An Open Letter to the Liberal Party

I thought about writing on behalf of my college colleagues, who after five weeks of striking, have been legislated back to work this weekend. I watched, disheartened, as this legislation flew in the face of all we believe to be true about union protection and the collective bargaining process. I also read the astounding statistics: 95% voter turnout on the forced ratification, a bargaining escape route your party could have repealed after wrenching the province out of Mike Harris’s deathgrip, but didn’t. An 86% no to that deal, a more vehement response to it than the original strike vote. These numbers are my colleagues making history. You should be paying attention to them. But you didn’t. You legislated them back.

I thought about writing on behalf of my partner, who walked those picket lines for five weeks, stopping drivers and explaining the strikers’ position, who went to every shift and rally faithfully, nursing aching feet and cold muscles after long days, drawing strength from the spirit and camaraderie he garnered on the line. Nobody wanted to be out there. Didn’t you see that they wanted to be with their students, back in the classroom, doing what they trained for many – in some cases 10-15 – years to do, with a deal that was fair and acknowledged their expertise and experience? You didn’t. You legislated them back.

I thought about writing on behalf of myself. No, I’m not on strike. I do work for a university in the midst of bargaining its own contract, though. I’ve been at that university for 13 years, reapplying for my job every four months, sometimes submitting applications that each reach upwards of 30-40 pages, trying to prove my worth again and again. Maybe you’d feel sorry for my colleagues, for my partner, for me, people now getting into their 40s, 50s, and 60s without a shred of job security or a living wage. But you didn’t. You legislated them back.

I and my colleagues – we are the “lucky ones,” whose training led us to jobs in our field – we wonder every semester if our departments will remain intact, if full-time professors will step into our classes and take them away. We wonder if we’ll get sick, if a migraine or stomach flu knocking us out for one day means losing 10% of the course, because we can’t get a sub. We get cancer. I did. We wonder if we’ll be punished for taking time off, in the form of pay deductions or seniority downgrades, so we return to the classroom one week after our surgeries, pretending nothing is wrong. I did.

I could ask if you care about these things, if the slow disintegration of our society and workforce matters to you at all, but clearly it doesn’t. You made us lose faith in the bargaining process. You stripped the union of its protectionist power. You – I can only assume – hoped to exhaust workers so much that we don’t have the time to complain, write, rally, protest, fight. And so you legislated them back.

A funny thing happened. Two people in my department retired, and I actually got more work. I was able to quit three of the other four jobs I was working to pay my rent, and focus on my teaching. I thought, This is great: I can learn my students’ names, better connect with them, be at the office and help them with assignments and tests. I can focus on preparing better lectures, perhaps even research and publish some of my own work, all of which would make me a better professor. And then the news came down: our class capacities expanded exponentially, transforming what would have been 200 students to nearly 400.

I didn’t learn anyone’s name.

But boy, my paycheque was awesome. On paper, I became your dream, that glittering impossibility you call “the middle class.” You rubbed your hands, smacked your lips in anticipation, for wouldn’t I be your sexy ideal voter? Only wrench in the plan: my $80,000 student debt that knocked me immediately back down to poverty level. Dammit.

So here I am with more than half of that paid off, no thanks to you, and I’m realizing, what with my on-paper middle-class income, you might listen to me now, because I am the only thing that matters to you.

I am a taxpayer.

I write to you, then, as a taxpayer. You listen to us, correct? I might be tempted to phrase that as “concerned, voting citizen,” but then you’d tune out, because that is not the sexiest term for addressing us in your hot-air speeches written by someone with a Master’s degree in The Vague (at least someone with a grad degree has a guaranteed job). Okay, so I’m a taxpayer. As a taxpayer, I would like to know why you’ve increased educational spending, as Deb Matthews said the other day, by over 80%, but college enrollment has only gone up about 25%? I would take a glance at the salaries pulled down by college administrators and wonder why they skyrocket past $200,000 and $300,000 and $700,000, and then wander through some college campuses and marvel at the rapid rate of expansion and new buildings if there’s only been a 25% increase in enrollment since the Liberals took office in 2003. Where is my money going? Not back to me. Not to my partner. Not to my colleagues.

As a taxpayer, I might ask you why students are frantically working multiple part-time jobs to pay some of the highest tuition rates in the country when part-time faculty – who make up upwards of 60% of their instructors – take in, on average, between 3-10% of that tuition?

Now, as an unsexy concerned citizen and voter, I might extend that further and ask you why your party refuses to take a stand – or action – on anything until pushed to the edge (apparently campaigning on electoral reform, addressing the horrid living conditions and institutional oppression experienced by Indigenous peoples, or the sweet promise of diversity and inclusivity at every policy level was merely the equivalent of a Christian Harlequin: all of the suggestion, none of the satisfaction). I’d also like to know what you plan to do about an education system that, with all the illusion of a public institution, operates according to marketplace tenets. That is, with monetary reward bestowed on the managers who create lean budgets by exploiting workers and raising the cost of the consumer good (the course). The course is “new and improved” – hence its escalating price – by the speedy, edutainment-based delivery system, the bestowing of degrees on anyone regardless of performance, the absence of curriculum development and oversight, and the technology-enhanced modes of learning that eventually will completely remove the instructor from the equation. Everybody wins.

Except nobody will have a job, and kids riddled with debt will, one by one, turn to a political party that actually stands for something, a party who rather than dancing cautiously around difficult issues takes action and creates change. You had the power to do that this time. But you legislated them back.

Perhaps you don’t care about my vote, and I imagine it’s fairly obvious that I’m an NDP supporter. But you had the chance to win me over here, and you didn’t – and for that, I will never again consider voting for the Liberals.

Dr. Gillian Turnbull