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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2015

Agent of change

An interview with retired FPSE president Cindy Oliver

To many people in British Columbia, Cindy Oliver is a symbol of union activism. She fought long and hard to make education better, and to improve working conditions for academic staff.

In June, Oliver stepped down from the presidency of the Federation of Post-Secon­dary Educators of BC after 13 years at the helm of the organization. She leaves with pride and a feeling of accomplishment, but she knows the battle is far from over.

“The most important challenge facing us is the federal election in October. We have to get people to the ballot box. And it’s boiling down to two things: funding and freedom,” Oliver said.

She said it’s urgent for progressives to take back control of the political agenda, noting that the right-wing movement has succeeded in making people believe that taxes are toxic and that the government is incompetent.

“In North America, we have been slowly convinced to accept concepts embraced by the right wing, concepts like taxes are bad, the government is too big and inefficient, it wastes our money, you can’t trust them, etc. We need to start a new conversation. We need to help people reimagine the role public services can play in a modern society,” Oliver said.

It starts with funding that trickles down from the top, of which the federal transfer payments to the provinces are a key element. “Less transfers equal more strings on our universities. In BC, our institutions have been squeezed for the last 12 years, programs have been cut and there are fewer choices for students. And it happens everywhere. Where there’s insufficient funding there’s cuts.”

Oliver believes educators have to be at the front lines of the battle. “We know the value of post-secondary studies; we know the value of our graduates. We know that they do better, earn more money, require less social services and stay out of prison. We know that society gets a return on its investments that are multi-fold. There are good reasons to invest in public services and the faculty can be on the front end of that reboot.”

That reboot is to take control of the narrative. To demonstrate to people the necessity of core social programs funded through taxes. “One thing that people love about our country is our health care system. They also want post-secondary studies to be open and accessible. People don’t always understand that their taxes are in fact financing that.”

The veteran activist also says Bill C-51, the government’s anti-terrorism act, will fundamentally undermine academic freedom. “It will have a chilling effect on what instructors and professors will do in the classroom. The bill is too broad. What is the definition of terrorism now? What will happen to people teaching courses about political movements or political activism? What about online research? Universities and colleges are the bastions of free speech and free inquiry. It is worrisome. If someone wants to research Al-Qaida or ISIS, is that ok? The bill is anti-democratic and not legislation of a free society.”

She also says she’s proud to recall the work her team accomplished at the nego-tiating table during her tenure. She is parti­cularly proud of the significant gains the organization obtained for contract academic staff. “I was on contract for seven years at the College of the Rockies. It is hard. You are good enough to be hired back every year, but not enough to have a full-time job. It is demeaning to be treated like a second-class worker and not have the same opportunities as your colleagues.”

Oliver says although she’s retired from FPSE, her commitment to the labour movement remains. She will still sit on the Canadian Industrial Relations Board. She will still read the papers, comment and support the struggles of unions. It’s in her DNA. She is convinced unions are essential.

“There is a huge anti-union movement. Think about Bill C-377 that only targets unions. It’s discriminatory and will probably not survive a court challenge, but it will take many years. I also think the Rand Formula will be challenged in Canada. We need to fight. We need to double-down. … What I like the most about unions is that we seek power sharing and that is what makes a society more equal.”