The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has once again brought the economic failures of austerity politics into stark relief. It may very well be the case that once the economy has “recovered” we can expect further cuts to public services, but it is just as likely that we may, finally, be entering a new phase. The global financial crisis proved that the Fed could pump trillions, literally from nowhere, into the economy without causing inflation. There is no reason that we cannot enact widespread government initiatives for renewable energy, updated infrastructure, public transportation, social housing, education, and health care. With that in mind, I’m republishing this article, originally written in late 2013 in the wake of Quebec’s Printemps érable.
In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the politics of austerity has become common place around the world, its rhetoric the default currency of purported “good management.” This despite the growing consensus that austerity doesn’t make fiscal sense as government policy. In the spring of 2013 Thomas Herndon, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, published a paper proving that the conclusions of Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff’s influential paper on the relationship between debt and economic growth were false. That paper had been the primary source cited to justify massive cuts to government services around the world. Despite this refutation, elected officials have yet to change course in any significant way, such as repealing the tax cuts to the wealthiest individuals and corporations that are the actual cause of our budget deficits, or prosecuting the financial institutions that orchestrated the financial crisis. That is because austerity was never an economic theory, but a political ideology.
Here in Quebec, shortly after their victory co-opting the momentum of the student strike of 2012, the Parti Quebecois government announced a budget that included decreased funding for public universities, necessitating internal cuts to the universities’ already-approved budgets. These cuts imposed by the PQ government are not only unnecessary in the strict sense, but they have already had deep impacts on the quality of education and threaten the vitality of Quebec’s universities.
Where it hurts
As an alumnus and current employee of McGill University, I have been greatly dismayed by the ways in which the administration has gone about enacting these cuts. I spent the fall semester documenting the impact of these cuts at McGill, through a radio segment broadcast on CKUT and through the Quality of Education blog hosted by AGSEM, McGill’s teaching union. My aim has been not only to catalog the impact the cuts have had on students and workers, but also to challenge the stated logic behind the cuts and to suggest some alternatives. What I’ve observed so far suggests that McGill has its own motives, of which quality education is not the primary concern.
At McGill University, the administration has exacerbated the matter by implementing the PQ cuts all at once, unlike other universities that have spread them across their budgets over the next several years. Many on campus may not know much about the causes, but the effects of austerity are already apparent -longer lines at student services, fewer courses, larger class sizes, fewer Teaching Assistants (TAs), an utterly dysfunctional Human Resources department, the closing of several libraries and the termination of one quarter of the library support staff.
I could go on, but I must underscore the illegality of many of these austerity measures as violations of the collective agreements between the University and the labour unions, such as asking employees to re-open their agreements to make cuts to salaries and benefits, requesting that unionized staff take longer maternity leave or unpaid vacation, and having non-union employees taking on the work of unionized positions. Such efforts at reducing expenditure actually predate the announcement of the PQ cuts, and are part of a larger strategy of corporate reorganization of the university. And this is to say nothing to the immorality of stringing along dozens of casual employees for years with the promise of permanent positions that never materialize.
My erstwhile colleague Justin Marleau, former vice-president of AGSEM, suggested to me in an interview that changes in McGill’s accounting practices over the years have produced skewed financial reports in order to create a sense of desperation and inevitability, justifying their chosen strategy and boosting their private fundraising. Of crucial significance is the fact that despite having budgets that projected a deficit each year, McGill has not incurred a deficit in actual spending. In fact, the university has made net gains in four out of the five fiscal years before the budget cuts were announced. A budget is only a projection of priorities and intentions, and a projected deficit does not necessarily translate to an actual debt. As Marleau explains in great detail in our interview, McGill often moves money around its various funds, which makes evaluating their actual financial health difficult for outside observers.
The Politics of the cuts
But as I said earlier, austerity is about politics, not economics, and the impact of these cuts on McGill’s labour unions should not be understated. Though one might claim that the administration is spreading around the impact of the cuts, there has been a clear anti-union bent to their strategy.
The case of TAs is indicative of the way in which these cuts hurt labour unions, and diminish the educational experience of McGill’s students, directly undermining the core mission of the university. Despite the increase in class sizes (especially for lower level courses), the number of TA positions have decreased, as have their allotted hours for which they are compensated. Many TAs now have fewer hours for more students, which means they are less able to attend to their students’ needs. The collective agreement between the University and AGSEM negotiated in 2011 instituted a Workload form to track work done and ensure that TAs do not do more work then they are paid for.
In many cases the supervising professors are sympathetic and accommodating, though the balance of any additional work may fall on them. Some students are understandably reluctant to take a stand on this issue, and risk initiating a possible conflict with their supervisor, on whom much of their success as a graduate student depends. This kind of soft pressure can result in TAs doing work for which they are not compensated, in effect undoing some of the advances organized labour has made over years of collective bargaining.
This soft pressure is especially acute for some of the most vulnerable community members, such as international students who may be adapting to a new cultural context and for whom their professor is their primary contact. Labour unions may have their own members’ interests at heart, but strong unions that protect the rights of their members results in gains for all members of the community, not just members on the pay roll. As such, attacks that weaken the unions will eventually hurt the entire community.
In its dealings with its employees, McGill does not act in good faith or in the interest of protecting people, but instead in protecting its brand. So perhaps we should petition the University on its own terms, as its present course is certain to have such negative impacts on the quality of education, which will certainly tarnish their academic reputation in the long-term.
As a direct result of the recent cuts, McGill offered a voluntary early retirement program to staff. This is problematic, as it suggests that labour costs are somehow at the root of their financial woes, and further it implicitly suggests that Unions have made this situation worse, rather than acknowledging the hard work and dedication that employees bring to the University. Positions vacated by those who participated in the retirement program were meant to be abolished, thereby saving the university money down the line. And yet some of these same positions have not been “abolished” but recast as M-class (manager, and hence not in the Union), or as a “casual position,” (ineligible for union membership and hence union benefits, pay, job security and so on). This turn to M-class positions began before the budget cuts, and has the effect of thinning the ranks of the union. As such McGill will be left with almost as many managers as those being “managed,” a bureaucratic absurdity that defies even the logic of neoliberal efficiency. Concurrently, the Dean of the faculty of Arts is pushing through a plan to centralize departmental administrative offices in the name of efficiency by the end of this academic year, a move certain to diminish the departmental autonomy and, ironically, efficiency as well.
Many administrative tasks remain invisible to those not doing the work, and yet without any real consultation of those doing said work, the centralization plan is sure to create a bottleneck situation in which work falls by the wayside. As someone who has worked with administrative staff across the faculties in my duties representing AGSEM, I know from personal experience that these individuals need more support, not less, and that it is students who are ultimately the most impacted by these miscalculations.
Austerity measures have been used as a false justification to enact changes that the upper administrators have had planned for years. We might conclude this strategy is little more than a pretense to weaken the various unions on campus and shuffle more positions outside the scope of Union protection. Taken together, these cuts have created hardship for many members of our extended McGill community, not only for employees but for the students we are here to serve.
Joseph Sannicandro is a writer and artist based in Montreal, currently serving as Mobilization and Communications Officer for AGSEM, McGill’s Teaching Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.