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President’s message / Unions & the objective possibility of fairness

President’s message / Unions & the objective possibility of fairness

By James Compton

— Does your academic institution send you notices about how it strives to be fair in the workplace? I doubt it. But I’m confident you’ve heard about its anti-harassment and discrimi­nation policy, or your university or college’s code of conduct. You may even have received an email reminding you of your responsibilities when handling personal student information, as provided under provincial freedom of information and protection legislation. But fairness? I suspect not.

Why might that be? It’s not as if we don’t have a document that details the rules and responsibilities for both academic staff and administrators. It’s called a collective agreement. And here, I suggest, lies our answer. Employers don’t particularly enjoy talking about collective agreements because collective agreements constitute a legal check, or restriction, on management rights. Collective agreements result from — as the name states — a negotiation between two parties. They may not be perfect, and both signatories to the agreement may want changes. Whatever the case, once signed and approved by the employer and rank-and-file members of a union, the collective agreement constitutes the principal document prescribing the legally-binding rules, and responsibilities in the workplace. Again, it’s called a collective agreement for a reason.

Collective agreements have not created perfect spheres of equality and fair treatment in the workplace. For example, unionized contract academic staff continue to struggle with poor pay and a lack of job security. And the data shows that these inequities are disproportionately shared by women and people of colour. But these issues linger not because of collective agreements themselves, but because these documents are the result of a struggle for power within the workplace. Contract negotiations are social and political tussles to carve out a “realm of freedom” for people in their daily working lives.

Collective agreements establish benchmarks toward the goal of equality and fairness. In fact, this is the history of union activism. As labour law expert Michael Lynk noted in a previous issue of the Bulletin, human rights advocacy has become a major component of union work. “Through collective bargaining and amendments to labour relations statutes, every collective agreement in the country contains an enforceable human rights provision to protect bargaining unit members from a wide range of discriminatory conduct at work.” Using the tools of grievance and arbitration, Lynk explains, unions have played a central role in enshrining protections for same-sex marriage, and against discrimination based on physical ability, gender, race or ethnic identity.

Recent research confirms a correlation between income inequality and the overall strength of the union movement in society. The gap between low and high-income earners has increased in recent decades as the number and strength of unionized workers has fallen. And as Ed Broadbent has emphasized, “Just as poli­tical democracy entails the right to select or reject one’s representatives and enables us to pursue, share and exercise power in the real world of free citizens, democracy in the workplace also requires that workers have their own representatives and some real power.” It is this right, he reminds us, that was enshrined by Canada’s Supreme Court decision in 2006.

We need to tell our stories about the link between strong unions and democracy. This is at once utopian and practical. By utopian I do not mean “believing in unicorns” — as was once suggested to me by an unhappy audience member during a talk I gave on reforming funding for post-secondary education. Part of the project of carving out new realms of freedom in the workplace is the ability to embrace the possibility that the world can be ordered differently than it is today. It is, for instance, an “objective possibility” that universities and colleges can teach a new generation of students and conduct valuable research without relying on a growing population of precariously employed instructors. But don’t wait for a memo to remind you; instead, get involved in your union.