Ground zero is Ontario, where the Conservative government has opened the door for private universities. If the Tories have their way, private businesses will be allowed to grant degrees for the first time in Canada.
For years the governments tried to force campuses into privatization and contracting out by rationing and slashing the funds they get, says Kirk Sprague, chair of CUPE Ontarios University Workers Coordinating Committee. He also points to the provinces SuperBuild fund, which forces public private partnerships on cash-starved public institutions.
Obviously that wasnt moving fast enough for them, and we were throwing up too many roadblocks. So theyre taking a more direct approach, says Sprague, a pest control operator at the University of Guelph and a member of CUPE 1334.
He says with private universities tuition fees will go up, access will go down and accountability will go out the window. If private universities are allowed to set up shop in the province, they will drain scarce public funds and resources, creating one education system for the wealthy, and another for everyone else.
You know where the governments heading and it isnt to put money back into the public system, says Sprague.
Having seen the writing on the wall, the provinces university workers are resisting the Ontario governments plans for private universities. And theyre gearing up for the fight of their lives.
We need to fight private universities tooth and nail. Because under the rules of NAFTA, once private universities get in, thats it. Game over for public education, says Brock University teaching assistant Mike Boland, president of CUPE 4207.
Confronting cuts on many fronts
Across the province and across the country, CUPE post-secondary workers are confronting cutbacks and privatization.
In Nova Scotia, the attack is happening on all fronts, including universities.
The Hamm government seems to have tunnel vision, and theyre privatization bound, says CUPE 3912 president Barbara Moore. Her local, which is in bargaining, represents part-time instructors at Saint Marys, Mount Saint Vincent and Dalhousie universities, as well as Dalhousie teaching assistants.
Moore says the corporate influence is everywhere. At Dalhousie, a food court that used to be a bustling hub of student life is a wasteland at night, thanks to the fast food outlets that replaced university-run food services. The food is so crappy the outlets arent generating enough traffic or profits. So they close early, and people go elsewhere.
At Saint Marys the new business school is housed in a building paid for and bearing the name of the Sobeys grocery chain. And the universitys new president is involved with a right-wing think tank called the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. We can see the privatization ideology creeping in at the highest levels, she says.
Members of Moores local are fighting to keep their summer courses, which the employer is handing to retired full-time faculty as a bonus for taking early buyouts.
Were being played as part of a cheap labour game, and the students suffer, says Moore. Many members of her local work at several institutions to earn enough to get by, and count on the summer courses as part of their income.
Low wages are an issue for university workers in Saint Catharines, Ontario. The Brock University teaching assistants and part-time instructors got a first contract in June 1999, but theyre fighting an uphill battle.
The university sees us as a transient work force, and they show it by paying among the lowest wages in the province, and by doing everything they can to keep people from getting tenure, says Boland.
At York University, CUPE members were forced to strike to fight low wages and creeping corporatization says sociology teaching assistant and CUPE 3903 member James Beaton.
CUPE 3903 entered bargaining ready to challenge the corporate mindset of York management. The new corporate model of the university is all about job insecurity, pressure to reduce wages and benefits and privatization, says Beaton.
Beaton is studying industry-university partnerships and their effects on teaching and research as well as opposition to this trend. He says the corporate campus means increased use of flexible part-time and contract faculty, shrinking research and teaching dollars going to industry-relevant programs that emphasize technology and business at the expense of the arts and social sciences.
Boland also points to the commercialization of knowledge and universities setting up large, expensive patent offices. Once you cant share information and discoveries between departments or disciplines, its a huge in for further corporate takeover.
Higher tuition fees are another result of cutbacks and corporatization, leaving many students struggling to pay the rent let alone do their academic work. Introducing summer fees was a devastating blow to York graduate students.
During the summer, graduate student funding decreases so students are basically working just to pay their tuition. Graduate summer funding doesnt meet basic living needs so many students take part-time jobs on top of their university work. So they have less time to research and publish activities that are essential for future academic employment, says Beaton.
Now, his local is fighting to keep tuition protection for all its members a concession thats being pushed by management.
It seems York administration hopes that by bargaining every year, the local will become fatigued and demobilized and may be unable to resist concessions. However, nothings further from the truth. Every year the local learns new resistance and mobilizing strategies.
Clearly management wants to build a university that emphasizes private interests rather than the public good and relies upon cheap and insecure labour. CUPE 3903 is resisting these trends and building a better university at York, says Beaton.
At the University of Toronto, the fightback was fought and won on a CUPE picket line. The 80 bookstore employees went on strike June 7 for a first contract and fair wages. The part-time workers, members of CUPE 3261, are cashiers and sales staff at the U of T Bookstore.
After a summer on the picket line, the workers many of them young people having their first union experience won a first contract that includes a grievance procedure, seniority rights, job security and a wage increase. Their employer resisted every step of the way.
Management was extremely hostile. They didnt just want us to sign a bad first contract. They were out to bust the union, says Paul Lykotrafitis, a bookstore order clerk and the locals picket captain during the strike.
One of our key demands was a wage increase to be on par with the second-lowest bookstore workers in Canada, who are at York. Management at one point offered us $6.85 an hour less than our starting wage right now, he says. In the end we got a pay raise, but were still the lowest-paid bookstore workers in the country.
U of T Press is a prime example of the lean and mean university. They created this fictitious separate corporation, a shell thats owned by the university, is controlled by the university, and hands all its profits to the university.
Lykotrafitis says management hoped people wouldnt last the summer and would leave for other jobs, weakening the picket line. That didnt happen despite heavy intimidation. Lykotrafitis was the target of a managers anti-gay attack, and another picketer has received death threats.
But the harder management pushed, the stronger the picket lines became. The lines were bolstered by support on campus and in the community, including author Margaret Atwood, who wrote a stinging letter to the university.
During the life of the locals 13-month contract, activists like Lykotrafitis will be busy. Well be building our part-timers. And well be looking to organize the full-timers. And well be back to make more gains at the bargaining table.”