Student and Labour Resistance to Administration Power at Carleton, 2004-2007
by Doug Nesbitt
A version of this article was originally published in The Leveller, September 2010
Student struggles at Carleton University in Ottawa have a long and largely forgotten history. In the early 21st century, during the twilight of Richard Van Loon’s university presidency and through the blink-or-you’ll-miss-it tenure of David Atkinson, student-controlled space was taken over, and labour rights were targeted by a university administration keen to establish complete control of the campus for its own ends.The current university environment is a product of those struggles.
On backpacks, in bathroom stalls, and countless classroom doors you could find the stickered slogan “Evict Admin” in 2004. And it all began when the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG)-Carleton was broken into. Its computers were stolen and, as a consequence, OPIRG-Carleton lost its insurance plan. Some months later a letter came from Carleton’s Vice-President of Finance and Administration, Duncan Watt. Without insurance, it read, OPIRG-Carleton was to be evicted from its office in the Unicentre.
Photo by Chris Bisson
With a healthy mix of anger, righteousness, and irreverence, the “Evict Admin”campaign was born. Recovering from the depressing hangover of the Iraq antiwar movement, Carleton students rallied around the campaign to defend the activist-oriented student centre, forcing an extension of the deadline, and ultimately saving OPIRG-Carleton. Shortly thereafter, the new networks of activism spilled over into organizing a 15,000-strong welcoming committee for George W.Bush on November 30.
Those two campaigns in the fall of 2004 involved long hours of tabling, leafleting, and heated arguments bordering on spontaneous mass meetings. The campaigns were based out of Baker’s Lounge, an open student-controlled space on the fourth floor of the Unicentre where thousands of students passed every hour between the Unicentre and Tory building. These days, Baker’s Lounge no longer exists. It has been taken over and rebuilt as "the Atrium", the administration-controlled space that replaced the always-cramped and lively Baker's Lounge. Little did Carleton students know as they shouted “Bush out of Baghdad! Bush out of Ottawa!” in Baker’s Lounge that November, it would be the twilight of an era for Carleton.
In early 2005, as several hundred students occupied the busy downtown intersection of Rideau and Sussex on the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, rumours spread that the administration had its sights set on seizing more student space, including Baker’s Lounge and the International Students’ Centre. The administration also wanted to move its dungeon-like bookstore on the bottom floor of Southam Hall to a more profitable location, namely Oliver’s Pub, whose large, popular outdoor patio opened up towards the major bus stops and the busy O-Train station.
Rumours became reality and with no interest in negotiations, the landlord set about to evict the student union tenants. To protest this, over a hundred students packed the April 2005 Board of Governors meeting. Carleton President Richard Van Loon (aka: Herr Von Loon) and Vice-President of Finance Duncan Watt violated board procedures to prevent student representatives from speaking. The students responded by disrupting the meeting, forcing the Board of Governors to suspend the meeting and flee the board room.
At the time, Van Loon was on his way out as university president with a half million dollars in retirement, but he couldn’t leave without a parting gift. As April exams wound up and most students left for home or to find work, bulldozers were set upon Oliver’s patio. Students quickly occupied the patio remnants and for ten days, a 24-hour occupation held firm with dozens and dozens of students participating and taking shifts. After ten days, the police were sent in and arrested fourteen students (charges were never laid), ending the occupation. Carleton student unions responded with a lawsuit against the university for violating contracts over rent and questions of residual property rights.
The student space that wasn't
As Oliver’s was sliced apart to make room for the new bookstore (which was now threatened by the establishment of the independent student-run Haven Books a few blocks away on Sunnyside Street), and Baker’s Lounge was transformed into the Atrium on the promise of expanding “student space,” Richard Van Loon’s successor, David Atkinson, arrived. Van Loon’s poisonous attitude towards students and their organizations allowed Atkinson to play the “nice guy.”
Atkinson’s conciliatory approach earned him friends in some places, including the editors of the student newspaper The Charlatan. The paper ran an editorial opposing the student unions’ lawsuit. But the honeymoon had a broader effect, resulting in the withdrawal of the student unions’ lawsuit in exchange for Atkinson's promise, documented in a memorandum of understanding, to support a student-owned building on campus as a permanent resolution to the student space question. In retrospect, Carleton’s student unions let go of the administration when they should have squeezed.
As the inevitable election period rolled around in early 2006, a referendum question about funding the new student building was posed to Carleton students. However, the referendum campaign was a mess. The funding formula, which was tied to the Consumer Price Index, seemed unnecessarily complicated, and the plans for the student building were not drawn up in a highly publicized, participatory manner. The referendum was defeated 1630 to 1052.
The administration promptly pulled its support for a student-owned building. Atkinson explained rather unconvincingly, “We have enough on our agenda right now,” while other administrators suggested that students had rejected a student-owned building, neatly conflating the referendum question on a funding formula with support for a student-owned building. Carleton students were left without a student building, their biggest pub sliced in half and closed for construction, and the administration in firm control of the new Atrium (which saw a new Starbucks set up shop next to the student-run Rooster's coffeehouse).
The labour question
With student space dramatically reduced for a bookstore, Starbucks, and cell phone displays, the “labour question” moved to the top of the administration’s agenda.
Shortly after the referendum, the faculty, represented by the Carleton University Academic Staff Association (CUASA), and the teaching assistants (TAs) and contract faculty of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 4600, made the opening overtures for negotiations as contracts were set to expire. After dragging their heels through the summer, the administration promptly filed for conciliation in the week before the new fall semester.
Raising the stakes by pushing any serious negotiations into the dead of winter, the administration demanded concessions from full-time faculty and teaching assistants. CUASA secured an incredible 96% strike vote and contract instructors and TAs followed with an equally impressive 85% strike vote in response to concessions demanded on “tuition increase protection.” TAs were determined to protect this mechanism, which prevented tuition fee increases from outpacing wage increases. The concerns were all the more relevant given Premier McGuinty’s speech at Carleton in September 2006 announcing an end to his promised tuition fee freeze (in all their wisdom, The Charlatan's editors couldn't muster up an editorial about this announcement at Carleton).
The administration settled with the faculty shortly before the strike deadline. As some TAs observed, the administration hoped to isolate the TAs from the faculty and push for a strike over the winter exam period. This strategy, only made possible through an unwillingness to negotiate during the summer, was designed to pit undergrads against TAs during exams, in the worst possible picket line weather, and over the holidays.
Strangely and unexpectedly, Atkinson blinked. We’ll likely never know the exact details, but various accounts describe the university president intervening in bargaining only hours before the strike deadline, resulting in the administration’s immediate capitulation to the union and the preservation of tuition increase protection. Only days later Atkinson resigned for undisclosed reasons. As a Board of Governors’ statement explained, his departure after some 20 months was “in the best interests of the university.”
Less than a year after Atkinson's "resignation," the university's further unwillingness to negotiate, instigated a support staff strike in September 2007. And in early 2009, amidst the tense Ottawa transit strike, tuition increase protection for CUPE 4600 was gutted, resulting in pay cuts. Those undisclosed “best interests” have become increasingly clear, as well as odious.