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A Job Action Wave Sweeps Canada

A Job Action Wave Sweeps Canada

[Photo / Trevor Hopkin]

Late last year, when Omicron was on the rise and many colleges and universities were looking to fully reopen campuses, many academic staff were perplexed about why they hadn't been included in the planning process. Consulting with internal experts and joint health and safety committees in developing robust policies might have assuaged some of the concerns that faculty had about health and safety. Instead, the issue became yet another sore point with the administration exacerbated by COVID that has contributed to an unprecedented wave of job action across the country.

Other important bargaining issues, some leading to job action, include basic cost-of-living adjustments, precarity, collegial governance, hybrid work and learning models, and Indigenization.

"We're tired," says Glynis Price, chief negotiator for the Concordia University of Edmonton Faculty Association (CUEFA). "There are only so many ends of a candle that you can burn."

This January, CUEFA ratified a four-year deal after a strike that was the first for the sector in Alberta. Though they initially considered postponing bargaining for a year, the veteran bargaining team wanted to settle two key issues first. Crucially, CUEFA wanted its members to be part of the team along with administration to come up with the plan to safely return to campus. It also wanted a cost-of-living adjustment for its members who had not had one in nearly four years. Job action was triggered when it became clear those concerns would not be addressed.

The strike, which began on January 4, is as Elizabeth Smythe, political science professor at CUE, writes in the Edmonton Journal, "part of a broader struggle to resist the further development of the neo-liberal university model."

Price agrees: "There is a push to turn universities into degree factories where the student is the client, the degrees are the product, and we're all cogs in the machine to help that product get out."

"The strikes we're seeing aren't just about money," says CAUT Executive Director, David Robinson. Rather, he explains, they're around rights issues, job security and core principles that make universities unique, such as collegial governance.

That governance model is strained right now, he adds, particularly in the context of the pandemic. CAUT's 2020 survey on the impact of the pandemic on post-secondary teachers and staff found that members were logging an additional 10 hours of work a week in the early stages of the pandemic — a figure that undoubtedly increased as faculty rapidly shifted back and forth from online to in-person learning with little notice and counselled isolated students.

Workload issues formed the basis of a dispute dating back to the fall of 2018 at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. In August, BCIT Faculty and Staff Association (BCITFSA) scored the biggest settlement in the history of the union, $2.3 million, on behalf of the Bachelor of Science Nursing program after a long, complicated grievance and arbitration process related to a change in the program's delivery model.

"We have really great collegial governance language in our collective agreement," says BCITFSA Executive Director Michael Conlon, explaining that from the moment the institute moved to three terms in its effort to graduate more nurses, it was "total chaos." BCIT frequently violated the collective agreement on workload issues and department governance, he says.

These wins, however, are tempered by continuing conflicts in other jurisdictions. In Newfoundland, for example, the administration's approach to bargaining with the Memorial University of Newfoundland Faculty Association (MUNFA) has led to "a pretty low trust environment" according to MUNFA President Josh Lepawski. In June 2021, the employer offered MUNFA a "take-it-or-leave-it" deal, believed to be a provincial template that had been offered to other public sector unions as well. But that's not how collective bargaining works, Lepawski says.

"Even if we had liked the terms, I think we would have pushed back against that because it implied that collective bargaining is not a thing anymore."

Now, confronted with what Lepawski describes as "wandering, open-ended topics" that the employer has brought to the table rather than precise contract language, MUNFA wonders if the administration is bargaining in good faith. For Lepawski, the intent is beside the point when his team is left to deal with the effects of an improper and protracted bargaining process.

"In collective bargaining, you're in a marriage with no divorce options," says Patrice Blais, the vice-president of grievance and collective agreement at Concordia University’s Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA). He notes that while tough negotiations are to be expected, if one side "pulls a quick one" it will pay the price in some other aspect of the bargaining.

Blais says that the concerns of CUPFA members boil down to the precarity of their work, respect and recognition. At Concordia, where part-time faculty teach about 2,000 courses in a year, availability of work is not necessarily the problem. The trouble for these contract academic staff is the lack of any formal guarantee that they will have work the following academic year.

Not surprisingly, some of the trends emerging in post-secondary collective bargaining such as moving toward formalizing hybrid work and learning models are a natural extension of responses to circumstances that arose during the pandemic.

Conlon says BCITFSA had been putting flexible work arrangements forward for years but has been meeting only resistance from administration. "But the world has changed dramatically, so that's one thing we want to enshrine," he says, not just for faculty but for other professional staff represented by the union.

Similarly, Blais notes that in the COVID environment, professors have expanded their technological toolbox. But now, "if you want to do anything technological, you have to go through three layers of permission." In effect, Blais says, there is now a "generation" who has been learning these tools for two years.

"Are you going to take advantage of that or are you going to lose it?"

Building resilience into collective agreements is another trend that CAUT is seeing across the country. If there is one variable uniting the recent record wave of job action, it's that the last two years have changed everything from the economy to people's energy levels. Both influence bargaining.

According to Sue Blair, chair of CAUT’s Collective Bargaining and Economics Benefits Committee, the pandemic has led academic staff associations to try to protect their members by responding to issues as they arise, whereas in the early days of the pandemic the sense was that it was preferable to wait and bargain when it was over. Instead, academic staff associations are transitioning to working in a context of change. For Blair, this new sense of "weathering the storm" is where the resilience comes in.

"We're no longer saying, 'Let's wait.' We're saying, 'Let's get on with what this means. Let's address it head on. Let's tackle it with good collective agreement language.'"

Though there has always been a fundamental link between unionism and social justice, the trend toward Indigenizing collective agreements indicates that faculty associations are responding to the need to broadly confront systemic and structural issues in colleges and universities.

The Brock University Faculty Association (BUFA) used the collective bargaining process to push the University to live up to its own stated strategic commitments to Indigenization and decolonization. The bargaining team looked to other collective agreements in the sector to see what was possible – winning several gains including explicit recognition that diverse forms of Indigenous scholarship count towards tenure and promotion. Crediting the administration side for its openness, Larry Savage, BUFA Chief Negotiator (a nonIndigenous ally) notes that the work opened the door to an Indigenous cluster hire that followed the collective bargaining.

"Employers can put out whatever kind of vision statements they want," he says. "But to make actual change, that is legally enforceable, you need a union and a collective agreement."

"Universities are institutions of power so it's not a coincidence that they exclude Indigenous voices," says MUNFA's Lepawsky. MUNFA has also made efforts to find ways to recognize a broader concept of knowledge-making and ways of knowing within the collective agreement. In part, that means drafting concrete contract language that is capacious enough that Indigenous scholars who are working in ways that do not fit the classic Western mold can still be recognized as doing excellent work.

"It's not that no efforts have been made in the past," Lepawsky says, but part of the reason that Indigenizing these agreements poses a challenge is that to date there has been an insufficient number of Indigenous people involved in the process.

Across the board, Blair sees a renewed engagement among CAUT members to fight for rights and confront the growing inequities that COVID has laid bare. With members at the University of Lethbridge, Acadia University, and Université Sainte-Anne also taking to the picket line, this brings the total number of 2022 CAUT member job actions to a record five, just three months into the year. No union relishes the idea of going on strike, but when people stand up together, especially in times like these, it shows that there are common issues worth fighting for. That is most certainly a gain.

"It's easy in good times to get a little complacent. We're not complacent anymore."

 

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