After a period of one sided negotiations where the administration refused to negotiate in good faith, on March 16th, the teachers at UQÀM (Université du Québec à Montréal) decided to go on strike. As this article is being written, the 980 teachers, organized in SPUQ (Syndicat des professeurs et professeures de l’Université du Québec à Montréal), which is affiliated to CSN (Confédération des syndicats nationaux), have just voted 90% in favor of renewing their strike until April 24th.
The strike is entering its fifth week and is getting stronger as different sections of the UQÀM community have came out in support. Approximately 30,000 of the 40,000 students at UQÀM have came out on solidarity strike action with their teachers. The other three unions at UQÀM (SETU which represents nearly 3000 student-workers, SCCUQ which represents the teaching assistants, and SEUQÀM which represents UQÀM staff) also support the teachers’ strike. The members of SETU themselves are also in the process of negotiations that seem to be suffering the same fate as SPUQ. They haven’t had a contract since May 2008.
The two main demands of the teachers are better salaries, (UQÀM teachers are underpaid by about 10% compared to all other universities in Québec) and the hiring of 300 new teachers to deal with overcrowded classes. The latter demand is even an admitted necessity by the ex-Vice President of Human Resources, Ginette Legault, who said before the Education Committee on February 7th 2007 that, “We have a deficit of at least 300 teachers … We should hire in the short term, around 300 teachers, across all sectors.” UQÀM has the highest teacher to student ratio at 27:1, while at other Québec universities the ratio is 21:1.
However, at the heart of the issue is a struggle to save one of Québec’s most cherished public institutions. UQÀM was born in 1969 as a result of the massive student strike in 1968 that demanded the creation of a popular public French university for the working class. Since then, UQÀM has had a thick working class environment and has often been the centre for the student movement. It has nearly 45% part-time students (in comparison to McGill University which only has 16% part-time students) and these are students who are typically more willing to fight to defend their class interests as they carry the double burden of going to school and having to work at the same time.
In 2008, UQÀM was left in the hole for more than $450 million dollars after two badly-planned expansion projects which were riddled with many controversies and scandals. To deal with this, the administration hired a financial consultant, The PricewaterhouseCoopers report, that produced a report in March 2008 suggesting ways to deal with UQÀM’s financial crisis. They proposed, among other things, cutting 77 teaching positions, freezing employees’ salaries and increasing student tuition fees. Added to this “local” financial crisis is the current global financial crisis whereby governments across the world are pouring in trillions of dollars to bailout banks and financial companies at the expense of social programs.
More than 30 thousand students at UQÀM are now on strike in support of their teachers. Even The students at CEGEP Maisonneuve went on strike in solidarity for 3 days and students at CEGEP Vieux-Montreal are organizing to have a solidarity strike as well. The level of support from the students is very high. On March 26th, all the unions in UQÀM, both worker and student unions, held a public general assembly which was attended by more than 1000 people. This is the first joint general assembly of students, teachers, and workers of UQÀM; a truly historic event. The students and workers of UQÀM, for the first time, are united to defend their university not only in words but also in deeds.
Québec Solidaire has also came out in support of the strike. Amir Khadir, the first QS deputy to the national assembly, was present at one of the rallies to show his support, where in his interview he pointed out that there cannot be a social development in a society without an education which free and accessible.
With the support of the students and other workers, the picket lines have grown stronger despite the injunction that the administration slapped on the teachers, limiting the number of picketers to five at each entrance. The teachers have also used the strike to organize l’Univesité dans la rue (The University in the Street) where they have been holding various popular classes on social issues in the public space. Breaking away from the rigid curriculum that the education system is imposing, the teachers and the students are experimenting with a new form of education, one which is democratic, public, and popular.
With more support coming in from the students and the wider community, the struggle of the UQÀM teachers is becoming less and less about simple economic demands and more and more about the future of Québec public education system.