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Commentary / Exploring CAS bargaining structures and outcomes

Commentary / Exploring CAS bargaining structures and outcomes

By Stephanie Ross, Larry Savage & James Watson

Are contract faculty better served by faculty associations or by their own separate unions? In our study “Interrogating the Relationship Between Bargaining Structures and Bargaining Outcomes for Contract Academic Faculty in Ontario,” we explored the link between bargaining unit structures and collective bargaining outcomes with a view to determining whether one specific bargaining structure led to better terms and conditions of work for contract academic faculty hired on a per-course basis.

There are generally three different bargaining structure variations at play for contract faculty: (1) Sessional contract academic faculty and full-time academic faculty at the same university grouped together in the same union and same bargaining unit for the purposes of collective bargaining (the all-in model); (2) Full-time faculty and sessional contract faculty working at the same university represented by separate unions or associations; and (3) Sessional contract academic faculty and full-time faculty teaching at the same university represented by the same union, but are in separate bargaining units for the purposes of collective bargaining.

The existence of multiple kinds of bargaining structures in Ontario gave us an opportunity to test empirically whether one structure has helped produce greater advances for contract academic faculty.


Bargaining structures for faculty in Canada have evolved unevenly for reasons related to region, local culture, and the personalities and preferences of the actors involved in certification efforts. It was not until the early 2000s that CAUT became actively and systematically engaged in certification efforts and began advocating for a particular bargaining structure – the all-in model. However, by this time, most faculty associations across Canada had already certified, producing a patchwork quilt of campus-specific bargaining structures with important regional variations.

Part of what prompted the CAUT to become more involved in certification drives was the sector’s growing reliance on contract academic faculty – perceived as both a threat and opportunity from a union perspective. On one hand, greater reliance on sessional instructors was viewed as a threat to the job quality and continued existence of traditional tenured or tenure-stream positions represented by faculty associations. On the other hand, organizing per-course instructors was viewed as the key to rendering their labour more expensive and thus mitigating their growth within the sector. These arguments were used to convince non-union faculty associations to certify using an all-in model that would lessen a university administration’s ability to pit tenured faculty against contract academic faculty.

Arguments for the all-in model also emphasize the importance of solidarity in achieving better terms and conditions of work for both contract faculty and tenured faculty. Specifically, proponents argue that all-in bargaining units structurally force unions to take seriously the concerns of all members. On the other hand, advocates of separate unions or bargaining units for sessional instructors argue that unity between contract and tenured faculty is impossible, largely because these groups have distinct and competing interests. According to this line of thinking, separate structures enable contract academic faculty to more clearly articulate and achieve their own interests, rather than have them traded away or altogether ignored by the full-time faculty who typically control and dominate faculty unions.

Research findings

We put these arguments to the test by measuring advances for sessionals using a Collective Agreement Provision Index (CAPI) that we developed specifically for this program of research. The index measures job quality in terms of wages, benefits, pension eligibility, institutional research support, access to work (including seniority and right of first refusal), conversion to more permanent positions, contract notice, contract cancellation penalties, infrastructural access, collegial governance, and professional expense accounts. Each CAPI variable score attempts to capture the relative strengths of contract language based on explicitly stated provisions in the sector’s collective agreements.

Once CAPI scores were calculated for each variable, and for each bargaining unit, the results for each bargaining structure were averaged so that the outcomes could be compared. Overall, separate unions received the highest average score in six out of the eleven variables. Separate unions were found, on average, to have better collective agreement provisions relating to wages, pension eligibility, benefits, institutional research supports, access to work, and cancellation. On average, separate bargaining unit faculty associations had superior provisions in the categories of contract notice, infrastructural access, collegial governance and professional expenses. Finally, all-in faculty associations had, on average, the best collective agreement provisions relating to conversion.

It is important to acknowledge that bargaining structures, on their own, cannot explain why some contract provisions are better than others. There are a whole host of factors that help shape bargaining outcomes. Take, for example, the size of the institution. The largest institutions by full-time faculty — University of Toronto, York University, the University of Ottawa, and Western University — had much better provisions related to pension eligibility compared to the respective averages for medium and small institutions. This pattern is repeated to a lesser extent on benefits, institutional research supports, access to work, collegial governance and professional expense funds as large institutions receive higher CAPI scores than medium institutions, and medium institution receive higher scores than small institutions. This is an important relationship to note as most separate unions are concentrated in large or medium-sized institutions. The maturity of the bargaining relationship is also an important factor that is not easily disentangled from bargaining unit structure or institution size. For example, sessional contract faculty at York certified in 1975, while their counterparts at Wilfrid Laurier were only certified in 2001.

While quantitative findings based on an analysis of collective agreement provisions provided us with a clearer picture of collective bargaining outcomes for sessional contract faculty at Ontario universities, the extent to which these bargaining outcomes were influenced by particular bargaining structures or other factors required deeper qualitative examination. To that end, we interviewed past and present union activists and officials at Western University, Wilfrid Laurier University, and Brock University: three comparable universities, all with different bargaining structures for sessional instructors who were certified in the same period. Interviews focused on the perceived merits of different bargaining unit structures and the nature of the inter- and intra-union conflict over efforts to define and prioritize the interests of sessional contract academic faculty.

The vast majority of full-time faculty interviewees felt strongly that an all-in structure produced or would produce superior outcomes for sessionals, both because of the superior bargaining power it would afford and because of the greater ability to prevent administrations from pursuing divide and conquer strategies. It is not clear, however, that our quantitative findings support this view. This is in part because the all-in model does not eliminate the need for the faculty association to internally balance the interests of both groups — a challenging task given that tenured faculty and sessional instructors are often viewed as occupying opposite ends of a rigid hierarchy of academic labour on university campuses. While all-in models provide the opportunity for members to develop broader identifications and forms of solidarity, this outcome is not guaranteed, and whether sessional interests are prioritized is a matter of political choice, not bargaining structure per se.

Sessional interviewees offered a greater mix of opinions on the perceived benefits of different bargaining unit structures. Among this group, we also detected a grass-is-always-greener effect, seemingly out of frustration with the inability of any of the existing models to produce meaningful job security provisions.


While the evidence suggests that bargaining unit structures have some minor effects on collective bargaining outcomes, these outcomes are deeply intertwined and not easily isolated from other factors related to the relative size of universities, the maturity of the bargaining relationship, the level of localized militancy, the culture and priorities of faculty associations as particular kinds of unions, and the personalities and politics of those who control them at any given moment. Our analysis of the data revealed that, on average, sessionals in separate unions have better contract provisions relating to wages, pension eligibility, benefits, institutional research supports, seniority/incumbency, and course cancellations. For their part, separate bargaining unit faculty associations, on average, had superior provisions related to contract notice, infrastructural access, collegial governance, and professional expenses. All-in faculty associations, on average, had the best collective agreement provisions relating to conversion. This latter finding is important because sessional interviewees identified conversion as the most important issue facing them.

However, the major takeaway from our research is that bargaining unit structures have less of an impact than practitioners assume, and that success at the bargaining table for sessional contract academic faculty is dependent on a broad range of factors, rather than any particular structure. Thus, while debates about preferred bargaining structures are important insofar as they focus discussion on how unions can best serve the interests of their members, they are unlikely to play a determining factor in producing the bargaining outcomes that contract faculty are seeking.

Stephanie Ross is an associate professor and Director of the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University.

Larry Savage is a professor of Labour Studies at Brock University.

James Watson is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at McMaster.

This article draws on research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Our full research findings are published in Labour/Le Travail: Journal of Canadian Labour Studies Volume 86 (Fall 2020).


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