The financial press tells us that the economy is now recovering from the financial crisis. However, this doesn’t mean that the effect of the financial crisis is over for workers. The economic recovery is projected to be slow, with little job creation or improvement of working conditions. Countries all over the world have poured in trillions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to prop the failing capitalist economy, creating the biggest state deficit in history. This will translate into vicious cuts in many sectors, including post-secondary education.
In the spring of 2009, McGill University in Montreal produced a budget that forecasted an accumulated $78 million deficit by May 2010. Decades of underfunding have forced many universities in Quebec to accumulate debts. In 2007 McGill incurred a $16.3 million deficit, and another $13 million was added in 2008. This year, there is a projected deficit of $17 million. This has resulted in the deterioration of the quality of education, a continuing increase of tuition fees, and an attack on the working condition of university workers.
In order to cover the $17-million deficit, the McGill administration outlined several ways to increase its revenue: “development of additional revenues in targeted [undergraduate] programs” (i.e. tuition increases), “re-regulation [or deregulation] of fees”, “further increases to tuition and re-regulation of fees from international undergraduate students,” and “expense reduction.” For the latter, McGill has asked all of its workers to open their collective agreements and take a pay cut amounting to $6.2 million. This kind offer to the workers was presented as a team effort to weather the financial crisis. In addition to this, McGill has also decided to cut $1 million from the health benefits of the 1400 non-academic staff, who are organized under the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA).
The message is clear — McGill workers are being asked to pay for a financial crisis that was not caused by them. The banks, the financial institutions, and the big corporations made billions of dollars during the boom; according to Statistics Canada the earnings among the richest fifth of Canadians grew 16.4 per cent between 1980 and 2005 while that of the poorest fifth of the population tumbled 20.6 per cent over the same period. Now during the bust, the workers are expected to also reduce their earnings to save the bosses. When it comes to the bosses’ profit, it is a private matter; but, when it comes to their losses, suddenly it becomes a social matter that has to be dealt with collectively.
Implicitly, the McGill administration has made a veiled threat in their budget and many of their public statements: if you don’t take the pay cut, we will have to cut your jobs. However, there is no guarantee at all that workers will keep their jobs if they accept the wage cut. McGill cannot make such promises because it understands that it cannot maintain jobs for all its workers. Because of tax cuts and bailouts, the federal government has accumulated the largest deficit in Canadian history. Despite decades of underfunding in education, the federal government and their provincial partners will need to depend upon more cuts in the future. Heather Munroe-Blum, the principal of McGill, has said that “the worldwide financial downturn does not stop at the borders of our campuses, and its effects will be multi-year.” With their plan to have a balanced budget by 2011 and to start to chip away at the accumulated deficit, workers can expect to see more wage cuts and students can see their tuition fees increase in the next few years.
Workers and students shouldn’t pay for the crisis. They should reject all forms of cuts to education: wage cut for workers, tuition fee increases, and job losses on campus. There shouldn’t be any illusion that the administration will keep their verbal promise to protect jobs after a wage cut. Last year, General Motors closed down the truck plant in Oshawa and laid off 2,600 workers two weeks after it agreed not to do so, in return for a wage freeze and other concessions from its workers. Likewise, car manufacturers all over North America have closed down their factories, laying off tens of thousands of workers, even after the unions had given massive concessions to them and the government injected billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. Similar stories like this are being repeated all over Canada.
McGill workers and students have to unite and say no to cuts. This will send a strong message to the government that workers won’t pay for the crisis. Education is a right, but workers and youth will only be able to exercise that right if we fight for it. Money wasted on tax-cuts, corporate bailouts, and the war in Afghanistan could pay for free education many times over. We need to fight for a society where, instead of bailing out the corporations, we properly fund education.