On February 27th, 2015, CUPE 3902 Unit 1, representing 6000 teaching assistants, course instructors and lab instructors, began job action against the University of Toronto.1 Members of CUPE 3902 demanded an increase to the minimum yearly stipend which had remained frozen at $15 000, an amount significantly below the poverty line for the city of Toronto, since 2008. Members also demanded tuition relief for unfunded members. In response to the strike, the administrative offices at the University of Toronto released several documents containing factually-questionable statements that served to vilify and discredit CUPE 3902 Unit 1 and its members. While there have been several public rebuttals to the University’s various public communications,2 no one has, to my knowledge, conducted an analysis of Vice-Provost Jill Matus’s email sent to all University of Toronto students on February 27th, 2015 (“Strike by CUPE 3902 Unit 1”)3 in relation to Professor Matus’s academic writing on the representation of strikers in the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, a nineteenth century social realist author who wrote about the relationship between employer and employee. This position paper will attempt to do just that.
Professor Matus has written that, in Gaskell, “[f]eeling rather than thought, presence and orality rather than writing, define the representation of working-class subjects…feeling may be the means of connection among classes, a common language and a leveler of class difference, but the way emotions are understood and represented often reinforces class stratification” (34-35, emphasis added). The way the Vice-Provost uses her ability to reachand influence students can bring solidarity amongst the University community or serve to “reinforce class stratification.” Reading the Vice-Provost’s email sent on February 27th, 2015 alongside Professor Matus’s writing on the representation of exploited workers in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South, Isuggest that the email disseminates what Professor Matus herself has called a “stereotypic” view of picketers as irrational and dangerous. Such a reading also reveals a problematic tension between the role of the administrator and the role of the professor in the neoliberal academy. This tension, I submit, undermines academic freedom, weakens the legitimacy of the academic voice, and in some cases serves to deploy academics’ research against vulnerable populations.