UQAM at 40: A view from the (strike) front

[N.D.L.R.: Cette lettre a été soumise au journal The Gazette le 16 avril 2009]

I write today as one of some 950 striking UQAM professors. We’re one of the two groups alluded to a month ago by Gazette columnist Henry Aubin who wrote on March 14 (« Some public-sector unions are living in a dream world »): « It must be wonderful to be a Montreal cop. Or a professor at the Université de Québec à Montréal. Many people in both occupations evidently bask in the pleasant sense of being special – of being too meritorious to be affected by the financial woes afflicting this city and the rest of the world. » In today’s edition of the Gazette (April 16), a brief factual piece about Friday’s march offers the image of a jolly outing, and summarily restates the barest information about the strike — reinforcing the deprecating image fostered by Mr Aubin. No serious comment has appeared in The Gazette to date.

Since Mr Aubin’s article appeared, the police force has abandoned its months-old pressure tactics (many of us miss the red caps) with an agreement to enter arbitration. But at UQAM, the strike then at its inception has stretched out to now enter its seventh week. In fact, it has been 23 months since UQAM professors delivered a written proposal in order to begin negotiations on a collective agreement that expired on May 31, 2007. To this day there has yet to be a single written and complete response to come to light from the joint UQAM administration-government negotiating team — which has only finally come to the bargaining table in the past few weeks as a result of the strike.

And contrary to the assertion that repeatedly emerges in The Gazette, the strikes are not « sporadic ». After an initial two weeks of rotating strike days, UQAM professors have been out continuously since March 16, and have repeatedly voted massively to renew the strike mandate by over 90 %, most recently until April 24. We have been active not only in picketing and marching, but also in a wide range of education activities to raise awareness about UQAM’s role in the fabric of Montreal. This is a cause that has the support of over 30,000 UQAM students and every major faculty union in Quebec. And yet, when we speak to English-language colleagues or acquaintances in Montreal, they have no idea that the strike is even taking place, let alone that it has become the test case for Ministry of Education efforts to interfere with the governance of all Quebec universities.

Much misinformation — or information that is seriously incomplete in the English-language press — has circulated around the UQAM conflict, the impact of whose outcome is going to be profoundly felt in the whole education sector, whether French or English. In this respect the Gazette’s relative lack of coverage or informed comment has done a disservice to its readers, who are unaware of the very real issues involved in this strike. One thing is sure, the conflict has a scope that goes well beyond the easy dismissal offered by Mr Aubin. It’s the very vision of accessible education in Québec society that’s at stake.

Since 1969, UQAM has profoundly affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and men from Montreal, from throughout Québec, across Canada and around the world through its vision of accessibility to the finest in teaching and research in every field of enquiry, across management studies, the humanities and the sciences. To this day, many of UQAM students are the first in their families to undertake a journey in post-CEGEP education. UQAM’s vision is much like Concordia’s in this respect. It’s a vision made possible by the achievements of the Quiet Revolution. As a first-generation anglophone Québécois who received a French education at the primary, secondary and CEGEP levels before going on to study at Concordia, and who thereby benefited from the championing of egalitarian education in this society that is one of the great gifts of the Quiet Revolution, I consider it an honour to be able to serve the cause of accessible education at UQAM.

On April 9th, UQAM celebrated its 40th anniversary. Professors, students, support staff, sessional instructors and community representatives gathered together to symbolically renew the institution’s charter and to celebrate its achievements. Sadly absent from the recent celebrations were any of UQAM’s administration team, who are utterly caught between what many of them have conceded to be the justified demands of the professors, and the vengeful position of a government embarrassed by its role in the Voyageur Island fiasco. UQAM professors, like the rest of the UQAM community loudly objected to the PPP projects that led to the Voyageur debacle, which in turn led the government to place our university in trusteeship, and to now use its vulnerable position in an attempt to dismantle the achievements of the last 40 years.

UQAM professors seek conditions that defend these achievements by enabling us to attract the best of new colleagues to join in our outstanding record of teaching and scholarship. We’re seeking wage parity with the rest of the Université du Québec network, even while our Concordia colleagues, already well ahead of this network like those of McGill and the Université de Montréal, have just won substantial wage increases. More importantly, we’re seeking the creation of 300 new full-time positions to make up for the chronic underfunding that has reduced our numbers for many years, with resulting impact on class sizes, at the very juncture where we can expect a huge increase in student attendance in the next decade — given the present state of the economy. It just makes sense to have the qualified staff in sufficient numbers ready to meet the challenge. Effectively, UQAM professors are asking the Liberal government to be coherent with its programme of massive reinvestment in this economy — to wit, $ 300 million for the renovation of the Casino and $43 billion for new infrastructure projects — by investing also in the infrastructure of knowledge, research and critical thinking that trains today’s and tomorrow’s workforce.

The Minister for Education, Leisure and Sports, Michèle Courchesne, celebrated UQAM’s 40th anniversary by stating on the same day that the government would introduce legislation to force UQAM professors to return to work in the absence of any agreement before April 21. Acting as both negotiator and legislative judge, the minister reminds us of the very Dupplesist formulas that worked so efficiently for so long to keep social progress in check in this society. The belittling of these aims by English-language media in the 1950s remains a stain on the history of our community; Mr Aubin’s comments, and the Gazette’s sparse coverage, only serve to renew the spectre of collusion between English-language institutions and a political class that increasingly resorts to the suppression of fundamental rights of labour practice and of freedom of expression. As a professor devoted to the cause of accessibility to the finest education, I ask the Gazette to support the aims of UQAM’s professors and to call on the Québec government to honour principles of justice and fairness in its stewardship of our educational institutions. In turn this will guarantee that the society that emerges from the present economic crisis will be vibrant, because it will continue to fully enjoy the rights and freedoms won by the Quiet Revolution for all Québécois.

Yours sincerely

Dominic Hardy, professeur
Département d’histoire de l’art

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