even then, they have shed light on other kinds of labour action such as rotating strikes, one-day strikes, and work to rule (which is doing the bare minimum as outlined in one’s contract in order to cause a slowdown).
The USC budget and the greater Western budget are two different things. Recently, the USC has drafted a 2015 Budget Submission, and it’s timed strategically during the four year budget cycle planning process. This report is the first time the USC has taken action to influence the greater university budget, and within the report several priorities are outlined for consideration. However, none of them deal with fairer compensation for contract faculty.
To be blunt, the report focuses on areas of mental health, academic counselling, and renovations. I’m not saying these aren’t great priorities to have– they are, and they will greatly benefit the student body. I was just disappointed that students, those who will also be affected by final decision of these faculty negotiations, don’t have their USC advocating their views on it. These faculty negotiations aren’t isolated from the university’s budget planning process, so including something about them in this budget submission would not have been out of place.
Our USC president Matt Helfand was quoted in The Gazette saying that the USC does not take sides, but hopes that negotiations are resolved without any labour interruption. This answer is flawless in that it will appease everyone. All students can identify with wanting no labour interruption, but not all students can commit themselves to supporting the reason behind the strike. Why aren’t more students caring about what happens to their professors that they are privileged to be taught by? Has society socialized such an individualistic age that compassion for the struggles of others is a nuisance? Fair compensation for faculty is not some radical leftist standpoint than it is basic regard for a fellow human’s ability to be able to meet their needs.