Picket, and it Won’t Ever Heal…

So, last Wednesday I had the pleasure of trying to provide information to students at Seneca College’s campus on York University.  I encourage you to catch the account from members of CUPE 3903 — here’s my own take.

Necessary background: Seneca College senior management is implementing a “staffing model” change that would see up to hundreds of unionized “partial-load” contract faculty positions converted into non-Unionized “part-time” or “sessional” contract faculty positions. For those contract faculty, it means that they’ll head home over Christmas break in December, knowing that if they wish to return to teaching at Seneca in January, they can do so only on the condition that they accept fewer hours, less job security, a lower hourly wage, no union representation, and (in an especially remarkable labour relations coup) the evaporation of all the sick days that they had accumulated over their years of service to Seneca College.

This is undoubtedly best understood as an example of Seneca President David Agnew’s stated “great respect for the vital work” that contract faculty do.

For Seneca College students, this represents a clear threat to the quality of their educational experience. Their part-time faculty would have fewer hours, and would therefore need to work additional jobs to make ends meet. Those other jobs would likely mean that these profs would likely be less available on campus before or after class, and may have less time to respond to student e-mails. Moreover, their reduced classes would likely mean that they would be on campus for fewer days out of the week.

So, after having had a chance to communicate this to my members and the media, it was certainly time for us to let the students know what was happening to the staffing of their own classes, come January.

So . . . talk to students on campus, right? Simple enough?

Not quite.

Seneca management denied the Union’s request to provide information in “cafeterias and other non-teaching areas of the campuses where students congregate, for the purpose of informing students and other members of the Seneca community of imminent staffing changes at Seneca, and to solicit opinions of such”. After all, such revolutionary activities as handing out leaflets in a cafeteria could, in the words of management, “disrupt students as well as the College’s operations”.

I am not making this up.

So, given this refusal, the task was to distribute information on public property near the campuses. This was particularly interesting at York University, where Seneca has set up shop in two buildings that are located inside York University’s Keele campus.

What follows is a rough chronology of the day’s events. The events are all true; the times given may be imprecise:

8:00: The assembled union members arrived (accompanied by support from OPSEU Local 613 and CUPE 3903). We were immediately monitored closely by a security guard dressed in black, who insisted that we “stay off Seneca property”. Somewhat awkwardly, he demonstrated an ignorance of precisely where Seneca property began and ended in the outdoors of a York University campus. To “clarify” the matter, he wandered off on occasion, speaking on a radio to his “manager”, and failed to return with concrete information.

8:10: It didn’t take long for us to identify the black SUV with tinted windows, in the parking lot across the street. It had a videocamera set up on the dash, and proceeded to videotape us throughout the entire day. According to eyewitness reports, the security guard inside the SUV was wearing sunglasses, which is perfectly normal behavior for somebody sitting in a vehicle with tinted windows on a cloudy day. The videotaping, of course, would have absolutely nothing to do with any attempt on management’s part to intimidate contract faculty from demonstrating, for fear of losing future employment.

9:30: An executive member of a student group came outside to talk with us, offering to take some of our leaflets, to distribute to students.

10:30: The same student group executive member returned outside, saying that he had heard that a new Seneca College policy had been created that day, banning student groups from distributing flyers. Such ridiculous rumours are, of course, perfectly normal in institutions of higher learning.

11:45: I went inside the campus to get some tea, and ended up in conversation with two colleagues who stopped me in the hallway, asking how the campaign is going. When I showed them copies of the flyers that I’d been distributing to students, I was immediately apprehended by a new security guard, who had been following me. When the security guard told me that I was forbidden from distributing materials to students on campus, I pointed out that I was distributing materials to my constituent members, not students.  The security guard then announced that he had to follow me until I left the building, which is perfectly normal behavior for an school administration that is not at all paranoid.

1:45: Again outside handing leaflets to students, one student declined a leaflet, mentioning that she had heard that it was “illegal” for students to carry Union flyers into campus buildings. It is, after all, perfectly normal for students of a postsecondary institution to be afraid of being arrested for carrying a leaflet on school property.

Now, I’m quite confident that the silly rumours about student groups not being able to communicate with other students, or about students facing prosecution for carrying or distributing union literature about their own learning conditions are just that: silly rumours.

But I am struck how an administration’s effort to crack down on free speech on campus – whether through regulation, surveillance, or intimidation – ends up leading immediately and almost inevitably to such rumours. The day started with union members being told that they couldn’t hand leaflets on school property; it ended with at least one student believing that she could be punished for holding the wrong piece of paper on campus.

And I do wonder about the effects of that on her education. Particularly on how she understands her relationship to her school differently than she did the day before.

And I wonder how the day’s events square with Seneca College’s educational mission – particularly the aspects of the Academic Plan that assert the school’s mission of teaching students such core literacies as “communication”, “information literacy”, “creative thinking”, “social responsibility”, “inquiry and analysis”, and “critical thinking”.

And at the end of that day—a day of being videotaped and followed—I came to some conclusions, not about Seneca College but about the nature of authoritarian governance.  I concluded that authoritarianism is borne not of strength but of insecurity. And I concluded that insecurity is the inevitable attitude for rulers who aspire to irresponsible power: those who wish to avoid the ethical obligation to respond to criticism. Such rulers, I assume, must find themselves unwilling or unable to candidly defend their choices to those they affect, and therefore fear those choices being scrutinized and discussed in the light of day, in the spirit of “social responsibility”, “inquiry and analysis”, and “critical thinking”.

And I wonder whether that fear would be perfectly normal, if they themselves believed that their actions were morally defensible?

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