Dr. Glynis Price is the president of the Concordia University of Edmonton Faculty Association (CUEFA). In January, CUEFA became the first academic staff association to strike in Alberta.
What led to CUEFA’s job action?
It has been an incredibly hard two years for students and academic staff in Alberta, with the constant switch from online back to in-person course delivery. Administrations have sadly not recognized or respected the sheer amount of workload that academic staff have taken on to keep post-secondary institutions going during this uncertain time. In our case, there was a lack of respect for the work we've been doing, an expectation that we were not doing enough work, and that we were overpaid.
With no non-academic help available, members of our association have taken on administrative work. Over time, there has been significant job creep, a degradation of work-life balance, and greater rates of burnouts. One of the biggest concerns of faculty has been workload — it’s one of the highest in Canada. The administration just wasn't willing to discuss the issue.
Why did the CUEFA job action strike such a chord across the country?
The government in Alberta is fairly anti-union and not particularly helpful in labour negotiations. We have seen the same approach in Manitoba. Governments stand in the way of independent bargaining processes by giving universities a secret mandate on what deals they are allowed to make. Many unions have been at the receiving end of secret mandates — so they came out to support us.
Faculty associations in Alberta and across Canada are also finding that the term “respect” comes up in a lot of conversations, in online discussions, and in collective bargaining. Administrations, even beyond the post-secondary education sector, have forgotten that collective bargaining works only when both sides are treated as equal. It's not a boss and subordinate relationship.
What lessons did you learn?
We learned to play to our members’ strengths, whether that's communications, spreadsheets, financing, organizing, or bargaining. Not everyone had to walk the picket line, but everyone had to feel included and had a job to do. Transparent communication was key. We kept everyone up to date on what was happening in the bargaining room. We delegated tasks and our amazing members stepped up.
One of the positive outcomes of the massive support our strike received is that faculty associations in Alberta are all talking to each other and working together. The presidents of all the Edmonton area faculty associations are meeting monthly to discuss what we can do for the sector, what we can do for each other. There will be flying and driving pickets. But we are all also helping faculty who aren’t necessarily on strike, but who may be heading that way or those who have just come off a strike and are trying to get back to some semblance of normal.
What do you think are the key challenges facing academic staff in the wake of the pandemic?
Universities may be commercializing educational content to create hybrid or online courses, without compensating faculty members for the work that they have put in. This is creating an erosion of intellectual property (IP) rights. Universities have claimed the rights to this online material on the basis that they were created for the university using university resources and are not specifically considered “traditional” academic work, so are often not covered under IP policies.
Faculty associations have done a remarkable job of being flexible with remote course delivery to ensure the same quality of education for students during the pandemic. Universities have not necessarily kept up in terms of technological resources. There have been instances where faculty members have had to buy equipment themselves, and they may or may not, depending on the university, get reimbursed.
Universities are not hiring full-time faculty members to keep pace with growing enrollment levels. They are relying on temporary workers. With the increase of precarity in the academic workplace, some administrations are stoking a divisive culture between underpaid contract workers and full-time faculty. This is an attempt to erode the effectiveness of associations.
Why is collective bargaining important?
Jobs and job markets, universities and governments all change over time. Academic staff contracts and working conditions therefore change over time as well. Collective bargaining allows administrations and faculty associations to grow with their institutions, address change, and provide security for faculty association members. Concordia University of Edmonton, for example, used to be a university college where people would go for their undergraduate degrees. We are now moving towards being a research-based university. At a college level, having quite a few courses to teach would be normal, but there were generally no research requirements. As research requirements ramp up, faculty must be able to negotiate a change in their teaching workload to accommodate the increase in research.