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“We Won!”: University Professors Strike in Québec City

Interview With Nat Nesvaderani

May 24, 2023

Over the past half-decade, Canada has experienced a rapidly increasing number of strikes in higher education. Such strikes can provide a model for unions around the world, as higher education unions continue to grapple with the complexities of securing enhanced funding and resources for public education amidst the intensification of neoliberalism.

In Canada, close to thirty percent of the working population is unionized and striking is legal for most public employees. This is in contrast t0 the United States, where around ten percent of the working population is unionized, and striking is illegal in the majority of states for public employees such as teachers and higher education employees. The story reported below, of a recent successful faculty strike at Université Laval, speaks to the power and potential of workers’ collective organizing in response to global efforts to underfund and dismantle public education.

The faculty union at Université Laval in Québec City recently completed a four-and-a-half week strike, with strong support from their twenty-three thousand students. Thirteen hundred tenure-track and tenured faculty members walked off their job on February 20, 2023 over issues of academic freedom, work overload, the hiring of new professors, and compensation. As a result of their strike, faculty were able to achieve multiple wins across several points of negotiations including workload, salary, transparency in university decision-making processes, academic freedom, and protections for vulnerable faculty. In concrete terms, this includes a wage increase averaging fifteen percent over three years, an agreement to hire eighty new professors, and mechanisms to enhance faculty participation in university governance. There are also new guarantees for full- and part-time leave, gradual return to work without loss of benefits, and other provisions for faculty experiencing disability, medical, or health-related issues.

In this interview, Rhiannon Maton, Associate Professor of Foundations and Social Advocacy at State University of New York at Cortland, interviews Nat Nesvaderani, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Université Laval and rank-and-file member of Syndicat des Professeurs at Professeures de l’University Laval (SPUL). The interview took place on May 5, 2023 and discusses the nature of the strike, how students supported their faculty during this time, and tensions across rank-and-file constituents that emerged during negotiation processes.

Thank you for talking with me today, Nat. Can you tell us a little about who you are, and your current work in Québec City?

I am Nat Nesvaderani. I am an Iranian-American, multi-modal anthropologist, and I did my PhD in sociocultural anthropology at Cornell University. It is my first year working as Assistant Professor at Université Laval, which is a French-language university. I teach in the Department of Anthropology, which primarily serves students from the province of Québec. I am a rank-and-file member of my union, the Syndicat des Professeurs at Professeures de l’University Laval (SPUL). Although I speak other languages, I am in the process of learning French, which means that my understanding of union events has developed with the support of colleagues who have kindly translated chants, phrases, and segments of speeches at strike events, and with the help of AI for translating long form emails and documents from SPUL.

Let’s start by talking about the issues that led to the strike. The CBC reported that the main reasons the union decided to strike were connected to issues of work overload, issues of academic freedom for professors, the need to hire additional professors at the university, protections for vulnerable professors, and demands for salary catch-up. Can you tell us more about why your higher-education union decided to strike?

Union representatives had been advocating for changes [in the union contract] before I even started this position. During the general assembly meeting on January 20, 2023, when faculty first voted in favor of a two-week strike, union representatives described an administration that was not taking faculty concerns seriously. The university had been dismissive and deflective of SPUL efforts to negotiate a new contract. Other events in prior months, including the suspension of Dr. Patrick Provost, had raised issues of academic freedom. This meant that many faculty were already mobilized around some points of SPUL negotiations.

Workload negotiations were heavily connected to teaching and quality of education. While the student enrollment has steadily increased over the past decade, the hiring of faculty has actually decreased by eleven percent. Laval is the only university in the province where faculty hiring has decreased. This means that faculty supervise more students, more lab-based research, and teach more courses. This overstretching of faculty—in other words, “workload”  (charge de travail)—erodes the quality of education. Students find themselves in increasingly larger courses with less faculty mentorship and supervision over their education and research.

I think it is interesting to note that compensation was just one of four central issues driving the union to strike, and the other three issues were primarily related to working conditions for faculty and learning conditions for students.

That’s true.

So, this makes me wonder, how did students respond to the faculty strike? Do you think they recognized that faculty were striking for issues that affect them and the public more broadly?

The students were in support, I think, because it wasn’t simply a salary negotiation. Students understood this as an education issue. The quality of education erodes if the hiring and the workload is not equitable and maintained.

The students were out there with us. I marched at protests alongside with some of my students. Undergraduate students in the Faculty of Social Sciences voted to strike in solidarity with the professors. Many students refused to go to classes that were still being run during the strike. They held a picket line and police showed up to expel them from campus.

Honestly, having that student support is what made this strike successful. They had our back.

Many of our readers would be interested in learning more about what it looks and feels like to engage in a strike. Can you tell us what a typical week of striking looked like?

Toward the beginning of each week, we felt uncertainty about whether or not the strike would continue. We would get emails from the organizing committee each week saying we’re going to be doing mobilizations or symbolic activities and to be ready for details of further activities, for example, on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And some of those activities were things like walking through campus and banging pots and pans and making a scene. Others were doing big rallies downtown. In one march through Old Quebec, there was an estimated eight hundred professors present. It did feel like a big mass.

At the height of negotiations we would received multiple emails a day related to negotiation updates, planned mobilizations, and SPUL’s paycheck payments to faculty. Some of these emails came at night, during the weekends. Some were very long and wordy, which is a reflection of the around-the-clock, twelve-hour work days of many of our union reps at that time.

There were so many phases of this four-and-a-half-week strike. At some points, it seemed like our representatives may not have been sharing all of the progress they were making in an effort to keep faculty protest momentum. At other moments, it felt like we had reached an impasse, and indeed there was a “breakdown” in negotiations on March 17. This week-long break in negotiations was called for by the Minister of Labor, who was mediating at that point. However, both parties resumed negotiations after two or three days, ultimately leading to the proposal penned by the Minister of Labor, which faculty voted to support, thus ending the strike.

Can you tell us more about what organized events and protests helped rank-and-file members keep their momentum up during the strike?

We had all these different themed events throughout the strike, which led me to meet all these amazing faculty members. I don’t think I would’ve met such a range of people in different departments had there not been all these events in the middle of the workday.

These strike activities were on campus and also a couple downtown, where we took signs and had speakers come and we all cheered. And then we had a teach-out event on campus on the snowiest day you could ever imagine. We had this thing that was a “bring your family and kids” event, which to be frank feels a bit off-target, given that not all colleagues have children. One of the events towards the end was a tailgate at a parking lot on campus, where faculty coordinated food and drinks within their departments. There was still snow on the ground at this point, and everyone showed up with mad gear—portable barbeques, camping stoves, beers, sound systems.… It was amazing. I could see some international colleagues taking photos and videos of “North American” culture to send home to their friends and family. There was a funny translation mishap around a friendly game of flag-football that had been planned, when a bunch of faculty from South America showed up with their soccer cleats expecting to kick around a soccer ball. More than anything, that event felt like “what a strike looks like in snowy Canada.”

There was also a very powerful event where our union members followed a top administrator from Laval to a conference in Montreal, which is two hours away, where she was to give a talk about innovation with the next generation of faculty. And we were like, “fuck no.” And our union members showed up. There were cars of faculty who drove out to Montreal and they did an alternative press release about that event, where they gave their version of the events that were happening. The goal was to get the media aware of what is going on.

It is my understanding that your union has a fund set aside in the event of strikes, so that they were able to pay all striking faculty a full salary while they were striking for the five weeks. Is this correct?

Yes, we were all paid full salaries out of our union’s fund for the four-and-a-half-week strike.

This is something that I think many U.S. union members, in particular, would appreciate seeing integrated into their own union structures. Now, it’s worth noting that 92.6% of members voted in favor of accepting a proposed agreement, Four-and-a-half weeks into the strike. I know that some senior rank-and-file members initially felt hesitant about accepting this proposal. Can you tell us why they were opposed?

I was hearing a dissatisfaction with it not being enough of a salary increase. I wonder if this is because the wins felt uneven across the different stage of faculty careers. While everyone got wins, it does seem that the benefits for junior faculty are just more concrete. For example, the average pay increase is 15.6%. That’s 18.4 for assistant professors, 14.4 for Associate professors, and 15.4 for tenured professors. Another concrete win is a guaranteed six-month sabbatical after three years of employment—something that’s very important to junior faculty seeking sabbatical before tenure. Previously, there was ten thousand dollars in new professor start-up funds that may not have been distributed evenly across the departments. Now, this is a guaranteed ten thousand dollars for the first two years of an assistant professor’s hiring. There is a new gradual retirement policy that allows faculty between ages sixty and sixty-six to take two years in which they reduce their workload by fifty percent while maintaining full salary. During the general assembly, a serious faculty member challenged this, stating that she does not want to stop working during that timeframe and would thus be unable to benefit from this “win,” as if she is being penalized for retiring later.

It seems like the settlement will end up benefiting union members unevenly. This is often the case with agreements and yet the concerns should not be dismissed. In addition, it also seems like senior members may have had a longer-term view of what is possible for higher education and it sounds like they believed that further gains were possible. One way of understanding these calls from senior faculty is to see them as a “bird in the coal-mine” response to neoliberalism. As neoliberalism in public higher education has intensified over the past several decades, it is necessary for union leaders to maintain a long-range view in demanding the prioritization of a robust and well-funded public education system. Our senior faculty may be alerting us to workers’ decline in expectations from their employers and also from their government, where they are seeing a steady decline in access to public services including education. Can you tell us more about why some faculty felt hesitant to accept the proposal?

I also think there were high hopes. The Minister of Labor actually stepped into the negotiations as the mediator, and his suggestion was that the salaries be matched to University of Montreal, and those are known as high paid salaries in the province. So I guess there was a hope that this would mean a higher salary increase. Part of the argument here is that inflation is increasing heavily, so a fifteen percent salary increase while we’re having six-seven percent inflation is actually an eight- to nine-percent increase in purchasing power, so it doesn’t feel like quite as big of a win when that’s not taken into account.

Related to this issue of inflation, there was frustration among striking faculty, especially early on in the strike, that local news sources were misreporting that SPUL was asking for a twenty percent salary increase. But actually, this was a request for a twelve percent salary catch-up, in addition to a seven percent increase to account for inflation. Some of those sources were getting their information directly and exclusively from the administration. To me, this is such an obvious one-sided conflict of interest that it shows a culture of reporting where journalists are not used to reporting strikes; otherwise, there would be clearer “best practices” in this reporting. Towards the end of the strike, after the Minister of Labor got involved, reporters started more actively questioning University administration’s data and that’s when this misinformation in the reporting stopped.

Regarding workload and the hiring of new professors, I can also say a couple things about that. Workload has increased significantly at the university over the past few years, as student enrollment has increased. Laval is one of the rare places where student enrollment was unbroken in the past decade or so by economic and political events, whereas many other universities did face enrollment reduction. Laval has continued to enroll students, but the hiring of faculty has declined by eleven percent during that same period. So there’s a feeling that faculty workload is much higher than previously and this is especially the case for faculty in STEM departments.

At the same time, as a heavily unionized university, we’re all paid the same rate. So many professors have much higher workloads than others and there’s not a reflection in pay over that. I think that it’s a positive to have a fixed pay scale, but it also means that there should be solidarity and central organizing to keep a parity in the workload across departments. One of the main requests of our union was the hiring of a hundred new professors, which I think was a strategic request because of claims by the university that there was not much money for hiring new faculty. In the end, we successfully negotiated the hiring of eighty new professors over a three year period. From my perspective as new faculty, at first I thought, that’s great. You request a hundred, but you get eighty.

But through the negotiation process this perspective began to shift—especially for more senior faculty with more experience. At the beginning of negotiations, the university claimed there was “no money” for increasing salaries and hiring new professors. But the union representatives found that an annual surplus of fifty million dollars on average between 2018 and 2022—completely unaccounted for. Even to this day, the university never provided transparent information about where this surplus goes. So the claim that the university doesn’t have money to ameliorate workloads and fund salary catch-up starts to crumble. Among more senior faculty, they were like, our workload will continue to expand so [we] should have asked for a much higher number, closer to five hundred. Given that student enrollment is expected to continue increasing, five hundred is the number that many faculty believe would have actually solved the workload issues.

Even though there was concern that the union did not achieve everything that it sought, would you say that the strike was effective?

I would say I think it was very effective. I think it was effective because there were wins across all negotiating aspirations. And it certainly wasn’t everything we asked for. It was what I see as a negotiation: you ask for a hundred, you get eighty. That’s an eighty percent. I see that as an eighty-percent negotiation, which for me looks successful. We had asked for a twelve-percent salary catch-up increase plus a seven-percent cost of living increase. It looks like around a fifteen-percent increase (which breaks down as eight-percent catch-up plus seven-percent cost of living). In a world where I’m seeing academic strikes crushed across the U.K. and the United States (of course with some notable wins, like graduate workers and postdocs in the University of California system)  I think this is absolutely a success.

We also negotiated greater transparency and shared governance. The university will send the union data on the number, type and amount of bonuses, the expectation is that this will provide critical insight into “the mysterious” fifty-million-dollar annual surplus [that I mentioned before]. This data will also include the bonus amount granted to the following groups: “Aboriginal people, visible minority [note that this is a racist Canadian government term, it is not my own], minority ethnicity, disabled person, and woman.” I understand this as an effort to close discriminatory pay gaps that circumvent fixed unionized salaries through an opaque bonus-granting system. And the last one was academic freedom, which it sounds like we won. We now have the right to select our modality [for teaching]. Again, that doesn’t affect me, but out of solidarity, I know it was an important negotiating tenet and we received it.

So yeah, I think it’s successful. Other junior faculty who, like me, are coming from more precarious and fast-changing university settings, I think all of us are like, “This is wild. We actually won!” But like I said, that’s not the sentiment of everyone here.

Many unions have found that cross-union partnerships can strengthen union gains. For example, Los Angeles’ SEIU Local 99, which includes bus drivers, cafeteria workers, special education assistants, and other school staff, was recently backed by thirty-five thousand members of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) in a three-day strike. Many people believe that this partnership strengthened the SEIU’s power at the bargaining table. I am wondering if you saw any similar cross-union partnerships emerge during the strike?

My union is primary for tenure-track and tenured faculty. The lecturing position is called Charge de Cours, and they actually have their own union and their own salary scale. Compared to the extremely neoliberal adjunctification that we see in the States, it does seem like they have a cohesive union. I know they have been asking for salary catch-up for several years, and the university only narrowly avoided a lecturer strike in 2019. They are slated to have negotiations and there’s talk of them going on their own strike next semester.

From my position, it was noticeable that these two different groups are planning strikes at different times and it didn’t seem like there was much communication. This was disappointing because it could have been an opportunity for solidarity across the unions. I know that it’s illegal to strike outside of negotiations, so this was perhaps an inhibition to a simultaneous strike, given that Charge de Cours negotiations were not actively taking place this past semester.  At one of the SPUL general assemblies I recall that a colleague raised this issue during the open forum. Aside from fleeting mentions, as far as I could tell, coordination with Charge de Cours was not a key part of any of the conversations taking place. It was really illustrative that the SPUL general strike only affected forty percent of courses. Sixty percent of courses continued, taught by lecturing faculty.

There was an event that illustrates some of these misshapen solidarities. Undergraduate students who were in solidarity with the faculty held a picket-lined outside of an economics course that was still in session as it was taught by a Charge de cours. The lecturer responded by bringing the Economic Department Chair to the classroom, who then called the police, who showed up and threatened to arrest student protesters. So I mean, it just shows the divisions between these two unionized teaching groups happening in the same space.

That’s wild, because it seems really obvious that the various unions could support one another and secure stronger wins for all if they were in solidarity. Do you have a sense for why there is this lack of solidarity amongst the various unions on campus?

I don’t. I mentioned it a few times to faculty and there was never much of a response or a conversation, honestly. I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but I think there are some faculty who think that Charge de Cours threaten our tenure-tracked jobs, rather than seeing that actually we all stand to lose and to gain academic labor rights together. We have to all protect our rights together and that’s how we prevent our own precarity. That’s how solidarity works. There is a contingent who think that our work is so separate and that the cheaper labor of lecturers means that we are more replaceable, which is not true. This of course is patently untrue. When we all have more job security and rights, we’re all less replaceable together.

What other issues of identity might have affected the degree of success experience by your union, in your view?

In the U.S., we have seen the demographic of university professors change as more non-white men are allowed into the professorate. As more women, as more people of color, as more queer people are let into the Professorate, we’ve seen the protections around faculty positions erode away. And it’s not lost on me that this union movement that I had the privilege of being a part of [in Canada] is a pretty racially homogenous university setting in North America. So, I have to wonder whether there is a relationship between this moment of success and also the sentiment of dissatisfaction that it couldn’t be more. These are some of the emotional politics at play.

You are an outsider in several ways to your union and the institution where you work. For example, you are an American who is new to Canada. And you are still learning French and very new to Québec, and yet you are working in a Francophone university. Can you tell us more about what unique perspectives your outsider status affords you?

So the first thing I’ll respond to is not being a francophone, being a French-learner at this stage and then this huge mobilization happening in my first year on the job, I found myself in these general assemblies that are happening in French, sandwiched in these auditoriums with hundreds of professors, most of [whom] are from Quebec or very familiar with local politics. And here I am, [on] my phone to translate meeting slides and trying to keep up. And I felt people around me were extending a hand and really trying to make sure I understood everything, both with their patience with my slow French and their investment in my understanding in that moment. This was the first time that I actually felt like I’m really part of this university. Being able to take these union votes together and cast votes on paper ballots, I really felt like I was part of the solidarity for the first time.

And the other thing is just coming from the extreme neoliberal university system in the US. In the U.S., there is an absolute suppression of unions and a popular anti-union culture. I was at Cornell before, where there were two historic efforts in recent years at organizing a graduate worker union. These efforts were foiled by illegal union-busting by the administration. There is precarity and joblessness in academia, in exploitative adjunct positions that pay three to four thousand USD per course. Although I was never a faculty member at Cornell, I am aware of multiple instances of discrimination in hiring practices. So by comparison, it feels good to be part of a university that is invested in salary parity, equitable workloads. Although it’s imperfect, it is really a breath of fresh air that lecturers and TT faculty are unionized. It felt just very exciting to be a part of a union strike that was well supported, cohesive, and just really strong by comparison.

What do you think you learned from this experience of participating in your first strike, as an early-career rank-and-file member of a faculty union?

I think there’s lots of scare tactics that admin and university might take, to make you scared that students are not going to support you. And university administration will try their best to make it seem like it’s faculty who are responsible for the university stoppage. And I would say, the main thing that I learned is not to respond to those fears and to have trust in the collective organizing process.

The other thing is that I already knew that collective action is impactful, but I saw it unfold in a really powerful way.

Rhiannon Maton, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Foundations and Social Advocacy at the State University of New York at Cortland. Maton researches educator activism and union organizing in the educational justice movement. She is a member of the United University Professions and the grassroots union caucus, Member Action Coalition. She has been published in a range of books and journals, including Critical Education, Curriculum Inquiry, and Gender, Work and Organization.


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