By Brenda Austin-Smith
“Stronger Together” was the theme of CAUT’s member association Council last November. As delegates entered the hall for our meeting, the image of that motto communicated our commitment to solidarity, and our belief in resilience. Inspired by the job action of our colleagues at the University of Northern British Columbia, these two words have endless resonance for activists. Just a few weeks ago, members of the Mount Allison Faculty Association went on strike for the second time in six years, in the name of improving working conditions for contract academic staff as well as regular academics at that institution. And as I write this, thousands of school teachers are taking job action in Ontario, protesting the provincial government’s refusal to adequately fund public education. It is clear that the need for us all to act in the name of a united labour movement against multiple attacks on the public sector has never been more urgent. Answering these attacks will mean political action, in addition to skilful bargaining.
While many of us have faced hostile administrations in bargaining before, the fight at the table was familiar and at least nominally fair. Not so now. Provincial governments in Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have used the lever of legislation to limit the rights of public sector workers to bargain their terms and conditions of work. In some cases, this legislation does not even have to be proclaimed in order to have its chilling effect. Bill 100 has yet to be proclaimed in Nova Scotia; the same is true of Manitoba’s Bill 28. In Alberta, the government has given itself the power to issue secret directives to boards of governors concerning the length of collective agreements as well as monetary matters.
The upshot of all of these developments is that we find ourselves bargaining more or less directly with provincial governments, our administrations unwilling to stand up for the public colleges and universities they are supposed to represent and protect. What is also obvious is that step by step, conservative-minded provincial governments are putting together, bit by awful bit, a legislative regime not that different from one a similarly-inclined federal government might dream of.
In the face of these attacks on our collective rights, it can be tempting to retreat from the fray, to turn inward and seek a modicum of safety and comfort, even if for a very short time, before the effects of these hostile changes reach us. But that is absolutely the wrong thing to do. The best way forward is to work in solidarity with the larger labour movement, with students, parents, and communities. After all, attacks on free and fair collective bargaining in the public sector damages all of us, for we are all members of the public, and deserve high-quality services to meet our needs as workers, as parents, and as students.
CAUT has made a commitment to an organizing model in all of its activities. The organizing model of association work seeks to tap into the political power of the membership, supporting the development of activist skills in everything from bargaining and communications to running campaigns and putting on rallies and demonstrations. The organizing model enables us to use not just our own collegial bodies like senates and faculty councils, but also our deep connections with our students, our communities, and other labour groups who share our circumstances in order to push back against this damage to the public good.
Now is the time to move forward, arms linked across the boundaries that threaten to divide and weaken us. We are indeed stronger together, and it is time to put that motto into action.