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President’s message / Does it take a village to raise an academic union?

President’s message / Does it take a village to raise an academic union?

By James Compton

Academics are protective of their independence. Anyone who has spent time working with professors knows this. Certainly, university administrators are aware of it. Professors, as a rule, don’t like taking direction from others, nor do they accept statements, or arguments, at face value — they want to see the evidence and judge for themselves. This can lead to some very long meetings.

But if the professoriate is populated with a plethora of intensely independent-minded people, why is it that an overwhelming majority of professors are represented by certified labour unions? It is not — as some anti-union critics might erroneously suggest — because of coercion. Unions are democratic, member-run institutions. No, 90% of academic staff in Canada are unionized or covered by a collective agreement because they have concluded that they benefit from it.

Indeed, the desire to certify on college campuses is on the rise in the United States, where union density is lower than in Canada. A recent study in the Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy found a 26% increase in certification among private sector faculty bargaining units, identified by the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, during the first nine months of 2016.

The study suggests the growth in private sector non-tenure track faculty is due to two factors: First, the exponential growth in precariously employed contract academic staff who now account for close to 77% of all faculty in the U.S. Second, the so-called alt-labour activism of groups such as the New Faculty Majority, and the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labour, who have launched national organizing campaigns.

These activists have been responding to deteriorating work conditions, low pay and job insecurity by working together. They have turned away from a service model of union work that treats people as individual insurance policy holders, to a mobilizing model that seeks to build a collective sense of identity and purpose. And research shows that this is the path to success.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Marick F. Masters and Raymond F. Gibney argue that: “As researchers in business and management who have studied labor movements across industries, we’ve learned that any successful union organizing requires overcoming three hurdles. First, workers must acquire a collective identity behind which they are willing to mobilize. Second, unions must convince workers that labor representation can improve working conditions. Third, workers must often take risks to win union representation.”

Further research by Gemma Edwards makes a similar point. Writing in the journal Sociology, she argues member engagement through face-to-face communicative practices is crucially important in developing the “lifeworld” resources necessary to fight creeping marketization and bureaucratic intervention in education. “Applying this logic, interaction between union members enables them to: a) cement solidarities; b) form ‘union identities’; and c) transmit stocks of cultural knowledge.”

This was the strategy deployed when Ontario college faculty went on strike in 2017 to back their demands. The strike ended with significant gains for contract academic staff, including language on equal pay for equal work and, for the first time in the college sector, language on academic freedom.

The same strategy was also on display in the Netherlands on March 15, when tens of thousands of educators from primary to higher education joined in a general strike to protest years of austerity. “We are striking,” wrote two participants, “to contest the incessant drive to turn schools and universities into supermarkets, with an unelected — and unaccountable — board of directors at the top, and a hapless army of consumers at the bottom.” Sound familiar? They end their manifesto with a shout-out to teachers in West Virginia, Oakland and Denver, whose “strikes show that we can win.”

On March 8 I joined CAUT Defense Fund flying pickets in Halifax where we walked in solidarity with striking faculty at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. This small group of 97 instructors and librarians organized the most creative picket line I have ever seen. But they weren’t alone in making noise. They were joined by NSCAD students who communicated through performance and speeches that they understood faculty working conditions were their learning conditions. The day, which included a noon rally, was also a wonderful example of how the solidarity and collective resources of the Defense Fund can bolster a relatively small union.

Finally, collective action is indispensable to defend academic freedom. This was one of the conclusions drawn out by rapporteurs at the Harry Crowe Foundation conference on academic free speech in February. Academic freedom language enshrined in collective agreements is a cornerstone pro­tection of this core value of the academy. Breaches of this language can be grieved and sent to arbitration, if necessary. We know academics are fiercely independent, but it takes a village — and a union — to protect that essential quality of our work.