The majority of Canadian provinces are currently ruled by conservative governments, however they might be named: the United Conservative Party, the Saskatchewan Party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, or the Progressive Conservatives.
It is certainly not the first time in Canada’s history that conservative provincial governments have dominated the political landscape. But it has led to a blitzkrieg of funding cuts and attacks on public sector workers and unions.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his government delivered its first budget last October, promising overall program spending cuts of 2.8 per cent over the next four years, and leaving no part of the province’s public spending intact.
In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford and his government have veered wildly during the past two years from one massive cut to another — creating an atmosphere observers have called “chaos” — while he voices admiration for US President Donald Trump, ponders adoption of Alabama-style education systems, and tries to defund student unions because they “get up to crazy Marxist nonsense” which needs to be “fixed.”
The Manitoba government of Premier Brian Pallister was returned to power in 2019, and has continued with funding cuts and privatization. A recent mandate letter directed at colleges and universities signals further belt-tightening and trumpets the unveiling of performance-based funding (PBF) for post-secondary schools — tying funding to “performance” via some sort of yardstick yet to be developed.
The letter follows on the heels of similar PBF measures already announced in Alberta and Ontario.
“What Jason Kenney, Doug Ford and Brian Pallister are doing is hurting people and we have to fight them,” says Larry Brown, President of the National Union of Public and General Employees. “They chose to cut taxes for their corporate friends and the wealthy and then say we can no longer afford public services. This is nonsense and we need to call it nonsense.”
Brown, along with the president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Union, Linda Silas, addressed delegates to CAUT Council last November, calling for stronger cohesion and mobilization among public sector unions in order to fight for common cause.
“We are always on the defensive,” Silas observes. “Yet we know public services are more affordable and of better quality. We should be bragging more and pushing that message.”
Stephanie Ross, Associate Professor and Director of McMaster University’s School of Labour Studies, says that for many academic staff associations, the idea of cooperating with other unions outside campus walls may be relatively new, but is becoming increasingly crucial.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how it may have been, at one time, that groups of public sector workers like faculty could ignore the broader political context of their claims because things were not so tight, or there was little conflict over how public resources should be spent,” she says. “But that's not the case anymore, and increasingly, groups of public sector workers have come to the realization, although unevenly, that in order for them to be successful in defending their own interests, they have to ally with groups within the public over the question of why their work serves essential public needs.”
Ross says cross-campus alliances among groups of workers are key, and that academic staff associations need to be at all the tables, and engaging and mobilizing outside of their own bargaining cycles with other campus workers and students on questions of university governance, funding and budgets.
“I think of those as a very practical terrain of engagement to build a community and to develop capacity for working outside one's immediate organization with people and groups who share your interests.”
She points to the York University Faculty Association (YUFA) as a leader in connecting and building strength in communities both on campus and off.
“YUFA has done a lot to build connections with the Jane-Finch community, which is a very poor community in Toronto, but which also increasingly sends a lot of students to York,” Ross notes. “York faculty, supported through the association, have built many, varying programs to smooth the transition from the community to the University for students who might otherwise have a difficult time making those transitions.”
YUFA President Arthur Redding says the association has prioritized working together by maintaining an executive position tasked with fostering relations between YUFA and others both inside and out of the campus. He cites several instances of YUFA supporting other groups, including Unite Here Local 75 which represents campus food workers who struck in 2017 for a $15 minimum wage. YUFA members and students marched alongside, and mounted a letter-writing campaign.
“This is some of the most precarious work on campus, but it's essential. We need food. We spend long days on campus, especially on a commuter campus like York,” Redding says. “Overwhelmingly, these are workers of color and women. In many instances, they've been working these jobs in poverty wages for a long time, and we helped change their conditions. One of the happier moments of my tenure has been when they said ‘Thanks for helping us out.’ It felt pretty good.”
Redding also points to wider initiatives in Ontario, such as the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) throwing its weight along with ten other unions behind a legal challenge, coordinated by the Ontario Federation of Labour, of Bill 124, which seeks to limit public sector wage increases to 1% annually for the next three years.
Mount Royal Faculty Association (MRFA) President Melanie Peacock agrees with the critical importance of university coalitions, and says her association has worked hard at building campus alliances. The MRU Coalition comprised of faculty, students and staff at the University have mounted an email campaign and petition aimed at forcing the Alberta government to rethink its targeting of post-secondary students and institutions with cuts of 5.1% initially, growing to a total 12% by 2023.
“Even management, with students and staff alike, have a common enemy right now. I don't use that terminology lightly, but we can build on that and use it as a leverage or a fulcrum point,” Peacock says. “We've also been showing our members how we can support other unions such as the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which is very strong and vocal. They'll often have rallies at different points across the province, and we maintain a sign-up sheet to ensure our members come out to those actions.”
Stephanie Ross urges academic staff associations to rethink how they connect with the world around them in ways such as MRFA and YUFA are exploring. “Even when it comes to collective bargaining in a particular university, associations would do well to connect their bargaining priorities to the interests of other groups in the university and the broader community because they're going to remain isolated otherwise. The evidence is showing increasingly, public sector unions ignore engagement and alliances with the public to their peril.”
Redding agrees and adds that academic staff are uniquely positioned and thus obligated to shape political discourse.
“We're living in a period in which hatred, anger, and fear drive much of our political discourse and our associations have a critical role to play in countering that. We bring expertise and insights of our research to these issues; the social weight that the university carries. We also can bring meaningful solidarity to these struggles in terms of the numbers we represent, and the resources, including financial, that we're in a position to share,” he says.
“I also believe we should bring a sense of humility to these movements and be prepared to learn from them, to be inspired and transformed by them. Just acknowledging the way young people are leaders on climate strikes is, I think, salutary for us, and they give us a sense of hope. So our responsibility is to guide and support those movements, but also to be guided by them and follow and learn from them.”